Thursday, April 27, 2006

Jim Leach: Rush Limbaugh or Tyrone Shoelaces

I’ve been thinking about Jim Leach lately. Not in a way that should cause him to seek protection. Rather, in an I-still-think-I’m-in-grad-school-writing-communication-papers sort of way. So feel free to grade this post. I apologize for the length. Academia seems to breed long-windedness. At least it did in me.

Leach, as most of you know, is a talk radio host. And he’s a good one. I say this not as someone who is in lockstep with every opinion he puts forth, but as someone who recognizes what a good talk radio host is supposed to do. The job requires that the host be well informed, passionate, and have the ability to incite his listeners. If Leach's callers agree with him, he gives them a nice “ka-ching” to register his approval. If they disagree, the show becomes more entertaining. Talk radio is based on the notion that many people would rather hear a raucous din than a well-harmonized choir.

Leach operates by-and-large from the left. This means that he is more than willing to not only criticize the right, but also to ridicule and debase. He’s especially hard on the president and his administration. And that’s fine. He certainly has plenty of ammunition with which to work. Even if you don’t agree with Leach politically, you should recognize that it’s good to have someone to help balance out the conservative lean on talk radio.

There is, however, a rub.

Leach wears many hats at WMAY, in addition to his talk radio sombrero. He’s the news director, a reporter, and, when he’s reading those extended testimonials for one of the station’s sponsors, a celebrity endorser. But since this is radio, we can’t see what hat he is wearing when we hear his voice coming over the airwaves. This leads to some perception problems.

Let me say right here that in all of the years I’ve listened to Leach read the news, I don’t recall a single instance of a story being slanted towards a particular viewpoint. Therefore, I trust him as a reporter. But I can see how his many roles, especially that of opinionated talk show host, would cause some people to question his objectivity when delivering the news.

This is a problem because WMAY wants to be a trusted news source to the entire community. However, when the guy who bashed Republicans all morning goes on to report on a scandal involving Republicans that afternoon, some people will question if the story is airing because it is newsworthy, or simply because it delights the reporter/host. You can dismiss those with such concerns as wingnuts or suggest that they verify the validity of the story with other news sources, but that doesn’t serve the station well from either a journalism or business standpoint.

This doesn’t come down to Leach being a liberal or a Democrat. It’s that we know so much, and in no uncertain terms, about where he stands on the issues. Even when he strays from the party line, as he does against the position that capital punishment should be illegal except in the case of Wal-Mart, it is still problematic when stories on those subjects are in the news. This is why NBC would have never let Tom Brokaw moonlight as a talk radio host or endorse products, and one of the many reasons they wouldn’t have hired Rush Limbaugh to take Brokaw’s place in the anchor chair. Perception matters and the less we know about a journalist’s personal politics, the more we are going to pay attention to the story and not the person delivering it. Consider this: If NBC had hired conservative Mary Matalin to read the news, but secretly insisted that she only read stories written by her liberal husband James Carville, is there any doubt that NBC would still be accused of being a mouthpiece of the White House, despite the words actually coming out of Matalin’s mouth.

Of course NBC has an advantage over a mid-market radio station in that their reporters can just stick to reporting. Since in Leach WMAY has a guy who is qualified to be a reporter and is skilled at being a talk radio host, it makes economic sense for him to do both, and also, on occasion, read some ad copy, spin some records*, do everything but sell popcorn at halftime (even Tyrone Shoelaces didn’t do that.) Yet there is a downside, one that was apparent when Leach recently interviewed gubernatorial candidate, Judy Barr Topinka.

During the interview, Leach asked Topinka if she thought the president was taking the country in the right direction. Topinka proceeded to hem and haw all over the place and never gave a straight answer, despite Leach repeating the question two more times.** It certainly wasn’t Topinka’s finest moment, but it also drew criticism towards Leach. Some commenters on his blog and on Rich Miller’s blog felt that it was a partisan attempt to embarrass Topinka and that it did a disservice to voters. I don’t agree, but I can see how they might think that.

If it was Jim Leach the reporter asking the question, it’s a legitimate one. The Bush administration is backing Topinka’s campaign and voters have the right to know if she is aligned with the president’s vision for the country, of which Illinois is a part. However, if it was Leach the talk show host asking, then it can certainly be perceived as a brush back from a southpaw, meant to force Topinka into either revealing herself as a turncoat to her party’s leadership, or painting herself with the same evil-red tint that stains Bush. If you’re inclined to believe the latter, then it’s easy to misinterpret the relevance of that question.

