By Donella Meadows
–February 11, 1993—-
I’m a talk-radio junky. I’d rather listen to real folks stumbling to express their own thoughts than to polished puppets reading what someone else has written. I tune into Larry, Rush, and the folks who call in to them, to keep myself awake, chuckling, thinking, and every now and then yelling in outrage.
One item of talk I hear is about the power of talk shows. They are restoring democracy, it is said, to a nation that has concentrated too much power within one narrow East-Coast Beltway. Just by venting our opinions into a national satellite feed, you and I can scuttle a Congressional pay-raise, elevate a wise-cracking Texan to a presidential candidacy, or bring down a potential Attorney General because she hired an illegal alien.
We don’t need Ross Perot to create an electronic town meeting, they say. It’s already going on, coast-to-coast, on multiple channels, 24 hours a day.
Now much as I like the talk shows, I’m also from New England, and I can say that there’s a big difference between the Rush Limbaugh show and a town meeting. And much as I like town meetings, they are not as effectively democratic as they could be.
One problem with both call-in shows and town meetings is that they’re not representative. Only those who take the trouble, and don’t have to work, and aren’t busy with the kids can participate. Even within that set, the loudest mouths and most made-up minds dominate the air time. At town meeting you can see the shy folks, the ones who have trouble sounding off in public, leaning against the back wall or bending over their knitting. On talk radio those people are invisible, but they’re there. It’s a mistake to think that the blowhards who call in speak for the nation.
A second problem is that, as we know well from town meetings, the power isn’t with the people, it’s with the moderator. He or she establishes the rules, decides who to call on, changes the subject, cuts people off. In New England we elect our moderators, and we try to keep them following Robert’s Rules of Order. In talk radio there is only one rule: break for the commercial on time.
Some call-in moderators are neutral and courteous. Then there’s Rush Limbaugh, who is funny and pompous and a scapegoater and hate-mongerer. His popularity could cause you to draw some terrible conclusions about the state of mind of the American people. It helps to remember that Bill Cosby is popular too. I heard an interview the other day with a psychologist who was hired by Cosby to go over each script and be sure it contained no “put-down” humor — no joke made at the expense of any person or group. Rush Limbaugh’s show is pure put-down humor. Maybe the conclusion to draw is that humor of any kind is popular — and that you learn less about America from a show than you learn about the character of the person in charge.
The purpose of the commercial media is not to foster democracy, of course; it’s to entertain in order to attract attention in order to sell. Therefore talk shows have a fast pace. They flip from topic to topic. There is time to spout off, but no time for serious debate. Talk shows can only transmit knee-jerk responses to hot-button items. They can deal with Zoe Baird’s baby sitter, but they seem uninterested in Ron Brown’s links to corporations and foreign governments. They have plenty to say about gays in the military, but they can’t fathom Yugoslavia. They get exercised about Congress bouncing checks worth a few thousand dollars, while billions of dollars slide away into the S&L disaster.
The talk shows not only miss the biggest, most profound issues, they can be breeding grounds for careening falsehoods. One man tells Larry King that a cellular phone gave his wife brain cancer, and there’s a national panic before there’s a shred of evidence. Rush Limbaugh pronounces the greenhouse effect a fiction made up by commie-pinko environmentalists, and decades of good science are swept away.
Even if everyone could participate, even if the moderators were fair and responsible, even if the pace were deliberate enough to have a real conversation, there would be a final problem with democracy by talk radio. We are not very good at talking to each other. We are better at coming back with one-liners than at listening with open minds. We have few public role models showing us how to demand and judge evidence, how to weigh conflicting opinions, how to deal with uncertainty and complication. What I hear every day on talk radio is America’s lack of education — and I don’t mean lack of college degrees. I mean lack of the basic art of democracy, the ability to seek the great truths that can come only by synthesizing the small truths possessed by each of us.
The world is richly varied and wildly complicated. Each person experiences only a piece of it. To make any sense of the world, to make the right decisions as a nation, we need many points of view — east and west, rich and poor, male and female, liberal and conservative, urban and rural, black and white, yes, even straight and gay. Democracy wins out over any government dominated by just one point of view, because only democracy has at least the potential of seeing the world complete and whole.
That’s why talk shows and town meetings are good things. They will be even better when they let all voices be heard with respect, with inquiry, and with dedication to finding the truth, rather than ridiculing the opposition.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1993