The rise of the right wing media

“If we amplify everything, we hear nothing.”

Jon Stewart’s parting shot on the Washington Mall in his Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear Saturday (see NOW’s on-the-scene report) may have been directed at right-wing American pundits poisoning the political discourse south of the border. (See the rise of the Tea Party)

But the advice could just as easily be directed at the dominant voices on right-wing talk radio in our very own city.

When mayor-elect Rob Ford thanked AM640 host John Oakley in his victory speech election night (Ford has had a weekly spot on Oakley’s show for years), the real power of talk radio was revealed. Ford’s base was cultivated and nurtured on the AM airwaves.

Tune in any one of the talk radio shows on the AM dial and there’s no escaping the conservative slant.

Whether it’s the latest questionable council expenditure or man bites dog offering, the daily diet, usually lifted from the tabloid fare in local papers, leaves little room for nuance. The bigger picture? Not on talk radio.

It’s not all lowest common denominator stuff, mind you. But the moral tone is more often than not cynical, aimed at whipping up the masses. The format is confrontational, not conversational. The picayune trumps the profound.

It’s partly the nature of talk radio to shock. Producers eager for ratings plumb the depths for tidbits sure to tantalize and enrage.

The hosts job more often than not is to ramp up the rhetoric, light up the phone lines. The more outrageous, the better. Their mission is not to report on the news, but offer comment. Often they speak as though they are experts on a subject, when clearly they are not. Still their influence is undeniable. When radio pundits speak, the public listens.

On talk radio, most hosts sell an American vision of Canada. Distrust of government is an ever increasing theme. Few politicians, if any, are viewed with any respect. Most are just wasting taxpayers’ money.

The growing predominance of right wing views on talk radio has already occurred in the print media in Canada.

The largest newspaper chains in the country, Sun Media and Canwest (sold to creditors in the spring but still under control of National Post CEO Paul Godfrey), espouse a decidedly right of centre political point of view.

Right here in Toronto, three of the four daily newspapers push a right wing perspective. Although the Star has been truer to its more small-l liberal leanings of late, for a while there, it too seemed caught up in the smaller-government-is-better-government fixation of its competitors (see daily attacks on David Miller).

In an atmosphere where the prevailing winds blow to the right of the political spectrum, even moderate voices get caught up in the cacophony to the point where there’s almost no distinguishing a mainstream, middle-of-the-road view, from a right-wing view. The latter becomes the new normal.

Right-wing think tanks like the Fraser Institute, with money from U.S. conservative foundations like the American Enterprise Institute, according to Media Transparency, help push the agenda in that regard. Is it a coincidence that one Mike Harris, architect of the Common Sense Revolution, and fellow of the Fraser Institute was at Ford’s victory party?

In the States, as in Canada, media mergers and concentration have narrowed the playing field of ideas. The danger is that the overwhelming rightist political perspective becomes so pervasive that independent voices are drowned out. Critical media is essential to an informed democracy. Sadly, our democracy is less informed than it was even a few short years ago. And seemingly headed the way of the U.S. thanks to the moral tone set by conservative forces.

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