Reviewed 1/15/2011

Toxic Talk, by Bill Press

How the Radical Right Has Poisoned America's Airwaves
Bill Press
New York: Thomas Dunne Books, May 2010




ISBN-13 978-0-312-60629-9
ISBN-10 0-312-60629-X 310pp. HC $26.99

Bill Press, not having enough to do running a daily three-hour progressive talk radio show and serving as an assistant to New Hampshire Senator Bernie Sanders, has decided to write a fifth book about the tautologically toxic tattlers who infest what's mistakenly called conservative media.1 He begins it by exploring the current nature of right-wing talk, and its origins in the diatribes of Father Coughlin, the "Radio Priest," and Joe Pyne, the first talk-show host. Then, in Chapter 1, he attempts to "refudiate" each of Rush Limbaugh's major mendacities. That seems to me a task more odious than cleaning out the Augean Stables. But Press succeeds. (It is not recorded whether Hercules did.) In the course of it he lays bare for us the incessant mendacity of Limbaugh and the rest, their loopy accusations, and their inflammatory rhetoric.

"Make no mistake: the genie of right-wing talk, unleashed by Limbaugh and his compatriots, is destroying our democratic process. As the old saying goes, 'A lie can get halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on.' And that's particularly true when blowhards like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck attract such large audiences—and when Republican politicians gladly spew the same ugly rhetoric and employ the same dirty tactics.

– Page 7

He also exposes the Fox News network as the media arm of the Republican Party, if not the Tea Party, and explains the danger their deceptiveness poses to our democracy.

"Indeed, for the most part, what we see on Fox News are lies that have already been tested on right-wing talk radio—and by many of the same people. They're singing from the same hymnal and reading from the same set of talking points.

It's a far cry from the robust but fair debate of issues originally envisioned as the goal of the format. Indeed, rather than encourage honest debate, most conservative talk radio hosts today have an extremely corrosive impact on our public discourse: engaging in personal attacks, spreading lies, fanning the flames of bigotry, and slamming the door on legitimate differences of opinion.

– Pages 6-7

Press views the assortment of talk radio personalities as a pyramid, and he starts his analysis at the top tier of right-wing talkers: Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, and Michael Savage. (These are the rankings in terms of listening audience.) He examines these personalities according to the information they deliver — although in almost every case it is misinformation. I won't go into detail; this review would never end if I did. Suffice it to say that these four, led by Limbaugh, describe the bills introduced by Democratic members of Congress untruthfully to make them sound as damaging as possible, and incessantly demonize Democrats from President Obama on down.

He takes a side trip into Toxic TV, which mostly consists of Bill O'Reilly (and formerly Lou Dobbs of CNN), then moves on to the second string of right-wing talkers. These are Mark Levin, Laura Ingraham, and Neal Boortz. Finally he presents a selection of local talkers. Each of them commands the audience of a single city: Boston, MA; Madison, WI; Cincinnati, OH; Minneapolis, MN; and Denver, CO.

All in all, 90 percent of talk radio stations fall into the conservative fold. For this we can thank Ronald Reagan, along with Bill Clinton and the Bush dynasty, who abolished the Fairness Doctrine and loosened the restrictions on ownership of the medium. Wealthy conservatives were freed to buy up nearly as many stations as they wished. Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996, allowing any company to own eight stations in a single market and unlimited number nationwide. The result was Clear Channel and the rest of the Big Five. Often, the owners of conservative stations operate them at a loss to keep "liberals" out, or put the progressives on the weakest station in the group.

Network Number of Stations Percent Conservative
Clear Channel 145 86%
CBS 30 74%
Cumulus 31 100%
Salem 28 100%
Citadel 23 100%

Radio still penetrates: Arbitron reported that, in 2007, 92.7 percent of Americans age 12 and over listened to the radio for 18.5 hours average each week. And 91 percent of the weekday programs are conservative, 9 percent progressive.

Press also gives a history of progressive talk radio, its leading personalities (he is one) and future prospects. A plea for less ideology and more facts and reason ends the book. His Acknowledgements reprise his entire career.

The book has many small errors, but few major defects. The worst, in my opinion, is leaving out some important progressives. Norman Goldman is not mentioned, and neither is Nicole Sandler, a veteran of Air America. The index is extensive and accurate. This is an excellent coverage of the personalities and the operation of talk radio today, as only a long-term insider can give it.

1 You see, right-wing media outlets are not really conservative — except in the narrow (extremely narrow) sense that they work to preserve the privileges of a narrow segment of society: the segment with the most wealth, who use that wealth to fund its divisive operation.
2 These included the office of Gabrielle Giffords.
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