Cokie & Steven V. Roberts: When facts become casualties
Rep. Mike Rogers, the Michigan Republican who heads the House Intelligence Committee, recently announced he's quitting his job to host a radio talk show.
Sure, he will make a lot more money in the private sector and leave a dismally dysfunctional institution that is now viewed favorably by only a handful of Americans. And since House Republicans foolishly limit committee chairmen to six-year terms, Rogers would have to yield his powerful post in two years anyway.
Still, it's shocking -- and revealing -- when a senior lawmaker thinks he can wield more influence running a radio show than a major Congressional committee. In an interview with the Washington Post, Rogers boasted about the "very large national platform" he would acquire "to talk to people in their cars and living rooms and homes every single night." His goal is to "move the needle on the 2016 elections and the conversation ... about America's future."
In one sense, Rogers is well-qualified for his new gig. He appeared on major Sunday talk shows 26 times last year and another eight times already this year -- more than any other political figure.
But in another sense, Rogers might be too reasonable or thoughtful for a medium dominated by devoted ideologues who divide the world into black and white, us and them. Talk radio is the functional equivalent of pro wrestling, just without the capes and masks: a pre-scripted morality play where everyone knows the outline and the outcome. And cheers anyway.
Speaking on WJR in Detroit, Rogers criticized his future talk radio colleagues as being too negative and failing to offer solutions to pressing problems. "You have to move the ball forward," he said. "That voice is missing."
Yes it is. Rogers, for example, supports a bold American role in the world and sharply criticizes Republicans like Sen. Rand Paul who favor a more isolationist approach. In the Post interview, he derided "celebrity politicians" who refuse to engage in "substantive dialogue" or recognize reality. "Some of the biggest casualties in all that have been facts," he said.
One case of "facts" becoming "casualties" is the right-wing obsession with the tragic death of three Americans in Benghazi, Libya. Rogers' critics say he has not pursued the issue vigorously enough, but the chairman insists he's conducted "a very aggressive fact-based investigation." What he won't do is bow to "conspiracy theorists who wanted us to find conspiracy A, B and C."
That approach elicits praise from committee Democrats like Luis Gutierrez of Illinois, who called Rogers "a voice for moderation and consensus building." Moderation? Consensus building? On talk radio? Is the man mad?
The medium thrives on exactly the opposite approach. Extremism, not moderation. Polarization, not consensus building. Hosts and listeners inhabit a vast echo chamber where both groups sing at top volume from the same sacred hymnal.
As media critic David Carr of the New York Times observes, "The polarized political map is now accompanied by a media ecosystem that is equally gerrymandered into districts of self-reinforcing discourse."
He cites a recent Pew survey: 78 percent of Sean Hannity's listeners call themselves conservatives and only 5 percent are liberals; Rush Limbaugh's followers are almost as orthodox: 71 percent on the right, 9 percent on the left.
Liberals have their own echo chamber, but aren't as rigid or influential. Rachel Maddow's modest audience on MSNBC breaks down as 57 percent liberal, 31 percent moderate and 7 percent conservative.
This "media ecosystem" is bad for democracy. Voters are not challenged in their assumptions or convictions. Candidates are driven to extremes to appease the Radio Ranters -- see Mitt Romney's lurch rightward in the GOP primaries. When facts become casualties, consensus becomes impossible.
As Carr puts it: "The village common -- you know, the place where we all meet to discuss our problems, relying on the same set of facts -- has shrunk to the size of a postage stamp, surrounded by the huge gated communities of like minds who never venture into the great beyond."
Talk radio, and its close cousin, cable TV, are not the only culprits here. In the world of social media, with a vast menu of tweets and blog posts to choose from, it's all too easy for individuals to block out dissent and listen only to preachers who pander to their existing fears and feelings.
If Mike Rogers can introduce a cleansing voice of "moderation and consensus building" into the polluted stream of talk radio, good for him. But don't bet on it.
Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at email@example.com.