Wednesday, November 12, 2008

In Fact, Compared to Rush, NOBODY Hears Medved !

As a lifelong commercial newstalk radio aficionado--and one even so fortunate as to also have been a longtime professional practitioner of this favorite media genre of mine--I am of course eternally grateful to Michael Medved. That's because each weekday he delivers Americans the second-most-intellectually-nourishing program in all of national radio syndication. (It's no mean feat being bested only by the EIB Network, after all.) But Medved still should be more factually scrupulous.

This afternoon's edition of Medved's monthly Conspiracy Day broadcast--always impishly scheduled near the full moon--still has several minutes remaining, but it's already been been undermined by several factual mistakes avered by the host. For instance, a good portion of D.B. Cooper's ill-gotten money was recovered. And Presley's televised concert from Hawaii was in 1973, not the more celebrated Elvis year of 1969. And the United States still has a Secretary of the Navy.

Yeah, I know, I know--everyone makes mistakes. So why not just let Medved slide on the occasional misstatement, you might reasonably wonder, especially given that decidedly inferior conservative shows like Glenn Beck's and Michael Savage's are far less factually-intact than Medved routinely proves himself to be on-air.

True, for every single factual miscue, large or small, that the self-described "Cultural Crusader" Medved commits, that clown Beck gets at least three times as many names or dates or locations wrong [see "Beck's Ego Eclipses Fact", archived 2/20/2008], whereas the demagogue Savage probably averages five if not six times as many, so ill-informed that self-indulgent blowhard is. [see "Savage Sure Is No Einstein", archived 5/13/2008] But any astute Beck or Savage listeners not blinded by ideology probably expect that, given how superficially and pseudo-intellectually each approaches darned near every subject I've ever heard either verbally explore. That is, listeners have ample reason to realize the accuracy bar is set way lower on the reckless Beck and Savage broadcasts than it is over at the responsible Medved show.

It isn't that factual errors are inexcuseble; indeed, they're downright inevitable, at least when working in a live format. But one can, through meticulous word choice, ensure they slip through only minimally. Take the trouble to invariably insert qualifiers which circumscribe that portion of what you know from what you're less certain about on a given subject, and you always skate clear of thin ice. What Medved should have said regarding that infamous Thanksgiving weekend skyjacking from SeaTac in 1971 is, "They never found the guy or his remains, and I don't remember hearing they ever came up with any of the money..." or some other such phraseology which ensured his statement was true.

This was an enormous error--so large that I won't be surprised to see Medved open his show tomorrow with a correction. Not only did authorities eventually recover much of the $200,000 ransom, but last year there were numerous published stories about how the FBI finally returned the tattered $20 bills stumbled onto by a 10-year-old youngster on a Columbia River family picnic in 1980, which the lucky fellow has recently been selling, legally, to collectors via Ebay.

The Presley mistake wasn't egregious, but still notable, for the concert cited wasn't just another forgettable tour stop for him and the Memphis Mafia; it was a landmark event in rock history. Not because of his performance, mind you, for that particular show was like all of Presley's post-1968 stagework, i.e., littered with sterile or just careless phrasing which thoroughly obscured his prodigious talent, and thus in the end artistically worthless. But all that jumpsuit silliness notwithstanding, Aloha from Hawaii turned out to be culturally significant anyway, merely because of the technology it ushered in.

Hawaii came up because a Conspiracy Day caller was straining the credulity of Medved's audience by confiding how he's convinced all those Presley's-alive theorists are right. Why? Because he happened to be hanging poolside somewhere on Oahu a decade ago when approached by a graying, sunglasses-shrouded stranger whom he thought resembled the late icon. Now, in his account, the guy behind the shades didn't claim to be Presley, nor was Medved's intrepid caller prompted back then to investigate the question. He's just since kinda concluded that it, well, must have been The King! (Could be! And you know, I once met a guy in a Chicago bar in 1999, and I think he might have been Sinatra! Or Caruso. Well, one or the other, anyway.)

