“An Amazing Thing”

Memo to Laslo Boyd:

Put down the matches and step away from the straw man.

When ever Gazette columnist Laslo Boyd turns to the subject of conservatives or conservatism, my internal BS detector sounds an alarm for the imminent burning of straw men.

Boyd’s latest column, a profile of sorts on my friend Ron Smith, set the alarm screaming.

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Let me start by acknowledging that I’m not a big fan of talk radio. In fact, I rarely listen and have usually turned down invitations to be on after one of my columns. But, it’s clear that talk radio — particularly the conservative version —has a following and impacts the political debate in Maryland and the nation.

With the goal of understanding the phenomenon better, I recently spent part of an afternoon with Ron Smith, host of a popular talk show on WBAL in Baltimore. Actually, Smith is more than popular. His name is practically synonymous with talk radio in that market, having been on the air for 25 years as of this coming August…

Smith credits Rush Limbaugh with inventing the modern form of talk radio by demonstrating that politics could draw large audiences. Of course, entertainment has to be part of the package, and any radio host has to be enthusiastic and have a rapport with his audience.

Still, despite the homage to Rush Limbaugh and the anti-government slant of much of what Smith discusses and his callers are eager to endorse, I came away from my afternoon thinking that Smith doesn’t neatly fit into the category of a right wing ideologue. One very specific example of his sometimes unpredictable perspective was his early opposition to the war in Iraq, which, Smith says, cost him 30 percent of his audience for a time…

If I listened regularly to the “Ron Smith Show,” I’m pretty sure I would disagree with him on many issues. And I wouldn’t want to debate him because he is so skilled at what he does. But I have to give him credit for being more thoughtful and complicated than the image I had started with.

None of that experience, however, changes any of my views about Rush Limbaugh and my willingness to criticize his irresponsible rants. Having spent time with Ron Smith, I know that he’s no Rush Limbaugh. I hope he will forgive me for revealing that to his listeners.

Ron Smith is no Rush Limbaugh? Really I had no idea. That Boyd feels he needs to reveal that obvious fact to Ron’s listeners says a great deal about his condescension toward consumers of talk radio.

Sadly this all too predicable.
Boyd is merely aping the same liberal tropes about conservative talk radio that the shrieking progressive harpies wailed when WYPR canned Marc Steiner early last year. From a Baltimore Sun commentary (locked in the Sun archives) I wrote on the issue:

The fact is, conservative talk radio is not a monolithic agreement factory full of Rush Limbaugh’s “ditto-heads” repeating what he tells them to think. John McCain’s decisive win in the Maryland presidential primary proves that point; though Mr. Limbaugh has been very critical of the senator, 52 percent of voters identified as frequent talk radio listeners voted for Mr. McCain.

Confounding another liberal trope are the disagreements among conservative talk show hosts. Ron Smith and Bruce Elliott at WBAL hold diametrically opposing views on the Iraq war. Before Mr. McCain became the presumptive Republican nominee, Salem Radio personalities Hugh Hewitt and Michael Medved were at odds over the nomination, reflecting movement conservatism’s row with the Republican establishment. Mr. Hewitt supported Mitt Romney, while Mr. Medved defended Mr. McCain’s conservative bona fides.

Nor is conservative talk radio an uncritical shill for the Republican Party. National and local conservative talk shows have castigated the Bush administration on amnesty for illegal immigrants and rampant government spending.

Furthermore, conservative talk radio welcomes opposing points of view. Dennis Prager debated liberal historian Howard Zinn on his show. Ron Smith regularly welcomes progressives Allan Lichtman and U.S. Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin. There is disagreement, to be sure, but contrary to The Sun’s reporting, a cacophony of “shrill voices” it is not.

It is, as Ron would say, “an amazing thing,” how many liberal critics of conservative talk radio find themselves stunned when they realize that the medium is not an echo chamber of Rush Limbaugh-ditto heads agreeing with one another.

Then again, if the word conservative had any meaning for Boyd, other than what he finds undesirable, he would have already known that.

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