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Media Circus

The Voices of Reason

By Michael Anft | Posted 10/10/2001

In the 26-day interstice between the bombings in New York and Washington and the U.S. military's latest foray in the Middle East, a remarkable and unprecedented redirection of media rhetoric occurred. A shift from stories and information of dubious importance to all-war-all-the-time programming overtook radio talk-show hosts and parts of the print-news biz.

While it's hard to say whether this represents any kind of improvement in the general state of things--the jingoism and fear-mongering that have replaced the trivial passions of airwave conservatives are hardly topics that allow for much debate, or make for compelling news--it is nice to know that right-leaning media can tacitly admit that their peacetime concerns were petty and utterly disposable. The media's preoccupation with backing George W. Bush (save the journalists who got fired for criticizing him, the occasional BOONDOCKS strip, or the every-now-and-then letter to the editor) has had the strange side effect of neutering the hysteria-spewing mad dogs of the far right. Anybody heard from Matt Drudge lately?

The trend has played out locally at WBAL Radio (1090 AM), Baltimore home of Rush Limbaugh. The finger-pointing, liberal-baiting rhetoric with which WBAL has unfortunately become synonymous has been replaced with news and a paucity of reactionary "answers." There have been no suggestions that the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan be called "Operation Parking Lot," and only a smattering of blame for the terrorist attacks has been laid at the feet of whipping boy Bill Clinton. (Of course, the station has kept up the banner-waving so prevalent among other media these days; with longtime professional patriots like Bruce Elliott and Alan Walden around, this was inevitable.)

In the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, Ron Smith, 'BAL's self-proclaimed "voice of reason," actually took on a reasonable timbre. As callers weighed in with all kinds of attack-related thoughts and emotions, Smith delivered something less than answers with something more than substance, in a measured, sympathetic tone. Smith even fired broadsides at conservative fellow travelers Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson for their ludicrous attempt to pin blame for the attacks on the nation's lost relationship with God. (Even Limbaugh got into the act, defending newly crowned free-speech martyr Bill Maher before reverting to his usual buffet of Democrat-bashing this week.)

Not surprisingly, since mid-September Smith has been inching back to his old form, discussing the increase in firearms sales with glee and endorsing racial profiling to protect us from evildoers. But at least he has remained on point and off the usual bugbears of scandal-happy conservatism: sex, spending, "political correctness." Outside of an attack on the Rev. Jesse Jackson for his efforts to intervene as a negotiator between the United States and Afghanistan, the relatively kinder and gentler Smith has been remarkably loath to bare his fangs.

Smith's morning-drive stationmate, Chip Franklin, has had a go at picking up the slack, but he seems nervous and uncertain trying to live up to the station's rightward tack (or, perhaps, the expectations of his bosses) when talking politics. He lacks that Ron/Rush assertiveness, coming off instead like a teenager parroting what his father told him, unable to either master the details or muster the conviction.

This may be a liability when trying to corral the Limbaugh demographic, but I prefer to see it as a sign of buried intelligence. Every now and then, Franklin even veers dangerously close to critical thinking. On Oct. 3 (right after he made the mistake of calling the terrorist attacks a "failure" because 90 percent of those at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon survived), Franklin took a tacit shot at both media fear-mongering (anthrax, chemical warfare, etc.) and the powers-that-be, rightly questioning why anyone should be surprised that the intelligence agencies and Attorney General John Ashcroft, hotly pursuing expanded enforcement powers, would be warning Americans of another terrorist attack--and questioning further how much credence we should give those agencies in light of their failure to see Sept. 11 coming. Instead of jumping on the news and playing it for hysteria or ratings points, he suggested we analyze it. How novel. And how refreshing when one remembers that back on Sept. 10 Franklin was in lockstep with seemingly every other radio pseudo-muckraker rounding up Gary Condit, Al Sharpton, and the other usual suspects for aural torture.

It's still right-wing radio, of course, so let's not give it too much credit for doing what it should be doing during a time of national crisis: informing the public and listening as it speaks. Yet, we should be thankful--and not in a gloating way--that even cranky, self-consciously "provocative" radio jocks know enough about what makes a story that they can put their parochial dramas aside until the storm passes.

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