Saturday, February 9, 2008

Beyond Debate: Hillary Should Thank Rush

If you're heading out to an Evergreen State caucus later today, consider how newstalk radio may have helped you sharpen the debating skills you'll need to sway fellow Washingtonians from supporting Barack Obama or Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Of the numerous advantages radio enjoys over its more ballyhooed sister-medium television, its primacy of caller discussion is one of the three greatest (stay tuned to Radioactive Seattle for essays soon delineating the other two).

Sure, a few TV shows have call-in segments, but they're always used only sparingly, and anyway seldom for anything more than giveaways or mere questions to guests. Non-commercial C-SPAN provides occasional open-line segments allowing viewers to make a case for whatever their passion, political or societal. And on the callers' end, the results there can be as unexpected and even trenchant as would occur from time to time during Open Lines for Open Minds on my KIRO broadcasts. But hosts at all C-SPAN networks never veer from Brian Lamb's apparent ironclad policy that they remain steadfastly neutral with callers, and debate by definition is never one-sided.

No, across the various broadcast news media, bona fide caller debate pretty much remains the exclusive domain of talk radio. And only in the commercial newstalk genre do callers routinely engage in rhetorical exchange with any real substance.

And while some newstalk shows have formats that exclude caller input, any good host will at least vigorously challenge guests on behalf of the listeners. But the best programs are usually ones that put callers in the center of the arena. Anyone who participates will find their debating skills inevitably honed, moreso if the host (like, say, KIRO's Dave Ross or KVI's John Carlson) is fair-minded and skilled at helping callers frame their arguments.

Alas, some shows have formats which stack things against callers in one way or another, almost guaranteeing that the host gets the upper hand on nearly every listener contribution (syndicated conservative firebrand Michael Savage may be the worst offender here). So call-in radio is anything but always a level playing field, but at least you're able to get into the game.

But probably few listeners notice how the newstalk format also even bolsters reasoning skills of those in the audience who never call in. That is, just hearing all manner of perspectives on various issues large and small inevitably nudges a mind into better fact organization and value sorting. A more thorough and nuanced command of political issues is but one of the beneficial consequential effects.

Like other radio yakkers, I lamented for many years to audiences the devolution of our presidential selection system since the 1950s. Maybe it's the same general old-school impulse that has made me emulate the Golden Age of Radio in my broadcasts (or perhaps it's just the arbitrariness and endlessness of our electoral process nowdays), but I actually long for the days of smoke-filled rooms at the national conventions. That's when the parties still controlled who would serve as their standardbearers toward the White House, and managed to finalize decisions on him, his running mate and a platform all in less than a single week, if not a single ballot.

But now we're stuck with Iowa and push-polling and tiers of handlers and round-the-clock press coverage and all the attenuated rest. Yet there's still at least one charm in this jumble, and it's in the caucus format. These unusual events require a lot of face-to-face talk (at least under the Democrats' rules), and much of it is substantive debate.

What people say about candidates is usually more interesting than anything the candidates say themselves on the hustings, and here's one place where actual ballot-box results ride on how effectively such talk is presented. Unlike a primary, where you represent but your own solitary vote (and you do so silently in the privacy of a booth anyway), in a caucus you can also add as many additional votes for your guy or gal as your argument persuades.

Vigorous debate, whether over our kitchen tables amongst our loved ones or amid strangers at a bus stop, always tones the mind, and that's always a good thing. But these caucus encounters also actually steer the society in their small way.

So go make your best case for Obama or Rodham Clinton today--but also thank newstalk radio. Not merely for the role it plays in our democracy, but also for enhancing, if just a bit, our collective reasoning.


No comments: