Talk radio vs. thought police

(Denver Post, May 24) Memorial Day, honoring America’s war dead, originated in 1868 after the horrific bloodbath that saved the Union and freed the African race. From Sumter to Appomattox, half a million whites lost their lives so that 4 million blacks might have their liberty.What else was bought with all that blood? Freedom of thought and speech and assembly, for one thing. In defeating the slave power, Americans also defeated the thought police who had tried to criminalize black literacy and silence abolitionist voices. The First Amendment was reaffirmed with passage of the Civil War amendments.

Unfortunately the tyrannous impulse never dies. It must be constantly fought. There are always those who prefer censorship to debate. Sometimes they use labels. Criticize Obama and you’re a racist. Warn about illegal immigration and you’re a bigot. Sometimes they use laws. Diana DeGette muzzled free speech outside abortion clinics. Now the FCC has talk radio in its sights.

But this is not a policy piece about the Fairness Doctrine and all its sneaky surrogates, community content, minority ownership rules, the performance tax, or whatever else. Rather it’s a Memorial Day meditation on the attitudes and habits that keep a free society free.

First consider how “talk radio” became a sneer label in itself, when we should be cherishing it as today’s successor to the Committees of Correspondence from 1775. It’s a glorious thing, this unruly community of a host with his listeners, callers, guests, and sponsors, sounding off about what’s wrong and how to fix it. What a wimpout for liberals, uncompetitive in the medium, to deem it unfit company, infra dig.

Rush Limbaugh can settle his own score with Colin Powell; indeed the extra notoriety is money in the bank for El Rushbo. I’m more interested in local radio’s contribution to the open process of self-government here in Colorado. We’ve had one daily paper fold and another on the watch list. We’re getting the blue snow job from billionaires Tim Gill and George Soros. We need more ferment, not less, on the airwaves.

All Coloradans are better off when Peter Boyles of KHOW calls in the cavalry for that soldier with the impounded car, or when Mike Rosen of KOA champions that teen with the America-hating teacher. It’s good for the big, arrogant, impersonal institutions to get taken down a peg. (And if my show from the right on 710 and Jay Marvin’s from the left on 760 don’t often break news, we too enrich the free-speech mix.)

As for the attitudes that sustain a free society, Thomas Krannawitter of the Claremont Institute cites four indispensable ones. His checklist for citizens includes self-assertion to resist despotism, self-restraint for civil order, self-reliance to prevent dependency, and civic knowledge to unlock participation. I’ll argue the donnybrook that is talk radio stimulates all four.

“Your views count, you have a voice, you can make a difference, and if you don’t nobody will.” That’s our encouragement to the oft-ignored Jim and Jane Average from every broadcaster who sits down to the microphone, opens the phones, and dives into the issues. The packaging differs widely, from the combative Jon Caldara to the calming Dan Caplis, but the empowering message is consistent. Where’s the downside?

Unless you fear the messiness of democracy, there is none. Talk radio undeniably broadens civic knowledge. It fosters self-assertive, self-reliant individualism. Its moral fervor teaches self-restraint. Think of it as citizenship boot camp.

Web activism is potent, but talk radio with the spoken word and hearing ear in real time is even more so. Sen. Udall, Rep. Markey, Gov. Ritter, Mayor Hickenlooper, Benson of CU and Kiley of Coors may not return YOUR call, but when 850 the Blowtorch speaks, they listen. Politicos naturally want to turn down the volume. We shouldn’t let them.