When David Letterman spent 40 minutes of his show ripping John McCain for cancelling his appearance on the show at the last minute -- and then gradually expanding his personal, peevish complaint into a brilliant critique of the McCain campaign, it brought to the fore once again an argument I made here a couple of weeks ago: that trusted talk-show hosts can introduce ideas into the mainstream that the MSM can't, or with greater force than the "on the one hand, on the other" MSM can muster. (You can see some of that here.)
But not everybody gets it. CNN's "Showbiz Tonight" asked viewers whether they were going to base their vote on something they heard on "The View." I've also heard from readers that my point is moot because right-wing talk show hosts have much larger audiences than Jay Leno. Both miss the point.
I'm not arguing that "The View" (or Leno or Letterman) makes the difference in an election. I'm arguing that these shows get ideas into the MSM and with additional force than the MSM can bring. I hear constantly from people on one side or the other of a political topic that "the news media isn't covering this." They discount the role of talk show hosts, forgetting the fact that they can have a tremendous effect on public discourse. Their monologues are quoted in political roundups. Their news becomes entertainment news becomes front-page news, as with the Letterman story that's raging today. Look, even Canada's CBC Newsworld covered the Letterman riff.
Yep, it's international news.
I mean, c'mon, would CNN do a poll of viewers asking them if they are planning to vote based on something they saw on CNN? That's such a silly question.
Nor am I arguing that Leno and Letterman have larger audiences than Rush Limbaugh. But because they do not preach to the converted, they have greater throw-weight in the MSM. Here's a reader who wrote me rather insistently:
Do you truly believe that a joke that lasts maybe two minutes on Jay Leno has more power than Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh spewing their hate, half-truths and out-and-out lies for three hours, five days a week?
You claim Leno has 4.7 million viewers a night. Rush alone claims he has 20 million a week -- that's about 4 million a day.
And, FYI. I did a little searching. It didn't take long for me to find the following jokes about Hillary Clinton by Jay Leno. You see. When it comes to comedians, no one is sacred -- especially in an election year. Please. Go to Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity's page and send me the nice things they've said about any Democrat.
Doesn't matter that Rush and Hannity are biased. No one other than their faithful listeners are paying attention. The only time they have any wider influence is when they introduce an idea into the mainstream news media that's novel. That doesn't happen too often.
But I would contend it happens with remarkable frequency on late night talk shows. When Leno made fun of Sarah Palin's interview with ABC's Charlie Gibson, and made fun of President Bush's avoiding the GOP convention because of a disaster -- "his presidency" -- he was getting sharply worded ideas out there that weren't being stated, or being stated as forcefully by journalists. It's the timing of the jokes, as I pointed out in this piece, that gives Leno and Letterman their impact.
I'm not claiming people will vote based on what a talk show host says. I'm claiming that when Jay Leno tells you you're a joke, a million people at home get a cue they may not have gotten from any of their other trusted sources. And that influences how they make their ultimate decision. Trust me, I do this for a living! People tell me all the time they watch something because I recommended it. They don't necessarily agree with my opinion, but if it gets to the point where they don't trust me, they move on. Leno's got nearly 5 million people a night who like him. Maybe not all those people vote, but those who do I suspect are overwhelming convinced Leno is an equal opportunity offender. That makes him dangerous to anyone who would try to pull the wool over the public's eyes.
Rush and Hannity have are reaching their audience, which is partisan; that they aren't saying anything that isn't already been said by their partisan allies; and that very little of what they do has news value because it is all comment. That is the same complaint many Republicans have of Hollywood liberals weighing in on politics -- it's not that they are celebrities, it is that they are telling us exactly what we expected them to say. That's why when a Patty Heaton or Dennis Miller speak out for the GOP, yeah, there's a little news bump there.
But even more impactful is the celebrity whose political views are a mystery to everyone. (Everyone, that is, except those Republicans who are absolutely convinced every major celebrity is a lefty liberal left-wing Democrat leftie. And we know how much sway those critics have.)
The whole reason "The View" made headlines last week is (a) they gave John McCain a surprisingly hard time on their show, (b) they potentially exposed millions of women to the idea that John McCain might actually tell some fibs in their television commercials and (c) Barbara Walters, who was especially tough on McCain, has had long friendships with Republicans (like Roy Cohn!) and Democrats alike and is not easily pigeonholed.
Finally, Leno and Letterman and "SNL" can have tremendous impact on public discourse (remember the comfy-pillow comment during the primaries?). I don't expect that anyone will tell a pollster that it affected how they voted in November. But people who constantly harp on what network news divisions are saying -- while continually discounting what celebrities in their entertainment divisions say -- are missing the big news.