Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Talk Show Hosts Falling?

UPDATE: Here's a Luke Yelasdi Thompson video from Super Tuesday:

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We've got a lively thread going here, so I'm going to add on top of it. Also, the lack of a new post for Thursday from me may encourage our newest poster, Lewis Fein, to make his virgin post. If Lewis has trouble losing his post virginity, we can arrange for some coaching from David E.

I am going to expand on a point I made earlier about the failure of Rush Limbaugh, Hugh Hewitt and other conservative talk show pundits to derail John McCain. I have a theory -- and it is mine! -- that the talk show hosts became the kind of big media they originally were an alternative to. Bemused by their legacy trappings of power, the Limbaughs and Hewitts of the world failed to notice they were out of step with their listeners, and ended up showing that while they have lots of listeners, their ability to influence followers who don't want to be influenced is not very profound.

The word "legacy" is the key here, because Limbaugh & Co. are Old Media, a characteristic they share with the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, CBS, ABC and other traditional media outlets. Despite their ideological differences, Old Media is distinguished by a scarcity of voices, controlling assets of great value, that provide a barrier to entry to competitors. They form an oligopoly.

When Limbaugh became big in the late 80s, he seemed like a revolution, only because he catered to conservatives, who the leftist media often ignored. Ditto for Fox News. But the top-down we-will-tell-you-the-news model continued. Limbaugh and Fox didn't so much destroy the leftist media oligopoly as they brought conservatives into the mixture.

However, the Internet has busted this oligopoly wide open. Opinion influencers don't need a multi-million dollar broadcast license or a newspaper. All they need, like Matt Drudge, is a modem and computer. And if the people tire of Matt Drudge, or Daily Kos, there are an unlimited supply of competitors, with a nearly zero barrier to entry. This is what blogs have brought us. Thanks to blogs, the media is more democratic than anytime in American or human history. You can read a blog, download a podcast, and find the information you want. People once restricted to a limited supply of prefabricated news and views can now go shopping from an infinite bazaar of information.

This has devastated Old Media's economic model, not just in newspapers, but in radio. Clear Channel, for example, became notorious for firing DJs and centralizing broadcasts in studios hundreds of miles away from their audiences. And of course, they crammed in increasingly annoying commercials. People had no choice. But with satellite radio, digital music and podcasts , people no longer had to listen to Clear Channel's audio garbage. By destroying any local connection to their audiences, Clear Channel's greedy, contemptuous executives paved the way for the creative upwelling of alternatives such as podcasts.

After years of seeing this Internet-driven democratization, Old Media types should by now have come to grips with it. If they want to survive, they have to adapt to the end of information scarcity and make their products more appealing to customers.

Yet perverse pride still reigns in many of America's newsrooms. Fusty editor and reporter types can't let a mention of the Internet pass without some derogatory reference

"Unlike the home page on your computer, a newspaper can't be customized. It's a mass medium that strives to satisfy a broad audience with as much information -- news, commentary and features -- as it can," wrote Ben Marrison, editor in the Columbus Dispatch, in a typical lament. Marrison was responding to a reader of the print edition who threatened to cancel because he read a column he didn't like.

"Maybe we as Americans have become spoiled in expecting everything tailored to our preferences.
After all, we can find radio talk shows that match our political viewpoints. We have cable television shows to feed any hobby you can imagine. We are a nation of choice, and maybe we expect the headlines, news, columns and photographs to be exactly what we want every day."

Forget the false humility of the "we as Americans." Marrison is really telling his readers that they are "spoiled" by too much "choice". In the eyes of the monopolist, choice and competition are evil words. Predictably, this Luddite editor is off on his technology. Computers don't have home pages -- Web sites do. And his newspaper's Web site could be reader-customizable. Marrison could have told that disgruntled reader to read the Dispatch online, and make sure the reader can read only what he wants. Everyone's happy.

I'm not suggesting newspapers (or radio talk show hosts like Limbaugh) are going to disappear. There will be a place for them for the forseeable future. Printed matter beats the Web when it's inconvenient to access a computer (or cell phone, where, Mr. Marrison, you can also get the Web).

But telling customers they are "spoiled" by competitors is a losing proposition. The proper response is to offer the alternatives your customers want. That's a timeless fact of business even a Luddite should be able to understand.

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Besides the journosaur cluelessness about what customers want, there's a deep arrogance in traditional media types, an arrogance turning into bitterness as customers flee. Many editors are rethinking journalism to find out what they're doing wrong, or how they can do better. Others prefer to remain bitter, pretending to wear their robe of virtues, heedless that onlookers see no robe, just the naked pretenses of a dishonest fool.