Oh well, that's the way it goes with far too many of the earnest-but-dubious ideas Medved attracts each Conspiracy Day. Medved was, as is his wont, humoring this caller's fantasy when he mused, "Let's see, I know he did that Hawaii concert in 1969..." Yes, Michael, '69 was a huge year for Presley, but that's because of the annual extended-engagements he commenced that summer in the Las Vegas International Hotel's showroom--the only venue he would ever play in Sin City after 1956, incidentally.

The Aloha From Hawaii monstrosity four years later--typically over-produced and thus drained of all artistry under the smothering supervision of Colonel Tom Parker--may have been musically a joke, but it was a groundbreaker. It was the first satellite-distributed popular music concert broadcast live globally, and thus was the forerunner of Live Aid a dozen years hence, which was musically important. Few people remember it was staged in the middle of the night, Honolulu time, on Sunday morning, January 14th, so that European and Asian audiences could be targeted. And just about no one recalls how that also happened to be the Sunday when, hours later at the Los Angeles Coliseum, the Dolphins would complete the only perfect season in NFL history by outlasting the Redskins in Super Bowl VII.

Medved even got wrong the almost-universally-known fact of the year of Presley's demise. He had it as 1979, before being quickly corrected by his caller. Egad, one of the most publicized accouncements of the 20th Century was that he expired upstairs at Graceland sometime in the early morning hours of Tuesday, August 16, 1977. And so blanketing was the ensuing media coverage that week that few now recall that another mega-celebrity, Groucho Marx, died the day following Presley's Thursday funeral in Memphis, which I attended with a couple of Dylanologist pals who drove down from St. Louis with me.

Medved this afternoon also, amid a discussion of lingering theories claiming James Forrestal's 1949 suicide plunge from the 16th story of the Bethesda Naval Hospital wasn't intentional, declared that "we used to have" Secretaries of the Navy, the position from which the clinically-depressed Forrestal had been famously fired. What Medved said was
true, but only technically: indeed we did have them prior to Truman's postwar reorganization of our military, along with Secretaries of the Army and Secretaries of War.

But that latter office morphed into the Secretary of Defense in 1947 (just as the War Department changed its name if not its mission before moving into its new digs, The Pentagon). Whereas we never stopped having service Secretaries, adding one as well for the new Department of the Air Force in 1947. Medved should know that, if for no other reason than the fact that John Lehman, Reagan's terrific Secretary of the Navy, has guested on Medved's show at least twice.

Had Medved been writing, rather than broadcasting, regarding these matters, he'd likely have ensured his submitted copy caught these mistakes (or at least employed a fact-checker to do the research for him, as national pundits usually do). But I'm proud that never during my 19-year call-in hosting career did I invoke the lame radio-is-done-in-real-time defense to excuse my factual errancy, however minor. And neither should Medved or competing broadcasters.

A related phenomenon is how Medved and his sole more-intellectually-gifted colleague Limbaugh each display a terrible habit which degrades their generally-solid credibility: they both employ preposterous hyperbole. Now, most of the exaggerations emerging from Limbaugh's lips are for comedic effect, granted, but that's only rarely so with Medved.

Maybe the most blatant example is how each dismisses Face the Nation. Over the years and through a cascade of capable hosts, that broadcast has remained as creditable and credible, if less newsbreaking, as This Week on ABC or NBC's Meet the Press, post -Russert at least. But to Medved and Limbaugh, "nobody watches it"--a phrase I've heard each utter verbatim regarding the venerable Sunday morning interview series.

What they're referring to is that the decades-old CBS show for many years now has drawn fewer than half the viewers its buzz-generating competition has. Medved often contemptuously says the same thing about his onetime network PBS, as well as NPR, when in actuality what he's arguing is that public TV and radio audiences are--generally, but hardly always--dwarfed by those of commercial broadcasts.

