Talk Radio as Wrestlemania

Did anyone else listen to the on-air fight between Mark Levin, a talk radio host, and David Frum? The subject is Rush Limbaugh’s place in the Republican Party, but that is beside the point. The exchange is interesting insofar as it lays bare the flaws of talk radio as a format.


Let me count the ways.

1) Mr. Levin ridicules Mr. Frum for writing on a Web site whose audience isn’t very big, which is hilarious to listen to now that Newsweek put the exact same argument on its cover.

2) The actual disagreement among the two men isn’t ever fleshed out because the host continually interjects points utterly irrelevant to the conversation. It’s a common enough tactic in political arguments, but this iteration is strikingly blatant.

3) Is there anything less sporting than instructing one’s producer to lower the volume on your interlocutor so that he literally cannot be heard by the audience? You’d think getting caught doing so would be deeply embarrassing to a talk radio host, but Mr. Levin does it openly!

To be fair, Mr. Levin defends cutting his guest’s microphone, asserting that as host he has a responsibility to his audience, whereas Mr. Frum, as a caller, hasn’t any responsibility whatever. I harbor suspicions that this is a less than forthright description of what was really going on, but let’s afford everyone the benefit of every doubt.

In that spirit, I wonder if Mr. Levin would be interested in debating Mr. Limbaugh’s place in the GOP here on The American Scene. We could each write an initial blog post laying out our respective views, and then each of us could rebut one another. Of course, I have a responsibility to the audience of this blog in a way that Mr. Levin does not, so I’m sure he won’t object to ground rules that allow me to delete any portions of his post that I find wrongheaded or otherwise objectionable prior to my posting them, and without offering any particular justification; whereas my arguments will appear entirely unmediated.

As anyone can see, those ground rules are laughable if the intention is to give a fair airing to competing arguments. But wait! If talk radio hosts haven’t any intention of staging fair arguments, preferring fodder that resembles Wrestlemania more than debate, what is the point?

The only point is entertainment. And that is fine, as far as it goes, but my sense is that the talk radio audience too often regards their host as a reliable filter and arbiter of political arguments, a role that neither suits him nor the incentive structure wherein he operates. It’s no wonder that elsewhere in the radio exchange, Mr. Levin betrays insecurity about his rhetorical chops, loudly insisting that he’ll put his learning up against anyone. I’ve no doubt that he is an intelligent man. Seriously. But the stranglehold he has on the medium, and his willingness to exploit it, results in a conversation where he can appear to his audience to have won the day without having to make any intelligent points, a dearth that hardly redounds to one’s reputation.