Are fightin’ words good for the country?

There’s been much talk over the last week in the wake of the assassination attempt of Representative Gabrielle Giffords, about how political conversation has gotten poisonous over the last few years, with many commentators blaming the rise of talk radio and conservatives for political violence.  Here was a topic that was posed to me by Heather Johnson, a loyal reader of Brevis: has conservative talk radio had an effect on political discourse in the U.S.?  Here are my questions: has the rate of political violence in the United States increased since the advent of political talk radio?  Has talk radio contributed to political violence?  Has the rise of the “poisonous” political rhetoric of conservatives (the “right wing”) led to an increase in political violence?  In essence, is MORE political discourse good, even if we use political “fightin’ words”?

Background on talk radio
A little history, first.  While talk radio began in the 1960s (with the first all-talk radio stations, KABC in Los Angeles and KMOX in St. Louis, beginning in 1960), political talk radio was tamped down by the Fairness Doctrine, and didn’t begin in earnest until the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987.  The Fairness Doctrine required holders of broadcast licenses in the United States to present controversial topics in an honest, equitable and balanced view.  In other words, the Fairness Doctrine, which was implemented in 1949 under Harry Truman, required that broadcasters be balanced in their presentation.

When it was repealed in 1987, under the Reagan administration, it opened up an arena in which talk radio could flourish, because we know that talk radio wouldn’t have flourished in an environment in which they would have had to be balanced.  Rush Limbaugh, the talk radio king, started his political talk show in 1984, but wasn’t nationally syndicated until 1988.  Sean Hannity, another big talker, started in 1989 and began syndication in 2001.  Glenn Beck, a favorite of the Tea Party, started his talk show in Florida in 2000, and began his national show in 2002.  Michael Savage, the gravely-voiced New Yorker that broadcasts from California (for reasons known only to God), began his radio career in 1994.

All of the big radio talk show hosts seem to have begun their career after the Fairness Doctrine ended, so it seems a logical choice to use the Fairness Doctrine as marks on a timeline.  I did some digging into assassinations of and assassination attempts on political figures since the beginning of our country, and here’s what I found:

Pre-Fairness Doctrine (1949)    
Public Official Year Result
President Andrew Jackson 1835 Survived
Missouri Governor Boggs 1842 Survived
President Abraham Lincoln 1865 Killed
Secretary of State Seward 1865 Survived
President James Garfield 1881 Killed
President William McKinley 1901 Killed
President Theodore Roosevelt 1912 Survived
Vice President Thomas Marshall 1916 Survived
U.S. Senator Thomas Hardwick 1919 Survived
Seattle Mayor Ole Hanson 1919 Survived
U.S. Attorney General Palmer 1919 Survived
President-elect Franklin Roosevelt 1933 Survived
U.S. Senator Huey Long 1935 Killed
Fairness Doctrine Era (1949-1987)    
Public Official Year Result
President Harry Truman 1950 Survived
President-elect John F. Kennedy 1960 Survived
President John F. Kennedy 1963 Killed
Lee Harvey Oswald 1963 Killed
Malcolm X 1965 Killed
Martin Luther King, Jr. 1968 Killed
U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy 1968 Killed
Pope Paul VI 1970 Survived
Presidential candidate George Wallace 1972 Survived
U.S. Defense Secretary McNamara 1972 Survived
President Richard Nixon 1974 Survived
President Gerald Ford 1975 Survived
President Gerald Ford 1975 Survived
Mayor George Moscone/Sup Milk 1978 Killed
Congressman Leo Ryan 1978 Killed
President Ronald Reagan 1981 Survived
Pope John Paul II 1981 Survived
Pope John Paul II 1982 Survived
Post-Fairness Doctrine (1987-present)    
Public Official Year Result
President Bill Clinton 1996 Survived
President George W. Bush 2005 Survived
Vice President Dick Cheney 2007 Survived
Missouri Governor Jay Nixon 2010 Survived
Congressman Gabrielle Giffords 2011 Survived

In the 114 years before the enactment of the Fairness Doctrine, there were 4 assassinations and 9 attempts, making a total of 0.114 assassinations or attempts per year.  In the 38 years under the Fairness Doctrine, there were 7 assassinations and 11 attempts, making 0.474 per year (or 0.395 per year if you exclude the assassination attempts on the pope).  In the 24 years since the Fairness Doctrine was repealed, there have been no assassinations, and only 5 attempts, making it 0.208 assassination attempts per year.

