Talk Shows: a Cracked Mirror of America

August 10, 1994|By GARRY WILLS

CHICAGO — Chicago.--Some people describe talk-radio shows, and their astounding popularity, as if they represent a new form of direct democracy. But these shows misreport what ''the people'' are thinking. They are channels through which the angriest minorities can sound off.

Do you think, for example, that 65 percent of the people oppose the admission of gays into the military? A slim majority (52 percent) did oppose that in June of 1993 -- but 65 percent of the callers to radio shows opposed it. A similar divergence of 10 points or more was registered on other ''hot button'' issues when the Times Mirror Center sponsored a major survey.

Opposition to President Clinton's economic program was 12 percent higher among talk-show callers than in the general public. Opposition to him as a person was 14 percent higher. The talk-show hosts themselves -- 112 of them were interviewed for the survey -- believe their listeners and callers are disproportionately conservative, dissatisfied and angry.

More than half the hosts said that people who are angry are over-represented on their shows. They admitted that feminists are under-represented -- 56 percent said that, while fewer than a quarter of them (23 percent) claimed that feminists were fairly represented.

The most sweeping admission that their audience is not representative came when 71 percent of the hosts said that their listeners are ''more critical in their views of government and politics than others in the listening area.'' That was true of the listeners in general, and the callers are even unhappier than the listeners.

Callers are persistent. They try harder and longer, not only to get onto a show but to get on repeatedly. They are fueled by grievance. They have the time, or make the time, to complain.

In a sense, there is nothing surprising about this. But it is important to get some hard numbers for confirming one's impression. The talk shows may be a healthy vent for some people's dissatisfaction, or just good amusement, or a recruiting ground for minority views. They do not, however, reflect the attitudes of a wider audience, with more things to fill its mind with than listening to other resentful people air their gripes. To call this a significant extension of democracy is an insult to the democratic concept of government.

''Town meetings of the air'' are not town meetings. Presidents who want to imitate (or cultivate) talk show hosts are demeaning their office.

Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.

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