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Print Media Fair to Talk Radio Cousins?

August 15, 1996|PAUL D. COLFORD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Is talk radio getting a bad rap from newspapers and magazines?

A new survey concludes, "The mainstream media tend to portray political talk radio superficially and as powerful, pernicious and homogeneous." The problem, the survey finds, is that writers are focusing on "extreme moments of talk radio without indicating how typical they are of the most widely heard shows. . . . The homogeneity of political talk radio is overstated."

The detailed analysis of articles in newspapers and magazines mentioning talk radio from 1993 to 1995 is part of a study of political call-in shows conducted by a research team at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication. During the same two-year period, the team also listened to 105 hours of Rush Limbaugh, identified as "the most mentioned political talk show host in the mainstream press," and 150 hours of other popular talk broadcasters.

"It is national talk radio (such as Limbaugh and G. Gordon Liddy) that gets press attention," the survey finds. "Local talk radio hosts and their daily programs do not receive much notice in their cities' daily papers, even in listings.

"We found, in general, that the print media's attention to talk radio is narrow and it is unfavorable," the report says. "In the press, talk radio is a domain of brash anger and bizarre conservative behavior that is generally disconnected from mainstream politics."

The survey points to the repeated echoing of Liddy's by-now-familiar and brief remarks that threatening agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms should be shot and Bob Grant's referral to some African Americans as "savages." "Even for Liddy and Grant, these comments were not the norm," the researchers conclude. (Grant, now on New York's WOR-AM, was fired by WABC in the spring, after critics pressed complaints about some of his racially charged statements, as well as a remark he made about Ron Brown when the late commerce secretary was missing in Bosnia.)

"In sum, the hosts most often singled out for critique do not now typically engage in the sorts of comments that have entered media lore. Whether they once did is impossible to know from our study."

Nor is the typical caller a nut. In an examination of listeners to political talk radio, the survey finds that they are "more likely than non-listeners to consume all news media other than TV news, to be more knowledgeable and to be involved in political activities."

Joseph Turow, a professor of communication at the Annenberg School and one of the research leaders, says that many of the graduate students who worked on the survey expected to find "a lot of craziness--kooks--when it came to political talk radio. But they found that this is largely not true. Also, when you look across the spectrum of talk radio, the topics under discussion are quite different. There's a lot of diversity."

As a result of the findings, Turow says, he would urge the press to "be on top of these programs and what they have to say. I was startled that there's almost no discussion in most pieces about the advertisers, the audiences, even the guests that these shows present. Oliver North, for example, has a lot of guests."

Turow suggests that the generally unfavorable depiction of political talk radio plays into the hands of media critics. Or to quote from the survey: "Ironically, then, print media coverage of political radio may well validate for listeners what conservative talk hosts such as Limbaugh say about the press--that it stacks the ideological deck against them."

*

Afterwords: We yield to no one in our respect for Joseph Mitchell, the beloved New Yorker writer and author of such urban classics as "Joe Gould's Secret" and "McSorley's Wonderful Saloon." But we sure are grateful to Jeannette Walls, Esquire's "Reality Check" columnist, for appearing to confirm our long-nagging suspicion that Mitchell, who died in May at age 87, may have written hardly at all since his last piece ran in the New Yorker 32 years ago. Walls reports in Esquire's fat September issue that Mitchell showed up at his New Yorker office daily and shut the door behind him. Must have drawn a paycheck all that time, too. But where was the copy? "Several people got together and went through his garbage a number of times," a source tells Walls. "There never was anything."

* Paul D. Colford is a columnist for Newsday. His column is published Thursdays.

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