mark hertsgaard

Independent Journalist & Author

mark


Oprah Buffa

Hot Air: All Talk, All the Time. 
    By Howard Kurtz. 
    407 pp. New York: Times Books/Random House. $25.

What’s the difference between Ted Koppel, Oprah Winfrey and Geraldo
Rivera? The joke is on Mr. Koppel, because the answer for many people
seems to be, not much. According to a Harris poll cited in Howard
Kurtz’s Hot Air: All Talk, All the Time, when Americans were asked
to name their favorite talk show host, Mr. Koppel was lumped right in
with Oprah and Geraldo, Letterman and Leno, even Regis and Kathie Lee.
In an interview with Mr. Kurtz, a miffed Ted Koppel castigated the
public for its lack of discrimination. But doesn’t that smack of
blaming the victim?

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Nightline may have been born during the Iranian hostage crisis of
1980, and it may have staked out the journalistic high ground with
globe-trotting investigative reports and hard-hitting political
interviews, but in recent years it has been infected by the same
fluff-in-mouth disease that has degraded the news media as a whole.
The O. J. Simpson trial alone, Mr. Kurtz reports, occupied nearly half
the air time of Nightline during one seven-week stretch in 1995. As
recently as the late 1980’s, what made a journalist radical (and rare)
was a willingness to challenge the basic assumptions of the political
and economic elites whose doings dominate most news coverage. Now,
simple intelligence is a radical thing.

We have become a talk show nation, Mr. Kurtz announces on the first
page of Hot Air. And although he applauds some aspects of the recent
talk show explosion — talk radio has broadened the nation’s political
conversation beyond that traditionally sanctioned by the major
networks and newspapers, while television programs like The
McLaughlin Group illustrate that news doesn’t have to be dull — he
plainly believes the drawbacks outweigh the advantages. Talk shows, he
writes, have become a powerful vehicle that trumpets the most extreme
and polarizing views, that panders to sensationalism, that spreads
innuendo and misinformation with stunning efficiency. Talk shows are
enemies of complexity, fairness and journalistic accountability.
What’s more, their collective racket seems to grow more deafening
each week.

Mr. Kurtz, the author of Media Circus: The Trouble With America’s
Newspapers, supports his charges with ample reporting, much of it
undertaken in his capacity as the media reporter for The Washington
Post. That perch undoubtedly helped him secure the interviews with Mr.
Koppel, Larry King, Rush Limbaugh and other talk show bigwigs who
animate his text. A wealth of anecdotes, personality sketches and
behind-the-cameras eavesdropping makes his book smooth and undemanding
reading. What is lacking, unfortunately, is depth and rigor. For
example, the author seems to believe that only direct quotations
require documentation. As a result, Hot Air resembles a series of
extended newspaper articles whose occasional flashes of insight are
undermined by a pervasive superficiality.

Many of the gravest shortcomings Mr. Kurtz attributes to television
talk shows — their unswerving reflection of the mind-set of official
Washington, the astronomical salaries that insulate their regular
panelists from the daily realities of average Americans, the
unmistakably rightward tilt of their pundits — have, in fact, long
been evident in the news media as a whole. Yet Mr. Kurtz fails to
explain how these important flaws have been transformed in the talk
show era, and why. Nor can he convincingly assert that talk shows are
the new kingmakers of American politics without providing more
concrete, checkable facts than he does. Indeed, one could argue from
his own reporting that Washington insiders, for reasons of ego, vastly
overestimate the true influence of television talk shows.

In the case of radio, Mr. Kurtz reports that large majorities of talk
show listeners voted Republican in a number of 1994 elections, helping
the party capture Congress. That sounds plausible. The problem is,
there is no way to evaluate this claim without knowing what percentage
of all voters listened to talk radio. Likewise, it is interesting to
read about House Speaker Newt Gingrich briefing Mr. Limbaugh in order
to galvanize his audience against President Clinton’s crime bill. But
quoting conservatives who orchestrated a barrage of phone calls is not
proof that the calls were what defeated the bill.

The most hard-hitting material in Hot Air exposes how David Gergen,
Sam Donaldson, William Safire and other pundits routinely accept many
thousands of dollars in speaking fees from corporations with keen
financial interests in the issues they discuss. The stock defense of
the talking heads — that such payments are a private matter, and in
any case have no effect on their views — would be laughable if made
by a politician, Mr. Kurtz writes. And even if it is mere coincidence
that, for example, George Will and Fred Barnes took health industry
cash while publicly arguing that the health care crisis was
exaggerated, there is a deeper problem, Mr. Kurtz suggests. The
journalists’ privileged status invariably skews their view of the
world, predisposing them to believe that, like them, most Americans
need not worry about rising insurance premiums, decaying public
schools or Nafta-inflicted job losses.

Six- and seven-figure incomes for reporters were unthinkable, Mr.
Kurtz notes, before the unholy union of journalism and televised
entertainment. So, one might add, were many other blemishes on our
news media. Sympathizing with the decision to replace a Nightline
story about the Mexican peso crisis with yet another wallow in the O.
J. mud, Mr. Kurtz speculates that ABC executives didn’t want too many
viewers surfing over to Letterman and Leno. Such tabloid-style
maneuvering is a logical consequence of two powerful factors that
unfortunately go all but unmentioned in Hot Air: first, the vastly
increased economic concentration within the journalism industry, and
second, the deregulation of broadcasting that took place during the
Reagan era, which effectively told the industry that it could
downgrade news without risking license renewals. Critics warned at the
time that deregulation plus oligopoly would maximize profits while
impoverishing the nation. But what did they know?

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Latest Book

HOT

By now, almost everyone knows what Edward Snowden did: leak top secret documents revealing that the US government was spying on hundreds of millions of people around the world. But if you want to know why Snowden did it, the way he did it, you need to know the stories of two other men.


The first is Thomas Drake, who blew the whistle on the very same surveillance ten years before Snowden did and got crushed. The other is The Third Man, a former senior Pentagon official who comes forward in this book for the first time to describe how his superiors repeatedly broke the law to punish Drakeā€”and unwittingly taught Snowden how to evade their clutches.


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Amazon.com | Barnes & Noble

About Mark

Independent journalist Mark Hertsgaard is the author of seven books that have been translated into sixteen languages, including Bravehearts: Whistle Blowing in the Age of Snowden; HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth; and A Day in the Life: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles. He has reported from twenty-five countries about politics, culture and the environment for leading outlets, including The Guardian, Der Spiegel, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Time, Mother Jones, NPR, the BBC and The Nation, where is the environment correspondent. He lives in San Francisco.

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