Outrage versus dismay: Why liberals do better on TV than radio

February 02, 2010|By Tom Moriarty

Conservatives are outraged. And liberals are dismayed.

That's the state of political discourse in America, at least for now, at least in the age of nonstop punditry and political commentary. And that's one of the reasons why Air America, the liberal alternative to Rush Limbaugh and the other denizens of right-wing radio, recently went out of business. It turns out that dismay doesn't play as well as outrage, at least on the radio.

Radio is better suited to outrage because it's a medium that thrives on voice. On the radio, we can hear the scorn in Rush Limbaugh's voice when he bashes President Barack Obama's plans to regulate the banks. We can hear the sneer when he reads a quote from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi or Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. And we can share a moment of common anger when he rails against the Democrats and their proposed government takeover of our health care system.

What we can't hear on the radio is dismay, and certainly not the subtlety or irony necessary for political humor, the modern liberal's response to conservative anger. The morning shows may thrive on a steady stream of potty jokes and stripper fantasies, but afternoon talk, especially political talk, is serious business. Tone of voice only goes so far, and the knowing look -- the all-important wink that you lets you know we're both in on the joke -- is virtually impossible on the radio.

That kind of thing is better suited to television, which is why liberal political commentary has found a home on TV. Sure, Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann have made names for themselves on MSNBC with liberal outrage, but their ratings, and their places in the hearts of liberals and critics everywhere, are overshadowed by Jon Stewart and his award-winning "Daily Show" on Comedy Central.

Mr. Stewart thrives on late-night television because the medium allows us to observe his frustration. When he shows us a clip of a Republican saying something stupid, we can laugh at his reaction, we can laugh at the person who said it, and we can share a moment of common dismay at the sheer ignorance regularly on display.

Air America died because, although liberals may be as outraged as conservatives -- at least on the inside -- they prefer to express it with a dismissive chuckle, not a snarling sneer. Fox News is successful because outrage plays well in all its forms, though it is not particularly telegenic.

Conservatives shout and liberals laugh. Conservatives seem so rabid, liberals seem so smug, and neither side ever takes a moment to consider what the other might have to say, ever takes a moment to see if there might be a different way for us to conduct our debates, at least in the media.

Maybe it's better this way. We all need places to go, places where we can find like-minded people who reassure us, especially in these uncertain times. After all, if more liberals were on the radio, my conservative friends might accidentally stumble upon their shows and hear something upsetting, which probably isn't a good thing when they're driving in the car or listening to the radio at work. And if more conservatives were on the TV, especially late at night, and especially on channels not owned by the Fox network, my liberal friends might stumble upon their shows and see something unsettling, something that might keep awake into the wee hours.

Liberals might see that conservatives are not stupid, or at least not as ignorant as they always imagined them to be. And conservatives might see that liberals are not evil, or at least not as immoral as they'd like them to be.

Tom Moriarty teaches writing and rhetoric at Salisbury University. His e-mail is tamoriarty@salisbury.edu.

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