Kathy Shaidle

“Talk Radio” and the “Toxic Commentary About Toxic Commentary”

Posted on January 15 2011 7:00 pm
Kathy Shaidle blogs at FiveFeetOfFury, now entering its 11th year online. Her latest book is Acoustic Ladylandkathy shaidle, which Mark Steyn calls "a must-read."
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You’d never know it from this week’s “toxic commentary about toxic commentary,” but there was a time when progressives considered talk radio hosts brave martyrs for truth.

Back in 1984, an outspoken, belligerent Denver talk radio host on the brink of national stardom was shot to death by gunmen who had blatant political motives.

The incident inspired a Pulitzer Prize nominated play that was recently revived on Broadway to great acclaim, along with other plays, movies and TV plots.

Did I mention that that rude, obnoxious, opinionated, provocative — some might even say “toxic” — talk radio host was a self-described liberal? No? Sorry…

You see, when someone like radio talker Alan Berg gets killed by anti-semitic “Aryan Nations” freaks, progressives make sure you never hear the end of it, even decades later.

Bizarre, one-off incidents like Berg’s murder (or the “suspicious” death of Karen Silkwood, or the now-debunked heroism of Erin Brockovich) quickly become propaganda fodder in liberal hands. We’re meant to conclude that such freakish tragedies represent the tip of some sinister right wing iceberg always just about to sink the S.S. Amerikkka.

(Yes, I know it’s confusing: progressives can’t decide whether they’re trying to save their country or destroy it; bear with me…)

Alan Berg’s murder inspired Eric Bogosian’s critically acclaimed, award-winning 1987 play Talk Radio, which was later filmed by (surprise!) Oliver Stone. That play is performed regularly at “little theaters” across America, and was revived on Broadway in 2007–complete with predictable buzz that the work was “more relevant than ever.”

Berg’s murder also featured in the Deborah Winger “the militias are coming” vehicle Betrayal, and in Steven Dietz’s most frequently staged “the militias are still coming” play, God’s Country.

This week in the Denver Post, theater critic John Moore mused about Talk Radio in light of the horrific mass murder in Tuscon. Moore wrote:

There’s no shortage of similar on-air provocation today, from the left and right. And not only from hosts and callers but from elected officials themselves.

OK. The play/movie is entitled Talk Radio. So there’s that. But a thoughtful person immediately recognizes that, like so many fictional tropes beloved of leftleaning artists, those enshrined in Talk Radio don’t withstand real world scrutiny.

Berg was murdered in 1984. And while radio professionals will unhappily admit that their on air talent is prone to untimely deaths, these occur mostly as a result of ill-advised lifestyle choices, not conspiracies involving “white supremacists.” Thankfully, Berg’s “assassination” (as some insist on calling it) was an outlier.

Perhaps those who consider Talk Radio “prophetic” don’t know that it is conservative radio hosts like Glenn Beck whose lives are regularly threatened. Last year, the FBI advised Beck to start wearing a bullet proof vest, and he is that rare New Yorker licensed to carry a concealed firearm on his person for self defense. I’m pretty sure most of his death threats aren’t coming from Aryan Nations losers, either.

We also hear that talk radio hosts are bellicose hotheads, like Berg. Having grown up in the leftwing media milieu, imagine my surprise when I finally heard Rush Limbaugh’s mellow baritone for myself and didn’t detect a single scream. (Mark Levin and Michael Savage are closer to the stereotype; tellingly, they are also less popular than their lower key colleagues Rush, Hannity and Beck.)

We’re also reminded repeatedly that Rush and Beck are “getting rich” by “spreading lies” and being “divisive.” Indeed, Limbaugh brings home a staggering $50-million a year. And Beck bought gold at $400 — enough said. They are both wealthy men.

While I doubt the amount approaches $50-million, I’d still be interested to learn how much money Bogosian and Stone have made from Talk Radio — and how much of it went to Berg’s estate.

And let’s tease out the implications: if the hero of Talk Radio is a glorious martyr because he (loudly and rudely) exercised his First Amendment rights, doesn’t that mean that conservative “toxic” talkers are equally heroic?

The leftist calculus seems to be:

Rightwingers who kill are bad guys. Rightwingers who get people killed are bad guys. Rightwingers who get themselves killed are bad guys.

Let’s give those progressives credit: at least it’s an easy formula to remember!

When you watch the trailer for Talk Radio, you inadvertently get a glimpse of why liberal radio fails whenever it’s tried. The host’s jokes aren’t funny. He’s obviously a raw talent who lacks professionalism and discipline. And you get the distinct (and probably unintentional impression) that he’s not quite as smart as he thinks he is.

Lefty talk radio hosts don’t tend to get silenced by insane “right wingers” wielding guns. They’re more commonly pulled off the air through corporate incompetence, public indifference and sheer lack of talent.

But that’s not a very exciting plot for a movie.

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