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Columns

Fast ’12: The silent treatment

By
Opinions Editor
Thursday, February 17, 2011

Gov. Lincoln Chafee ’75 P’14 recently announced that Rhode Island state employees would be forbidden from speaking with talk radio hosts, arguing that public resources should not “support for-profit, ratings-driven programming.”

This ban infringes on the right to free speech for public sector workers and severs a link of communication between the state and the populace that is vital for taxpayers to know what the government is doing in their name. Furthermore, by painting all talk radio hosts with the same brush, Chafee is exhibiting the very type of thinking for which he intends to show disdain.

But the most obvious flaw in Chafee’s rationale is that in the United States, the vast majority of media are “ratings-driven.” In contrast with, say, Britain, where the publicly funded BBC’s domination of broadcasting is only starting to wane, American radio, television and newspapers — including The Herald — are reliant on a large audience to maintain revenue. After all, if any media outlet cannot reach viewers, then its advertising space becomes worthless.

Chafee also fails to comprehend that the state supports private enterprise every time it spends money on goods and services (see Keynesian economics). Given that the governor is in no hurry to cut spending to close the state’s budget gap (“Chafee ’75 P’14 delays agenda, loses confidence,” Feb. 15) and that his decree does not extend to forms of media other than talk radio, one can only speculate as to his true motives.

Fortunately, Chafee’s previous remarks regarding talk radio paint a telling picture. According to a Jan. 14 Providence Journal article, Chafee’s spokesman Michael Trainor opined that “talk radio tends to be divisive. Period.” Aside from Trainor’s amusing use of “period” to underscore a weak assertion, the new policy of radio silence does not reflect the tendency that Trainor describes.

Chafee’s one-size-fits-all proposal discounts the very existence of reasonable radio hosts in the very same moment that it rejects the existence of hysterical personalities on television or in print.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that my father is himself a talk radio host on WJBC in Bloomington, Ill. The juxtaposition of the incisive questions he has asked of such intellectuals as Niall Ferguson, Fareed Zakaria and John Meacham — if you don’t believe me, listen for yourself online — against Glenn Beck’s comparisons of everything under the sun to Hitler is all that is needed to demonstrate the wrong-headed nature of Chafee’s prejudice against talk radio as a format.

So does Chafee believe that he and his cadre are too enlightened to be heard on the same wavelengths as such thinkers? Highly unlikely. Rather, radio personalities that are a little off the deep end — Rush Limbaugh and Michael Medved immediately jump to mind — are by far the most salient, and sadly, it is on this basis that Chafee unfairly condemns hosts all over the Ocean State to the silent treatment.

Even if all talk radio anchors everywhere were raving lunatics, dictating that on-duty public employees only speak to certain approved journalists is a rejection of the idea that government officials are accountable to the citizenry, which includes even people who do assert on air that President Obama is Hitler, as well as their listeners.

Furthermore, given that talk radio is a format traditionally dominated by conservatives, Chafee is disproportionately hurting rightist commentators’ ability to cover Rhode Island’s political sphere as they see it. Ultimately, this is censorship, as Chafee denies conservative radio anchors the same access to information that their liberal counterparts in other media still possess.

The ban on state employees talking to radio hosts sets a dangerous precedent of government entitlement to refuse to respond to the concerns of certain sections of the populace that are selected on an arbitrary basis.

By making the state government more transparent, the information needed to demonstrate the hysterical ravings of Beck and other talk radio hosts to be false will be readily available. When the state denies information to those who seek it, then the rational assumption is that the state has something to hide. This mindset allows people to believe whatever they want without the slightest shred of evidence whatsoever.

If Chafee truly wants rationality to prevail, then he should spare no expense in reaching talk radio listeners, many of whom rely on radio as their primary source of political thought. By cutting such listeners off from vital information regarding the actions of the state, Chafee only hands them over to the very demagogues that he sought to impede.

Hunter Fast ’12 thinks that Chafee should implement a limit on the number of times that anchors can compare politicians to Hitler.

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