Talk Show Tantrums

April 26, 1995

Ultra-extremists on the left and the right find common ground in their hatred of government and love of violence. It has been always thus. In the 1960s, the left revolted against the Vietnam War as the Weathermen and other groups resorted to armed robbery to finance a battle against established authority. Today, it is the right that forms itself into secret militia groups hostile to federal law enforcement. They wrap themselves in the flag their left counterparts once burned.

Thirty years, however, make a difference. The means of world terrorism have escalated from the gun and the pipe bomb to vehicles packaged with mighty explosives. And the political pamphlet has given way to talk radio feeding the frustrations of millions of susceptible citizens.

In Baltimore, two powerful AM stations saw their ratings soar by switching to a largely right-wing talk show format. This was part of a nationwide phenomenon that climaxed with the Republican sweep of Congress. So grateful was House Speaker Newt Gingrich that he brought talk show hosts from all over to the Capitol on opening day.

Since then conservative performers on the airwaves have found the going more difficult. Their meat and drink was in assailing anybody and everybody in authority. But they could hardly attack Mr. Gingrich, even when he lost term limits. And beating up on a president who had gone to ground was hardly the stuff to get the juices or the ad revenues flowing.

Then came last week's tragedy in Oklahoma City. The connection between incendiary venom on the airways and the paranoid activities of mass murderers had many a talk show host indulging in denial. "If a listener responds inappropriately, it's beyond my control and not my fault," said G. Gordon Liddy, the Watergate kook turned radio exponent of shooting federal agents in the head if they come after you. Rush Limbaugh protested he should not be compared to short-wave fanatics who made their incendiarism explicit.

Into this situation came Bill Clinton, whose presidential evocation of the nation's grief over the Oklahoma tragedy had done much to restore his tattered reputation. In a follow-up speech he attacked those whose preachment that "violence is acceptable" comes "regularly over the airwaves." We agree totally with the president's sentiments but, as his spin doctors quickly perceived, his words contradicted his attempt to bring the nation together. Talk show hosts at last had the issue they had been missing. And they responded by attacking the liberals for everything up to and including plotting the Oklahoma bombing to smear the radical right.

Mr. Clinton correctly urges moderate Americans to speak out against the purveyors of hate. But how? And when? Moderation and limp liberalism are not what talk-show audiences want to hear. They demand anger that entertains, and bottom-line station managers are glad to give it to them.

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