While it would be foolish to try to draw an inverse correlative effect between the advent of talk radio to the decline of assassination attempts on public officials, there is an argument to be made here: when regulation to free speech is withdrawn, political discourse increases.  When political discourse increases, the people feel as if their voices are being heard, as if their political views are being given a voice.

The advent of talk radio in America (and certain cable news outlets and websites) has been the outlet of political ideas that were not being adequately aired previously under the Fairness Doctrine.  And, according to polling done recently, these political views are held by at least a large minority of Americans. 

Has talk radio made political discourse “poisonous”?  Should we bring back the Fairness Doctrine?

  • Heather

    How on earth is it that I had no idea there were attempted assassinations of Clinton, W, Cheney, and Jay Nixon? But anyway, very interesting analysis! Thanks for doing the research 😉

    I would also like to add that there is the idea floating around that political discourse is currently the most negative and divided that it has ever been, and to me it indicates the sorry state of history education in this country. In fact, I think that politics has ALWAYS been somewhat “uncivilized.” For example, Congressman Preston Brooks beat Senator Charles Sumner with his cane on the floor of the senate in 1856 because Sumner had made a speech in which he made fun of Brooks’ relatives. Bob Schieffer talks about how “Creative name calling is as much a part of American politics as waving Old Glory. Back in 1952 when Harry Truman called Republicans a bunch of Snollygusters, it set off such a shock wave that my late colleague, Eric Sevareid, thought it necessary to counsel calmness. After all he said, Truman’s remark wasn’t nearly as bad as when President McKinley’s opponents said he had the backbone of a chocolate eclair.” And there are all sorts of examples from early American history of the incivility of politics, even a DUEL between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr which resulted in the death of Hamilton!

    • Bob

      I don’t think I’d realized that there were assassination attempts in the last few years, either… I guess someone threw a grenade a Bush when he was overseas somewhere, but it failed to explode. And the Jay Nixon thing… he was giving a speech at a university, and someone stabbed the university president, and told police later that she thought she’d stabbed Nixon.

      I totally forgot to mention Sumner, though it wasn’t listed in any place as an assassination, but I suppose it’s the best example of political rhetoric getting heated :)

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  • Chris Johnson

    You also left out political assassinations BY us officials, leaving Vincent Foster (clinton’s victim, dead) and Harry Whittington (cheney’s, survived) as part of this stuff.

  • Broc

    There are similar debate points in the previous blog post comments

  • Broc

    This is the EXACT type of speech that I would like to see go the way of dinosaurs. Watch as this guy tries to tap dance around and refuses to just say the rhetoric was over the top. Ridiculous!

    • Bob

      Do you think that the Congressman’s rhetoric–using “Goebbels” to describe the Republicans–was over the top? Or are you saying that you think that he shouldn’t tap dance around like that?

  • fivebares

    Talk radio doesn’t make talk more poisonous, it just makes the talk that already existed more public. It’s true people have always spoken like this. But that doesn’t excuse the way we talk. If you’re using it as justification to talk this way, then I’m disagreeing. But if you’re just saying it’s not really made things worse, I probably agree. Maybe it’s given more fools an avenue for their idiotic opinions, but such is life…

    I wish we could talk normally and still feel like our voices were heard. Apparently that’s impossible, though.

    To play devil’s advocate though, it’s very hard for the middle to know where it sits unless there are idiots on each extreme helping us to define what normal is…


    • Bob

      You’re right… it’s not like this kind of talk didn’t exist before. I think the advent of talk radio, and constant 24/7 news, and the Internet has made everything more accessible. And I don’t think it’s going away. My argument wasn’t to justify talk radio, but rather to say that talk radio or talk of any kind really isn’t what caused the Tucson thing, as some would suggest.

      I like your last sentence, but if I may be a bit semantic… the extremes don’t help define what normal is; the extremes help define where the middle is. Being in the middle isn’t necessarily normal and/or right.

