Can Obama and Dems Overcome the Right's Talk Radio Monopoly?

Last Friday, many Americans witnessed a rare bit of political theater when President Obama addressed the GOP retreat in Baltimore. By insisting that live TV cameras be allowed into the exchange, the president took a rare opportunity to take control of his message in full view of the public, calling out House Republicans on their lies and dirty tricks, and challenging them to tone down their rhetoric so Washington could focus on issues rather than the next election. Headlines burst from news pages: "Extraordinary!" "Remarkable!" "Historic!" The GOP instantly regretted their decision to allow cameras. It was a big moment for Obama to get his message out; but how many more will he get?

CSPAN, CNN and MSNBC ran and reran the discussion. But Fox News elected not to show the actual exchange at all, instead choosing to "characterize" it for their audience, editing an hour and 20 minutes into a few meaning-twisted soundbites, prompting Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman to confront Fox CEO Roger Ailes about his network's "deliberate misinformation" Sunday on ABC's This Week.

It is doubtful that Fox, the "most trusted news network" according to Public Policy Polling, will ever stop misinforming the public; doing so would interfere with the GOP message, and he who controls the message controls the masses.

Messaging is the new buzzword on Capitol Hill. For three days, the president has been using the bully pulpit to take his message to the people; first at the GOP retreat, next at a town hall in New Hampshire, Thursday at the Democratic Senate Caucus. He understands he must reach the American public with the facts. Still, Fox News and more importantly, talk radio will not allow their audiences to hear the unvarnished truth.

“I just can’t understand how the president lost the message.” These are the words of Cokie Roberts on ABC News’ This Week, January 24. Before Christmas, Roberts, on the same program, said “I think if people understood what was in the health care bill, they would really like it. But the Democrats aren’t getting the message out."

As shown in Public Interest Pictures' media reform documentary Broadcast Blues, the reason Democrats have not succeeded in getting their message out is that the GOP, while complaining about a non-existent "liberal media," has for a generation created a right-wing media juggernaut that excludes facts and debate. And while Beltway pundits recognize the cheerleading power of cable TV's Fox, they have not yet recognized the messaging forest through the talk radio trees.

As Danny Goldberg, onetime CEO of now-defunct Air America Radio wrote for AlterNet, the power of talk radio is the problem for Democrats and democracy.

One-hundred-thirty-eight million people commute to and from work in automobiles, where they have no access to computer or TV screens. For around a third of them, or 48 million, AM talk radio is their entertainment of choice. Of the top 10 AM talk radio shows, nine are hosted by extreme conservatives, giving the right wing a captive audience of around 40 million listeners a week—at least seven times greater than the combined audiences of Fox News, CNN and MSNBC. Talk radio's audience dwarfs that of every other category in the news political arena, including the network news and Sunday shows, NPR's public affairs shows and political Web sites.

And what did talk radio listeners hear about the Obama/GOP exchange? King Rush bellowed, "Obama lies! He's delusional! This business that he 'inherited a $1.3 trillion budget deficit' is a lie. It's a lie through and through." (Except, of course, it isn't. Government statistics are clear. But who will the 15 million people who heard Rush's message, and not the president's, believe?)

Consider also that talk radio reaches into every corner of the country: every home, car, barbershop and garage can tune in to free AM radio and hear Rush and Beck and Hannity and Savage. But few of those little corners get to hear Thom or Ed or Randi or any liberal perspective; the corporate radio owners see to that. And remember, these are places that, because of the digital transition, no longer get free TV. But they get free radio (just not free speech).

Conservatives understand that new government policies could undermine their grip on the public airwaves, and they are mounting attacks to maintain it. The right-leaning Heritage Foundation recently put out a "National Survey on the Obama Agenda." Under the heading "Free Speech," they ask, in push poll fashion, "Do you believe that President Obama and/or Congress will take action to destroy conservative talk radio?" (As if a popular billion-dollar industry could just go away.)

But today, there is new evidence that the Obama administration does understand that talk radio is the road to the message. On his Organizing for America Web site, the president is asking people across the nation to research talk radio: to focus on three pre-identified radio shows, determine whether they are political, what language they are in, and whether they take callers.

What exactly will Obama do with that information? Restore aspects of the Fairness Doctrine? Rewrite the 1996 Telecommunications Act? This much is certain: he has broken through the right-wing messaging juggernaut once; it's a safe bet he's on the road to do it again.

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