Monday, November 24, 2008

Nate Silver on Radio Republicans

A Google search for "RADIO REPUBLICANS" returns very few hits but it should get more. The term is too good to get lost. Nate Silver, whose Five poll-tracking blog shone brightly during the election, used the term last week to describe that pocket of Republican Conservatives that can be identified by their talk radio common denominator. Discussing gay rights issues he recalled the old "Don't Ask Don't Tell" silliness of the Clinton years and how public opinion regarding gays in the military has changed over the last fifteen years.

Public sentiment on DADT has shifted dramatically since 1993. A May, 1993 poll by ABC News and the Washington Post showed that 44 percent Americans favored allowing homosexuals (their wording) who have publicly disclosed their orientation to serve in the military, as compared with 55 percent opposed. An identical poll taken in July, however, shows 75 percent in favor versus just 22 percent opposed. Other recent polling shows similar results; in May 2007, CNN showed 79 percent of Americas in favor of allowing for openly gay troops to serve to 18 percent opposed, and in March 2007, Newsweek had 63 percent in favor and 28 percent opposed.

What has changed? Well, certainly, America has become more liberal on a variety of issues related to same-sex-attracted individuals. But also our country is now at war, and military recruitment has become more of a problem. Not coincidentally, the number of dismissals under DADT has decreased significantly since 2002 as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq ramped up. (It's not OK to be gay -- the army seems to be saying -- unless we actually need you.)

If this were any other issue, it would be the sort of slam-dunk stocking stuffer that a new administration would be looking to implement quickly to bolster its favorability ratings. But of course, DADT is laden with historical significance, precisely because of the way that the Clinton administration mishandled the issue in 1993 and expended a lot of its political capital in the process. A Washington Times report -- as yet unconfirmed by other sources -- suggests that Barack Obama is likely to delay action on the issue until perhaps 2010.

Does Obama have legitimate reason to proceed cautiously? It is hard to know. On the one hand, even if those who still oppose gay service members are in a small minority, sometimes the minority is much more vocal than the majority. Going after a DADT repeal would surely pique the interest of the Radio Republicans; they'd attempt to portray Obama both as a liberal boogieman and as a political naïf for making the exact same mistakes that the Clinton administration did.

Fox News television channel can be included in the "radio republican" group because the pace is really an echo of the radio format.

FOX News is unusual television, really, in that almost all the stimulation is verbal, and almost all of it occurs at the same staccato pacing as radio. You could take tonight's broadcast of Hannity & Colmes or the Factor and put it directly on radio and you'd lose almost nothing (not coincidentally, Hannity and O'Reilly also have highly-rated radio programs). That wouldn't really work for Countdown, which has higher production values, and where the pacing is more irregular. It certainly wouldn't work for the Situation Room -- or moving in a different direction, the Daily Show.

He illustrates his point citing his recent interview of John Ziegler confronting Zeigler with evidence of push polling aimed at suggesting that people who voted for Obama were more ignorant than others. Zeigler's defensive response underscores a level of cocooning that I have noticed for years. is, in a nutshell, why conservatives don't win elections anymore. It is not that conservatism generally permits less nuance than liberalism (in terms of political messaging, that is probably one of conservatism's strengths). Rather, the key lies in the second passage that I highlighted. There are a certain segment of conservatives who literally cannot believe that anybody would see the world differently than the way they do. They have not just forgotten how to persuade; they have forgotten about the necessity of persuasion.

John Ziegler is a shining example of such a conservative. During my interview with him, Ziegler made absolutely no effort to persuade me about the veracity of any of his viewpoints. He simply asserted them -- and then became frustrated, paranoid, or vulgar when I rebutted them.

I didn't quite get how someone like Ziegler, who is usually fairly poised, who solicited me to interview him, who has years of experience in the media, could so completely lose his cool. This was until last night, when I read David Foster Wallace's profile of him, conducted in 2005 when Ziegler was hosting a fairly successful talk radio program in Los Angeles.

To understand Ziegler, you have to understand that he's a radio guy. And you have to understand that radio is a very strange medium. As Wallace writes:

Hosting talk radio is an exotic, high-pressure gig that not many people are fit for, and being truly good at it requires skills so specialized that many of them don't have names.