This also comes into play in when Medved cloyingly factors box office into his discussions of film. Citizen Kane, to pick a celebrated example, stands as a stunningly great picture or a profoundly lousy one, or anywhere in between, based exclusively on what the viewer sees over a couple hours, not on how many viewers happened to see it over a couple weeks, or decades.

Obviously, this judge-work-on-its-own-merits principle applies also to radio and every other creative endeavor. Yet I have little doubt that, whatever charms of my offbeat broadcast style Medved might have noticed or even valued, behind my back he probably always at least mentally dismissed my KIRO efforts.

That's because listeners throughout the Puget Sound region tuned into The Bryan Styble Program during the wee hours, and thus my principled if idiosyncratic broadcast reached but a fraction of those hearing even the less prominent daytime local shows, to say nothing of the vast national reach provided by Medved's syndicator. I hope it doesn't seem snarky much less embittered for me to point out that, though it may be destined to perpetually remain in the ratings shadows of its ABC and NBC counterparts, the viewership of Face the Nation nonetheless averages better than twice the number of Medved listeners weekly, a figure of which my onetime fellow Entercom Broadcasting/Seattle host is justly proud.

For the record, through all of my numerous private, off-air conversations with Medved since we first met during a 2003 Los Angeles talk radio confab, he's generally been respectful and sometimes maybe even admiring of my work. But his on-air tendency to dismiss films or broadcasts because "nobody" supposedly sees or hears them suggests that he ultimately considers me, and every non-primetime call-in host, a non-player on the newstalk radio field.

A newstalk radio non-player is, of course, precisely what I am nowadays--and likely forevermore. Anyone reading this blog's mission statement is aware I've been relegated to listener--and caller, of course--status. That's been the case ever since the Mormon regime that in early 2007 bought KIRO cancelled my 2005-2008 late-night/overnight run nine months ago.

But whilst I was privileged to professionally play on that field over the years at various stations in various markets from huge to tiny starting in California in 1989, I always remained mindful of the solemn duty every broadcaster shoulders to accurately marshall information for his audience. And all along I upheld the sacred, if only implied, trust the audience has in a host; listeners might not possess a firm grasp on factual detail themselves, but I understood how they still rightfully expected that of anyone entrusted with the microphone. And I learned early on how most of the audience understandably but naively and quite erroneously presumes that every talk host is actually concerned about the factual integrity of his or her words.

Now, of course a
few do apparently care every bit much as I always did; Dave Ross, Thom Hartmann, Bill O'Reilly and Mark Davis spring instantly to mind. But most of the others, rather than owning up to any slipshod regard for the verifiable while they're focussing on the arguable, instead usually respond whenever so challenged that anyone noting such things is just mired in insignificant detail. (Need I quote any of David Boze's high-handed responses to my various respectful if incisive calls into his often estimable program?)

Hearing how so many hosts so dismissively handle error-highlighting callers, it becomes clear that it's mere lip service when they reflexively and so disingenuously insist corrections are always welcome on the phone bank or in the e-mailbox. The ugly truth is most are far less interested in getting the details right than they are in drawing--or dragging, in the cases of Beck and Savage--the audience nearer a particular line of political thinking. Which may rank as the most important of the several reasons why I've been iconoclastically arguing for decades that the principal aim of an intellectually-honest newstalk radio show should never be to sway votes.

That's not to say a host oughtn't voice and defend political views on the air, of course; that would be next to impossible on any issues-oriented show anyway. But it's an immense imposition on the listener, and all but unforgivable, whenever that's the point of the show, as is now increasingly the fashion.

Limbaugh's sterling broadcasting instincts ensure his amazing program, as ideological as any in mainstream newstalk radio, without exception honors this subtle but vital distinction. But the same can't, alas, be said of The Michael Medved Show. Reflective of this is how, when fielding correcting calls, Limbaugh generally seems appreciative, while Medved often sounds less grateful than irritated after some alert caller catches his formidable memory misremembering something.

But in newstalk radio, even minor uncorrected mistakes can add up, over time, to major credibility erosion. In fact.

BRYAN STYBLE/somewhere

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