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Talk Radio Hosts Get VIP Care From GOP

Media: Participatory journalists say they are conduits of partisan information who are leaving established broadcast and print outlets behind.

August 13, 1996|ELEANOR RANDOLPH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — Roger Hedgecock may be wearing a media badge here at the Republican convention, but he is careful to let you know--right up front--that he's not part of that media.

No, he is not one of the "phonies," as he puts it, not one of "the high priests of journalism who try to tell you what is news." Hedgecock, instead, represents what he calls the medium of the future--talk radio. The popular talk-show host from KSDO in San Diego and other denizens of Radio Row on the top floor of San Diego's convention hall are here, mostly, not to cover Bob Dole but to bury Bill Clinton. Rhetorically, of course.

Among those scheduled to beam their views from the row of 37 booths (designed to allow guests to move from host to host to host) are Michael Reagan, G. Gordon Liddy, Mary Matalin, Oliver North, Lester Kinsolving, Tom Leykis and Don Imus. And for the most part, that lineup means that even at a convention that is carefully crafted for television, these are the GOP's VIPs.

"I just think most of those guys in the mainstream media have not gotten the fact that we've moved on from Edward R. Murrow," Hedgecock opined last week after broadcasting from the patio of the Elephant and Castle pub near the convention hall. A former mayor of San Diego, or "reforming politician," as he puts it, Hedgecock was giving out T-shirts that said: "Never Mistake Me for a Liberal Elitist Moron."

"There is no longer a CBS dominating over us," Hedgecock was saying off the air. "No longer a New York Times dominating over us. That's all in the past. The future is talk radio. The future is the Internet. The future is participation."

Participatory journalism, particularly politically charged journalism, tends to raise warning flags in the establishment media, where practitioners see their job as giving context, identifying hyperbole and providing the other side in any important debate. But some of the high priests and priestesses of journalism made it clear this weekend that they do not view talk radio as the first sign of the end of democracy as we know it.

NBC anchor Tom Brokaw said that even though he has been pilloried by the talk-show crowd and much of what is said is "not documented carefully," their contribution was "on balance--good."

Speaking at a panel Sunday on talk radio, television and democracy put together by Harvard's Joan Shorenstein Center on Press, Politics and Public Policy, Brokaw also said: "I happen to think the more dialogue we have about the political process, the better off we are."

Tim Russert, described at the panel as "a one-man conglomerate at NBC," decided that talk radio was "more good than bad" but unlike Brokaw, he believes that the problem is not with the medium but "with the recipient [the public]."

"I think the more we can encourage the American electorate to read, the better off we are," said the host of NBC's "Meet the Press."

Among the mainstream media--especially those engaged in the print medium--there is widespread agreement that reading is a solid and useful way to absorb information.

But what is perhaps surprising to the established media is that many of those who listen to talk radio are among the better-informed citizens in the nation's electorate.

"They are highly educated, wealthier, more likely to vote and highly knowledgeable," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson of talk-show fans around most of the country.

Jamieson is dean at the Annenberg School for Communication in Philadelphia, which has just released a yearlong study on talk radio. The survey found that talk-show listeners make up 18% of the adult population and 7% of them are die-hard Rush Limbaugh fans.

That is still not as powerful as the 93% of adults who say they regularly watch the local news or the 50% who report reading a newspaper or the 48% who are loyal network news viewers, according to her report. But the radio audience tends to be highly charged politically--in most cases on the conservative or libertarian side of the political spectrum. (Annenberg found that of the talk-show audience less than 5% prefer moderate to liberal talk shows.)

It is that open bias of listeners that tends to energize Republicans and rankle traditional journalists.

At one point during the Shorenstein debate, for example, Marvin Kalb, the moderator and director of the center, noted that by pitching a candidate, these talk-show hosts exhibit "a fundamental difference in the way, I hope, that journalists practice their craft."

But when Kalb asked Matalin, host of "The Mary Matalin Show" on CBS Radio Networks, if she considers herself a journalist, Matalin grimaced.

"Noooo," she said, "heavens no.

"I am a conduit for information," she said. "And I'm clear about my partisanship."

For Matalin and others, this declaration of partisanship seems more open than the struggles for objectivity by the mainstream media. Moreover, the boom in talk radio has come because "many in our electorate flat-out don't trust the traditional press," she added.

That feeling, which appears to be widespread among participants at this Republican convention, was the subject of another breakfast panel on Sunday--this one put on by the Freedom Forum on the subject of "Have the Media Been Fair to the Republicans?" In general, the answer from the media seemed to be a qualified yes. The answer from the Republicans seemed to be a resounding no.

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