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Chafee’s talk radio ban

On the Air
By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  January 12, 2011

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Governor Lincoln Chafee's announcement this week that his administration would forsake talk radio sparked all manner of outrage.

WPRO talk-radio hosts excoriated the governor for ducking tough questions, depriving listeners of insight on the issues of the day, and breaking his own pledge of open government.

As the story went national, the criticism mounted. "To ban an entire sector of the media is an outrageous abuse of power, an outrageous infringement on the spirit of the First Amendment," said Michael Harrison, publisher of Talkers magazine, in an interview with the Phoenix.

The controversy was fueled, in part, by the administration's ham-handed delivery of the message. Gubernatorial spokesman Mike Trainor — and later, Chafee himself — said the ban owed something to the "for-profit" and "ratings-driven" nature of talk radio. And critics pointed out that newspapers and television are quite concerned with profit and reach as well.

But what Chafee meant, and eventually communicated, is that talk radio is more about entertainment — more about stirring controversy — than it is about news. And he is, plainly, quite right.

Indeed, the talk radio firmament is asking the governor to play by a set of rules — the media asks reasonable, if often probing questions and elected officials respond — that its shock jocks routinely ignore.

Trainor noted that when President Obama visited the state this fall, WPRO host Buddy Cianci wondered on-air if openly gay Congressional candidate David Cicilline would be sexually aroused by the presence of the commander-in-chief.

"Why would we want to participate in that sandbox?" said Trainor, himself a frequent target of talk-radio pique.

Talk radio may be a decades-old form, but it has more in common with the hyper-partisan, niche media of the moment than with legacy products like the daily newspaper or nightly news.

And no one expects President Obama, or anyone in his cabinet, to grant an interview to the conservative RedState blog. Or to Rush Limbaugh, for that matter. Play the partisan and you will be treated as such.

But Harrison's outrage at the banning of "an entire sector of the media" is not entirely off base.

It is, to be sure, a bit hyperbolic. The Chafee Administration is not cutting off WPRO and WHJJ entirely. The governor and other officials will talk to the stations' news reporters, even as they shun the talk-radio hosts. And officials will appear on the offending talk shows in emergency situations.

But even that approach may not be nuanced enough. Cicilline, who refuses to appear on Cianci's show, still speaks with host John DePetro — hardly a paragon of down-the-middle journalism — from time to time. The interviews aren't always cordial, but they are hardly disastrous.

Chafee, who has faced withering and often personal invective from Cianci, does not have to play ball with his staunchest critic. And if he refuses the others, it will not be the crime against the First Amendment that his sharpest critics suggest.

But a governor who pledged to bring the state together might do better to make an occasional appearance on talk radio. Even if he has to hold his nose.

  Topics: This Just In , Politics, Radio, Rush Limbaugh,  More more >
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