To appreciate these skills and some of the difficulties involved, you might wish to do an experiment. Try sitting alone in a room with a clock, turning on a tape recorder, and starting to speak into it. Speak about anything you want—with the proviso that your topic, and your opinions on it, must be of interest to some group of strangers who you imagine will be listening to the tape. Naturally, in order to be even minimally interesting, your remarks should be intelligible and their reasoning sequential—a listener will have to be able to follow the logic of what you're saying—which means that you will have to know enough about your topic to organize your statements in a coherent way. (But you cannot do much of this organizing beforehand; it has to occur at the same time you're speaking.) Plus, ideally, what you're saying should be not just comprehensible and interesting but compelling, stimulating, which means that your remarks have to provoke and sustain some kind of emotional reaction in the listeners, which in turn will require you to construct some kind of identifiable persona for yourself—your comments will need to strike the listener as coming from an actual human being, someone with a real personality and real feelings about whatever it is you're discussing. And it gets even trickier: You're trying to communicate in real time with someone you cannot see or hear responses from; and though you're communicating in speech, your remarks cannot have any of the fragmentary, repetitive, garbled qualities of real interhuman speech, or speech's ticcy unconscious "umm"s or "you know"s, or false starts or stutters or long pauses while you try to think of how to phrase what you want to say next. You're also, of course, denied the physical inflections that are so much a part of spoken English—the facial expressions, changes in posture, and symphony of little gestures that accompany and buttress real talking. Everything unspoken about you, your topic, and how you feel about it has to be conveyed through pitch, volume, tone, and pacing. The pacing is especially important: it can't be too slow, since that's low-energy and dull, but it can't be too rushed or it will sound like babbling.

Not to reduce Wallace's fine prose to a catch phrase, but the distinguishing feature of radio is that it exists in a sort of perpetual amnesiac state. In a book, you can go back and read the previous page; on the internet, you can press the 'back' button on the browser. In radio, there is no rewind: everything exists in that moment and that moment only. This is, theoretically, a problem with television too, but in television you at least have context clues -- graphics and what not, and what falls under the heading of "non-verbal communication". In radio you do not. Just a sine wave in the ether.

Well said.

I have listened to Neal Boortz here in Atlanta for decades and have been deeply impressed with his adroit use of language on his now nationally broadcast talk show. His mind is quick as lightning and his rhetorical instincts are to talk radio as impressive in that medium as are sports figures in their respective fields. He's the Tiger Woods of talk radio. His loyal listeners know that the only reason he remains second string to big names like Limbaugh or Hannity is because he's too smart to make some of the same dumb mistakes that Rush made and not telegenic enough to be on TV. Besides his voice and rhythm are to radio what Ray Charles was to jazz. It would be criminal to tear him from his medium.

Hidden behind that cloud of gifts is an ability to frame and direct a stream of interactive conversation with as much skill as a kayak paddler navigating white water. If a caller happens to use the term "public school" he will instantly be corrected to use the term "government school" because otherwise the conversation might turn to the perfectly stupid conclusion that everyone in America should send their children to private schools because "government schools" are just another tool of government to brainwash them into becoming tit-sucking weenies who cannot think for themselves and will always expect others to take care of them. Presumably every one can find an affordable private school, or, failing that, invest whatever time and effort it takes to do home schooling. Taken to its logical conclusion, this argument would result in generations of children even more ignorant than the ones we now have, but that conclusion never gets to the point of discussion. I use that example to illustrate the point because I notice that whenever it is a slow news day the "government schools" hobby horse gets pulled out of the corner to fill air time.

I saw Nate Silver on television as a talking heads commentator during the campaign and he was dry as a chip. I already knew who he was by way of his blog, and knew he was smarter than anyone else on the same show. I wanted to reach into the screen and poke him, tell him to lighten up a bit. But maybe it's best he stick to his knitting as a stats tracker. That is clearly his calling. He makes me wish I had more interest in baseball. His tracking of baseball stats is apparently the gold standard for that medium. And in the presidential election his poll-tracking and political commenting gifts sparkled like diamonds.

And that great term "radio Republican" should belong to him.

No comments: