What Jerry Taylor (and Most Other Policy Wonks) Don't Get About Talk Radio

Over the last few days, a feisty but collegial debate has been underway over at NRO’s “The Corner” over the value of conservative talk radio in general and the pros and cons of Limbaugh-Hannity specifically. Jerry Taylor, a fellow at the CATO Institute with a specialty in environmental policy got things rolling with this post in which he writes of Rush and Sean:

I am no fan of either. While I will admit to not listening to their shows, the snippets that I have caught over the years have irritated. One can agree with a majority of their vision regarding what constitutes good public policy and who is worthy of my vote while being annoyed by the manner in which their arguments are being made and chagrined by the dubious logic and dodgy evidence being forwarded to buttress their arguments. One can also be driven to frustration by the seemingly endless parade of political red herrings and conspiracy-minded nonsense that I have heard both of them traffic in.

I am certain that charges of “elitist!” will flood my inbox over this. But do either of these guys actually convince anyone (elitist or not) outside of the choir?

Perhaps Mr. Taylor anticipates being accused of elitism here because that is precisely what he is guilty of a form of.

Now Jerry Taylor as a very smart guy and is doing wonderful, important work over at Cato and elsewhere in the fight against enviro-hysteria and galloping Green socialism, but he puts forth a huge red herring of his own here when he asks if talk radio is effective in converting people to conservatism. Kathryn Lopez and Mark Steyn jump to talk radio’s defense (here, and  here, Taylor responds here) but leave Taylor’s premise unchallenged.

The answer to Taylor’s question is “no,”  conservative talk radio is not extremely effective at changing minds about public policy issues. But that’s not why it’s valuable–indispensable actually–nor why it is under all out attack from by the Left.

As it happens, I had included a brief section about this very thing in the upcoming Paul Harvey book (have I mentioned I have a book coming out?) This following bit actually ended up getting the editor’s knife because it was a little off topic, but here it is for your exclusive reading (emphasis added):

The tendency to have a low opinion of the intelligence of people who disagree with you is an ugly but common aspect of human nature. Thus, liberals have widely assumed that conservative Americans tune into Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity (or Paul Harvey for that matter) in order to be told what they ought to think. In reality, conservative Americans have enjoyed these programs because they represent a rare opportunity to have what they already think validated in the media.

This is an understandable misconception. If you hold liberal views and values, you tend to have your biases validated and reinforced constantly. Not only are most mainstream news media programs edited and delivered by people who have a liberal philosophy, but the writers of most television dramas and comedies do as well. Stand up comics, popular song lyrics, movie plots, Hollywood stars and starlets being interviewed . . . they all consistently deliver subtle and overt validation if your views are left of center. This experience is unnoticed by liberals precisely because it is so common. It’s normal.

This explains why so many sputter and rage about the “bias” of Fox News Channel. Many liberals have become so accustomed to never being confronted by an opinion that differs from their own, that some now seem to think of it as an inalienable right.

Conservatives, on the other hand, don’t have the luxury of thinking that way. For them, virtually every foray into mass media represents a walk through a hailstorm of in-validation. Talk radio on AM became one of the only media refuges in that storm. And this explains both why it is so popular on one hand; and so despised on the other.

This is why liberal talk radio is always doomed to fail. It’s utterly superflous. For liberals, consumption of popular media is just one giant foot rub.

This is also what public policy wonks like Taylor and conservative journalists don’t get. They spend their days thinking about and defending conservative ideas. They have a highly-developed infrastructure under-girding their worldview and are constantly immersed in its implications.

These folks can scarcely imagine what it’s like to be an viscerally conservative accountant, UPS driver, or business owner who has way too much on his or her plate to read Heritage Foundation white papers or pore over The Claremont Review of Books or follow debates about Leo Stauss at The Corner. What they know is that their country seems to be going to hell in a handbasket and that almost every time they sample any popular media–news or entertainment–they get a liberal thumb jabbed in their eye.

But then they can flip over to Rush and for 15 or 20 minutes and get a pat on back instead.

That both talk radio’s critics and defenders don’t seem to recognize the power of this validating function, is understandable. If you do public policy, you’re just not going to “get it.”

Thus Taylor’s objection about preaching to the converted is excusable. What’s not is his appeal to Al Franken’s books to support his argument:

Regarding my claim that Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity often use “dodgy evidence“ to back their claims, I can only plead that on the rare occasions that I’ve listened, this is exactly what I have found. Sure, maybe I just happen to listen in when they go off the rails . . . but I doubt it. Regardless, if you want chapter and verse on that score, you can’t do better than Al Franken’s two books on this subject (Lying Liars and Rush Limbaugh). Now, I know that this will double my hate mail, but the fact is that Mr. Senator-Elect is often spot-on regarding the facts when he goes after these guys.

Sweet smoking Judas! Here we have a guy who writes resarch papers for a living condemning guys who do three hours of live, extemporaneous, interactive radio five days each week for getting facts wrong. This is a bit like a vascular surgeon looking down on a carpenter for getting saw dust all over the place when he works.

Yes, talk radio hosts get things wrong from time to time. And given the massive volume of time they have to speak off the cuff while holding listeners, it’s easy for a viciously uncharitable clown like Al Franken to accumlate enough examples to pad out a book. What’s surreal is to see Franken cited approvingly by a smart fellow like Jerry Taylor.

Is it a problem that the Democrats have hit upon a strategy of hanging Limbaugh around the necks of conservative politicians? Indeed it is.  It is a very clever attack. But just because liberals own the power to demonize anybody they choose, and thereby drive  the approval ratings that Jerry Taylor is waving around, doesn’t mean that the right response is to agree with the demonizers or jettison the demonized.

In fact, if conservatives reward this tactic with the kind of disavowal that Taylor and a few other think-tank-y conservatives are already publically making, it will only embolden the Left to pick additional targets for demonization. Who will be next?