      • fivebares

        No, that’s okay that you pointed the normal thing out. That was more what I was getting at. The devil’s advocate position being not necessarily mine, and more what other people would say. I think people in the middle always think they’re normal.

        But just to keep going with it further, for the sake of fun, there’s also a philosophical bent to my devil’s advocate statement, in that we’d hope no extreme is ever what ends up equating to normal. And so even though the middle can be a broad section, full of lots of diverse opinion, it’s still the closest thing to constituting normal. Normal is hard to define, but it’s almost always defined culturally, and by the group that most largely sees itself as normal. So even if we don’t always agree on what’s in the middle, it’s often hard to ignore that within cultures, the middle is what often is seen as normal.


        • fivebares

          Which I should add, then, is my only real beef with the modern news cycle as opposed to past ones. No, people didn’t just start acting like this. But neither have people always had such constant access to flows of information that CONFIRM their bias as opposed to INFORM their decision-making. Sure, our speech is nice and free, but I think we’re dumber and less introspective than we’ve ever been, much more content to have other people give us easy answers and tell us what to do than we are to take the necessary time and energy it requires to debate issues and implement solutions.

          In this way, I guess I’m saying that the more our media cycle continues to ramp up the more the extremes start pulling larger portions of the middle out to them, playing less of a defining role, and more of a partisan, convert-making kind of role. Not sure how to judge if that makes us worse, yet. But I think it’s safe to say it’s not making us a whole lot better, anyway…


        • Bob

          First, another semantic point: Extremes are almost never normal, by definition. By labeling something extreme, you label it out of “mainstream”… classic political marketing/positioning–“I can’t believe that they’re taking this extreme position, can you?”

          Second, I agree with you: the middle is often seen as normal.

          In politics, however, there’s a case to be made that the middle isn’t normal, it’s just apathetic and malleable… oh, wait, I’m just solidifying what you’re saying…

          OK, you’re right. The middle is normal, even in politics. Normal, in the case of politics, are those who don’t really care, and are persuaded by the person who sounds the best/most reasonable, not necessarily by what is the best argument.

  • Broc

    Or are you saying that you think that he shouldn’t tap dance around like that?

    I am saying that demonizing your opposition by comparing them to Nazi’s should have no place in government or politics because it erodes the possibility of bipartisanship and only further divides a nation already divided by ideals. Additional, as John King pointed out his comments were also completely hypocritical.

    • Bob

      I agree. Hyper-partisan language (like comparing someone to the Nazi’s) doesn’t help anyone get anything accomplished.

    • Stephen

      I don’t want censorship per se, but we have libel laws so you could argue that a certain level of responsibility be imposed on someone who has millions of people listening to him.  For example, should someone as influential as Rush be held to higher standards?  A few days ago he claimed that the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda is a Christian group, therefore Obama is anti-Christian for attacking it.  That kind of talk seems incredibly destructive, especially since so many people think Obama is anti-Christian.  I know the president is a public figure, but perhaps Rush should be forced to make a bigger deal out of his apology when he says something so harmful since the Lord’s Resistance Army is certainly not a Christian group by any stretch of the imagination, and perhaps it’s in the public’s best interest to find out that the man they’re giving so much attention to them might be feeding them lies.  If they choose to continue listening to those lies, that’s fine, but isn’t it important that the public be informed in a democracy so they can better gauge who is speaking honestly?  

      • Robert Ewoldt

        Stephen, libel laws don’t typically apply the same way to public figures. In order for a celebrity or public figure to make a libel case, they have to prove “actual malice.” The statement must have been made knowing it to be false or with reckless regard to its truth. And I think that libel is also very hard to prove against a political figure.

        In regards to the Lord’s Resistance Army, it could be considered a Christian group, since it has syncretic Christian ideology, even if it wouldn’t be considered Christian by you or me. Even the New York Times calls them a group of “Christian rebels.” So, by a large stretch of the imagination, yes, it could be considered Christian.

        I agree with you that, in a democracy, it’s important that the electorate be informed. However, is it the government’s job to inform people about who’s being honest and who’s not? How does that work, exactly? Does who’s being honest and who’s not change depending on who’s in office?