Mass Media’s Future: Demagoguery or “Creating Connections?”

Last week’s New Yorker was not a Media Issue, but it does have separate profiles on two seemingly very different media personalities, Bob Fass and Lou Dobbs.

Marc Fisher writes about Bob Fass, the longtime host of Radio Unnameable on WBAI. (The article’s not available, so please excuse errors in my transcription; the New Yorker has some related audio.) In telling the travails of Fass and WBAI, Fisher tells the story of radio and mass media generally:

WBAI, like radio stations everywhere, now plays a diminished role in the popular imagination… If anyone is creating new communities through radio, it’s happening in broadcasts targeted at ethnic minorities, on podcasts and on music blogs on the Internet—all driven by people who, like Fass, feel compelled to reach out beyond their circle of friends in order to share their music and politics. New technologies force old media to specialize, and at WBAI, as in much of radio, that situation has created a long, bitter battle over just how narrowly it can define its audience without becoming irrelevant.

Fass echoes a notion I’ve heard from various quarters.: NPR, he says, “gets on my nerves because it’s so unspontaneous. You have the feeling that if someone giggles there’s a management conference on whether to edit it out.”

Fass also identifies a worthy goal for local radio stations: “Maybe, he said, radio’s future in this new media landscape is to create connections among listeners who spend their days in disparate niche communities.”

Fisher’s comments on WBAI are applicable to Pacifica, and perhaps to alternative media overall. The station is, he writes, “consume[d]” by “factionalism” and “has become a Balkanized schedule of shows…Some staffers at WBAI today don’t relate to Fass’s notion that truth is served by allowing any and all views to float over the airwaves. The various ethnic and political factions at the station each want to present their own truth. What listeners hear is a cacophony of righteous voices, often turned inward against others at the station.”

Though I haven’t finished it yet, Ken Auletta has an intersting look at the transformed Lou Dobbs. More revealing, so far, are dual stories on Dobbs last month by On The Media’s Bob Garfield. Garfield interviewed Andrea Batista Schlesinger of the Drum Major Institute after about her recent appearance being on Dobbs’s show to talk about one of Dobbs favority subject, immigration. (I wonder if Dobbs’s treatment of Batista Schlesinger and other ideological oppenents differs from from the reception given conservatives on Pacifica or other, more influential, liberal media outlets.) From the transcript of Garfield’s interview with Batista Schlesinger:

ANDREA BATISTA SCHLESINGER:he was not interested in actually hearing what I had to say. He was interested in explaining what he had to say as if it were the most commonsense thing that everybody would agree upon. I thought I was going on that show to have a serious conversation that, you know, weighed the pros and the cons of immigration policies that are on the table. Instead, I was a foil for a lecture .. It wasn’t a conversation…[T]here was a lesson learned for me. The reason that I’m obsessed with Lou instead of hating him is because there are very few media outlets that will talk about all of these things in the way that people actually experience them.

So, you know, people watching Lou’s show don’t think, you know, today is health care day for me. Today is an education policy day for me. Today is, you know, tax cuts for me. They think about their overall condition, because their difficulty paying their gas bills is related to their tax policy and their property taxes for their home, which is related to the money that they’re spending sending their kids to college, which is related to the fact that they’re not secure any longer about their retirement.

So they experience things as an overall feeling of anxiety. And Lou speaks directly to that anxiety.

BOB GARFIELD: Well, but isn’t there a word for that? On the one hand, you could say it’s sensitive, but isn’t it also demagoguery?

ANDREA BATISTA SCHLESINGER: His behavior is demagoguery. His approach to linking all of these issues together, to speak truth to a condition that people are feeling in a way that will resonate with them, is important. I don’t think that’s demagoguery. I think that’s smart. We have to look at how all of these issues connect, and he does.


3 thoughts on “Mass Media’s Future: Demagoguery or “Creating Connections?”

  1. There’s an art to being a good demagogue. It’s not a simple job. After all, there’s plenty of competition. Quite a lot of it is indeed resonating with the target audience, channeling their fears and frustrations. I wouldn’t call it “speak a truth” though – often it’s very much speaking a lie they want to believe is a truth.

    But demagoguery sure pays better than speaking truth 😦

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