As it turns out, the question didn’t result in anything worthwhile to the listener/voter. It did confirm that Topinka is a politician and as such will breakout into a clumsy tap dance when confronted with a question that she is unprepared or disinclined to answer. To be sure, that isn’t an admirable quality, but since it doesn’t differentiate her from her opponent or the majority of other politicians out there, it’s certainly nothing to hang your chad on.***

In the age of the Internet, it’s impossible for a reporter to keep all of her personal views from being revealed publicly. Even if a reporter has no opinions, a blogger will make them up and then use them to discredit her. But with Leach, there’s no need for exposing because he lets it all hang out. That makes objectivity an issue for him. Both in his ability to achieve it - which again, I think he does. And the listener’s ability to perceive it – which may not always be the case.

*Even though Jim Leach the blogger wears his love of ELO on his sleeve, he demonstrates his impartiality by not turning his Saturday night sessions on WNNS into Jeff Lynne lovefests.

**You can go to Leach’s blog to read about it in detail.

***Editor’s note: this isn’t a tired joke, but rather, a clever play on words that conjures up nostalgia for a time when an election could turn on the silliest of matters. Unlike the present day.


Dave H said...

I will say that if liberals do have a consistent point of view, Leach does a pretty good job of presenting it. As a person who leans conservative, I do tune-in in the morning to hear the "other" point of view because I am open to the fact that by chance, I might be wrong and I definitely do not tow the party line.

The problem I do experience with Leach is that when an opposing caller calls in, more times than not, Leach becomes easily agitated and rather than going through the points step by step comparing and contrasting ideas in a calm manner, he usually resorts to huffing and puffing, personal attacks and then hangs up on the person, which I think discredits him greatly. This is the problem that I experience most with liberals in general. Anyway I continue to listen if anything, to bolster my own position.

Makes you wonder how a Griffinite became such a secular progressive. Must have been all the tormenting by the kool crowd!

BTW Topinka is a poor candidate with too many ties to Ryan. She is automatically a loser. Conservatives would have better been served by a guy like Brady.

The 26th Man said...

You make a valid point, Dan. It's similar to an issue I have with the newspaper (get it? issue? newspaper? heh.).

I don't agree with the fact that the SJ-R endorses candidates. Its job is to report the news as impartially as possible, and to have endorsed a particular candidate I think blows the whole veneer of impartiality clean off.

You get a B, by the way. Let me have another beer, and you might get an A.

And Dave H, dig on your coining the word "Griffinite." Leach must not have been made with the GHSH-G Syndicate.

Job Conger/Writer's Chronicle said...

Dan --

Congratulations and thanks for a first class blog. When I started my own blog and begain visiting local blogs, BlogFreeSpringfield was the first one I bookmarked and have since been a regular reader. Your post about JL made some significant points in your usual good style.

As a long-ago grad of Sangamon State University's Public Affairs Reporting Program (Able Charlie Wheeler at the helm today, but Bill Miller had just taken over from Paul Simon when I was accepted), I recall a major issue was the need for objectivity in news reporting. It's hard to convince (say) a crunchy peanut butter lover that you don't hate crunchy peanut butter if you go for weeks without reporting about crunchy peanut butter. So it goes with the rest of the world. Your most important point in the Leach post is how the reporter often becomes the entertainer when in the "entertainment mode." To Jim's credit, he stayed with the point with JBT; he wore his news hat with distinction. And if the smooth peanut butter people think he was rough on her, they are uninformed. I believe Jim wears his "news hat" well, even when "entertaining." His shouting down people, instead of keeping a cool head, is what ruins his morning talk show. That's why I no longer listen to him in the morning. A thug is a thug, regardless of the color of his coat. As a news reporter, he's still aces in my book.

Back in the old days, major cities had a Republican newspaer and a Democrat newspaper. The State Journal (delivered before breakfast) was the Republican paper if I remember right, and the State Register carried the other side. New York and Chicago newspapers were famous for reporting to "their people" their side of the news. Now it's harder. I believe the SJ-R does a credible job of serving the public interest most of the time by reporting on news first and politics second. WMAY does the same. But where the SJ-R can offer more than hard news, WMAY seems almost exclusively news-driven. Thanks to Molson and Lee, I'm still a WMAY listener. The fact that for Jim Leach, there is a 3 pm "other side" makes the station an asset to our community. There is a place for crunchy and smooth, and all you have to do is time your day right and tune in for the news texture that appeals to your taste. Yummmmmm!