John Carroll, former editor of the Los Angeles Times, is one such unclothed emperor who is too busy in his invincible ignorance attacking the Internet and blogs to learn from them. In 2006, Carroll gave a typically definitive screed, pontificating with the absolute certitude of the invincibly ignorant

Look at how Carroll frames the problem:

Young readers are going online and not coming back. Circulation revenues are dwindling. The equivalent of circulation revenues on the Web is negligible. Circulation itself is falling. Ad revenues are weak – not a good sign in a growing economy – and Web-based competitors are stealing our advertisers. Some of these competitors are even helping themselves to our stories and our photographs, which we have produced at great expense.

"Stealing our advertisers." What a perfect way to encapsulate the arrogant, entitlement mentality of newspapers. Newspapers own advertisers, and for Web competitors to win away their business is "stealing" newspaper advertisers.

Carroll's understanding of blogs is equally informed:

The blogs, noisy as they are, have virtually no reporters. They may be keen critics, or assiduous fact checkers, but do they add materially to the nation’s supply of original reporting? No, they don’t.

Trent Lott could have told Carroll otherwise. In 2002, Lott lost his job as Senate majority leader after bloggers kept after the story of his praise of Strom Thurmond -- a story that the Los Angeles Times (when Carroll was editor, btw), and other media outlets at first ignored. Today, in the Middle East, bloggers Michael Yon and Michael Totten supply reporting not often found in the traditional media.

But even someone in such denial as Carroll can't argue away the fact that the public doesn't trust journalists.

"Recently there have been efforts to clarify our beliefs, and to put them into plain language. A notable effort in this regard is the book The Elements of Journalism by our colleagues Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel.
It is important for us to understand, in clear English, what, exactly, a journalist is, and what a journalist is not. It is important for us to live by those beliefs, too, and to condemn those who use the trappings of journalism to engage in marketing or propaganda. And, finally, it is important for us to explain to the public why journalism – real journalism, practiced in good faith – is absolutely essential to a self-governing nation."

So to Carroll, it's all just a communications problem: We journalists need to speak to the public in "clear English". Next thing you know, Carroll's going to suggest hiring a PR agency, to do all the communicating us tongue-tied communicators are apparently incapable of doing with the public.

The real answer is something Carroll hasn't faced up to. Journalists are not trusted because too many are, like Carroll, untrustworthy. They dodge, evade and lie about their own biases and error and hope the public will believe their propaganda.

I'm not saying Carroll doesn't believe his own propaganda. I think he does. The most effective agent of a false message is often someone who has deluded himself into believing his own lies.

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Rush Limbaugh used to be a conservative kingmaker. Bush I recognized the power of His Rushness, and deferentially courted his support. Since then, it's been an article of faith that conservative talk show hosts can mobilize millions of fans who act on their every word.

Yesterday's Super Duper Tuesday severely tested this faith. John McCain dominated the primaries, despite the most bitter opposition from Limbaugh and the Mini-Mes like Hugh Hewitt. So perhaps the talk show hosts' influence is overrated. They are good at mobilizing people who are predisposed to act in a certain fashion, but they don't seem particularly apt at persuading people to vote for or against a candidate.

Here's a sampling of comments along that line from Hugh Hewitt's blog. Notice how Hewitt and his fellow talk show hosts are branded with the dreaded "elitist" label once reserved for the leftist MSM:

McTex writes: Wednesday, February, 06, 2008 12:23 AM
McCain and Huck
both won even though Rush and the other talk radio crazies were all aligned against them as you said Hugh.
What does that say about their influence and yours?

johnnyboy writes: Wednesday, February, 06, 2008 12:24 AM
Talk Show Hosts are NOT the Rep. Party
Hugh, I am just totally sick of all the talk hosts trying to "force" this election for Romney. Mitt Romney was so far left of McCain 4 years ago, I swear he was a democrat. But you, Rush, Laura, Coulter, Hannity and the other jabber-mouths think you know better than us poor, dumb, regular people.
Well, wake up dude. The REAL Republican party is speaking right now, you just refuse to hear it.

Barnvette writes: Tuesday, February, 05, 2008 10:10 PM
Conflict of Interest
I love how the elitist, Hewitt, Rush, Hannity try to build up a slick Romney who has been fickle on his positions based on what race he's running for; stating he's the real conservative....
That is a bunch of crap. Huckabee is the real conservative. Reagan passed amnesty for Mexicans. I don't see Hewitt, Rush and Hannity talking about this. How about Bain Capital buying Clear Channel and how much revenue the talking heads get from Clear Channel.
I disagree with Karl Rove about McCain picking Huckabee. Huckabee would an excellent fit as a VP candidate.

There are many more comments in this vein. What do you think -- is the influence of Rush & Co. declining, or was it overrated to begin with?