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Targeting the Talkers

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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 7, 2009; 11:18 AM

There are no fatter targets for the left than the talk-show titans of the right.

With Bush back in Texas, Cheney writing his memoirs and Palin going rogue on her forthcoming book tour, no one seems to get the liberal juices flowing like Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh (cover of Newsweek) and Glenn Beck (cover of Time).

They are the ones who rile up Obama supporters with their relentless attacks. They are professional provocateurs who draw more attention than the GOP's leaders in Congress or the potential 2012 contenders (and if Mike Huckabee didn't have a Fox show, he'd get even less). They are depicted, fairly or unfairly, as the bellowers-in-chief of a conservative noise machine.

My view is that they control no votes, no factions, no military units, but they do have powerful microphones. Whatever influence wielded by Beck and Hannity and Limbaugh (or by liberal commentators on the other side) stems from their ideas and their talents as infotainers. If they peddle misinformation and exaggerations, that can be neutralized by others in the media marketplace. Nearly everyone dismissed Beck's charge that the president is a racist, but the ACORN videos he and Hannity trumpeted on Fox proved to be a legitimate story.

The latest twist is that a few voices on the right are now openly challenging the talkmeisters. First it was David Frum, and now David Brooks has joined the fray:

"It is a story of remarkable volume and utter weakness. It is the story of media mavens who claim to represent a hidden majority but who in fact represent a mere niche -- even in the Republican Party. It is a story as old as 'The Wizard of Oz,' of grand illusions and small men behind the curtain. . . .

"Over the years, I have asked many politicians what happens when Limbaugh and his colleagues attack. The story is always the same. Hundreds of calls come in. The receptionists are miserable. But the numbers back home do not move. There is no effect on the favorability rating or the re-election prospects. In the media world, he is a giant. In the real world, he's not.

"But this is not merely a story of weakness. It is a story of resilience. For no matter how often their hollowness is exposed, the jocks still reweave the myth of their own power. They still ride the airwaves claiming to speak for millions. They still confuse listeners with voters. And they are aided in this endeavor by their enablers. They are enabled by cynical Democrats, who love to claim that Rush Limbaugh controls the G.O.P. They are enabled by lazy pundits who find it easier to argue with showmen than with people whose opinions are based on knowledge. They are enabled by the slightly educated snobs who believe that Glenn Beck really is the voice of Middle America.

"So the myth returns. Just months after the election and the humiliation, everyone is again convinced that Limbaugh, Beck, Hannity and the rest possess real power. And the saddest thing is that even Republican politicians come to believe it. They mistake media for reality. They pre-emptively surrender to armies that don't exist."

But their influence lies in influencing the debate, not in turning out votes. The Nation's Ari Melber picks up the point:

"Even the proudest pundits would shrink from the notion that they swing elections. (Rush Limbaugh is probably the only exception.) Most members of the activist conservative media machine do not define their success by electoral results. And that is one reason they look so successful right now. . . .

"Glenn Beck has a long list of concerns about the country's direction. Yet since Obama's election, his most successful efforts have focused on attacking members of the administration and (putative) allies. He is trying to stop Obama, not jump-start the mid-terms.


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© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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