I am not completely blameless in the widening of the rift. During the election campaign I felt sincerely that John Kerry would be a disaster for the country in time of war, and I expressed as much. Though I did try to be fair-criticizing George Bush on many occasions for what I felt was fear-mongering on the part of his campaign-I know I came off more than a bit emphatic about Kerry being the wrong man at the wrong time. Still, I praised him for his service to his country in Vietnam. But some of my conservative radio colleagues ranted so much against Kerry that you'd think he was the spawn of the devil rather than a duly elected U.S. senator. (But let's be fair. It's not just some conservative talk radio hosts who can pull out the howitzer of hate. The recent crop of liberal radio hosts can spew some pretty nasty venom as well.)
This does not mean that conservative or liberal radio hosts are bad people. The fact is we're only trying to get our point across to an invisible-and distractible-audience that can turn the dial at any time. What nobody but talk radio hosts understand is how the medium itself pulls you toward making strong, emphatic, even extreme statements. As a host you constantly feel that if you just speak without being strongly opinionated, then you're more likely to induce a coma than a call-in. You know that sounding like NPR is the kiss of death, and you sometimes overcompensate by putting more chili pepper on your expression than you might otherwise do.
If calling George Bush a doofus is something that all the other liberal hosts are doing, you have to up the ante and toss in that he's an unrepentant murderer as well, in order to stand out. Pointing out that John Kerry is a flip-flopper is pretty much a conservative cliché. So you feel the need to add that he's a '60s-style, America-hating, French-speaking hippie bum. Now you've got listeners!
There are many talk radio hosts who simply don't want to descend into the gutter of hatred on the air. But we quickly encounter a powerful problem-if we don't spew poisonous invective and bile at the other side, there is always another host who will. And the audience may gravitate to the host with the harsher, more sensationalist language. And then you feel the pressure to use it as well, just so that you don't lose your audience to a more irresponsible host.
I have felt this pressure many times. I am a firm believer, for example, in the inviolate need for a two-party state. I am not a Democrat-indeed, at this point in time, there is not a lot they represent that would cause me to vote for them. But I absolutely believe that we need a flourishing Democratic party. When I hear conservative talk-radio hosts going off about how the Democrats are a threat to the United States, and what a blessing it is that they've been pulverized in the most recent election, I am left with a quandary. Do I get on the air and talk about how necessary they are as a functioning opposition? The host down the dial is calling for them to be drawn and quartered. Isn't that more interesting? And isn't it going to cause me to sound more vitriolic about the opposition than I otherwise might?
It's the old problem of "all the other kids are doing it."
The same is true of Talk Radio. The problem with individual hosts deciding that they don't want to call John Kerry a gigolo or George W. Bush a moron is that someone else will. And then you lose your listeners to the guy who gives the audience a cheap thrill.
Until Talk Radio moves forward as an industry to collectively get hatred off the airwaves, individual hosts need to be morally courageous and do the right thing-whether or not others follow, or ratings suffer. Change comes through a few brave souls taking risks and acting as a model to the rest of the world. And while I fiercely want to succeed on the air, I am committing myself to succeed by offering insight, passion, and honest opinions rather than hatred, venom, and prejudice. Broadcasting is an honorable profession that should not be undermined-and should not undermine the country-by becoming a medium of unnecessary division.
Of course, being a syndicated radio host who is also a rabbi gives me an even greater obligation to ennoble the airwaves. It's a lot harder than you think, and I often feel the tug of these two titles pulling me in different directions. Rabbis are traditionally comforters and nurturers. Talk radio hosts are there to rile people up. I have had to redefine in my own mind what it means to be a rabbi in the talk-radio industry in order to bridge that chasm, and what I have come up with is using radio as a unique opportunity to bring moral values to audiences. Making moral values entertaining, without becoming crude, is a terrific challenge that I struggle with every day. But it does put me in a unique position, perhaps, to serve as a catalyst for the healing that must take place in this very important medium.
The healing may already have started. At the political conventions, both of which I attended, Talk Radio hosts who would otherwise despise each other met and discovered that they weren't such ogres after all. And when I was a guest on Janeane Garofalo's show, we had a tough but fun on-air exchange and emerged as friends. The same was true of virtually every other liberal media personality I met at the convention, including Al Franken who appeared on my show.
So Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Michael Savage, Al Franken, Janeane Garofalo-it's time for all of us to recommit ourselves to offering more light than heat, more passion than anger, more insight than invective. You're all good people, and I trust therefore you're all with me.