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FiveThirtyEight

Politics

Nate Silver [NS]: Do you stand by all the statements in the survey as being unambiguously true?

John Ziegler [JZ]: I stand one hundred percent by the notion that there is absolutely zero ambiguity as to what the right answer is to any of the questions.

And then a bit later…

JZ: [Laughs]. In your world, the question that I would ask you is what question [in the survey] is there any ambiguity as to what the answer is?

NS: Well, that Obama ‘launched his career’ at the home of two former members of the Weather Underground –

JZ: That happens to be one of the questions that Obama supporters did the best on! They did better on that question than on any other Obama-related answers! And here you’re telling me that it’s not true?

NS: What do you mean by “launched his career”?

JZ: The first campaign as told by the person whose position he took in the State Senate, as told by her admission, his first campaign event was in the home of Bill Ayers and his wife. [Laughs] Unless you live in the Obama kool-aid world! That is astonishing to me that you would not accept that! And by the way, when you’re given four responses to that question, what else was the response going to be? Sarah Palin?

Emphasis mine.

This might be the key passage of my interview with John Ziegler on Tuesday, for it is, in a nutshell, why conservatives don’t win elections anymore. It is not that conservatism generally permits less nuance than liberalism (in terms of political messaging, that is probably one of conservatism’s strengths). Rather, the key lies in the second passage that I highlighted. There are a certain segment of conservatives who literally cannot believe that anybody would see the world differently than the way they do. They have not just forgotten how to persuade; they have forgotten about the necessity of persuasion.

John Ziegler is a shining example of such a conservative. During my interview with him, Ziegler made absolutely no effort to persuade me about the veracity of any of his viewpoints. He simply asserted them — and then became frustrated, paranoid, or vulgar when I rebutted them.

I didn’t quite get how someone like Ziegler, who is usually fairly poised, who solicited me to interview him, who has years of experience in the media, could so completely lose his cool. This was until last night, when I read David Foster Wallace’s profile of him, conducted in 2005 when Ziegler was hosting a fairly successful talk radio program in Los Angeles.

To understand Ziegler, you have to understand that he’s a radio guy. And you have to understand that radio is a very strange medium. As Wallace writes:

Hosting talk radio is an exotic, high-pressure gig that not many people are fit for, and being truly good at it requires skills so specialized that many of them don’t have names.

To appreciate these skills and some of the difficulties involved, you might wish to do an experiment. Try sitting alone in a room with a clock, turning on a tape recorder, and starting to speak into it. Speak about anything you want—with the proviso that your topic, and your opinions on it, must be of interest to some group of strangers who you imagine will be listening to the tape. Naturally, in order to be even minimally interesting, your remarks should be intelligible and their reasoning sequential—a listener will have to be able to follow the logic of what you’re saying—which means that you will have to know enough about your topic to organize your statements in a coherent way. (But you cannot do much of this organizing beforehand; it has to occur at the same time you’re speaking.) Plus, ideally, what you’re saying should be not just comprehensible and interesting but compelling, stimulating, which means that your remarks have to provoke and sustain some kind of emotional reaction in the listeners, which in turn will require you to construct some kind of identifiable persona for yourself—your comments will need to strike the listener as coming from an actual human being, someone with a real personality and real feelings about whatever it is you’re discussing. And it gets even trickier: You’re trying to communicate in real time with someone you cannot see or hear responses from; and though you’re communicating in speech, your remarks cannot have any of the fragmentary, repetitive, garbled qualities of real interhuman speech, or speech’s ticcy unconscious “umm”s or “you know”s, or false starts or stutters or long pauses while you try to think of how to phrase what you want to say next. You’re also, of course, denied the physical inflections that are so much a part of spoken English—the facial expressions, changes in posture, and symphony of little gestures that accompany and buttress real talking. Everything unspoken about you, your topic, and how you feel about it has to be conveyed through pitch, volume, tone, and pacing. The pacing is especially important: it can’t be too slow, since that’s low-energy and dull, but it can’t be too rushed or it will sound like babbling.

Not to reduce Wallace’s fine prose to a catch phrase, but the distinguishing feature of radio is that it exists in a sort of perpetual amnesiac state. In a book, you can go back and read the previous page; on the internet, you can press the ‘back’ button on the browser. In radio, there is no rewind: everything exists in that moment and that moment only. This is, theoretically, a problem with teleivsion too, but in teleivison you at least have context clues — graphics and what not, and what falls under the heading of “non-verbal communication”. In radio you do not. Just a sine wave in the ether.

Moreover, almost uniquely to radio, most of the audience is not even paying attention to you, because most people listen to radio when they’re in the process of doing something else. (If they weren’t doing something else, they’d be watching TV). They are driving, mowing the lawn, washing the dishes — and you have to work really hard to sustain their attention. Hence what Wallace refers to as the importance of “stimulating” the listener, an art that Ziegler has mastered. Invariably, the times when Ziegler became really, really angry with me during the interview was when I was not permitting him to be stimulating, but instead asking him specific, banal questions that required specific, banal answers. Those questions would have made for terrible radio! And Ziegler had no idea how to answer them.

Stimulation, however, is somewhat the opposite of persuasion. You’re not going to persuade someone of something when you’re (literally, in Ziegler’s case) yelling in their ear.

The McCain campaign was all about stimulation. The Britney Spears ads weren’t persuasive, but they sure were stimulating! “Drill, baby, drill” wasn’t persuasive, but it sure was stimulating! Sarah Palin wasn’t persuasive, but she sure was (literally, in Rich Lowry’s case) stimulating! By the way, let’s look at another little passage from Lowry’s paragraph on Palin:

A very wise TV executive once told me that the key to TV is projecting through the screen. It’s one of the keys to the success of, say, a Bill O’Reilly, who comes through the screen and grabs you by the throat.

I’ll bet you that TV executive began his career in radio. Television too has to be stimulating (although perhaps not quite so immediately, since the television viewer is usually giving you a larger proportion of his mindshare). But it can stimulate you in a variety of different ways — through visual cues as well as verbal ones.

FOX News is unusual television, really, in that almost all the stimulation is verbal, and almost all of it occurs at the same staccato pacing as radio. You could take tonight’s broadcast of Hannity & Colmes or the Factor and put it directly on radio and you’d lose almost nothing (not coincidentally, Hannity and O’Reilly also have highly-rated radio programs). That wouldn’t really work for Countdown, which has higher production values, and where the pacing is more irregular. It certainly wouldn’t work for the Situation Room — or moving in a different direction, the Daily Show.

Conservatives listen to significantly more talk radio than other market segments; 28 percent of conservative Republicans listen to talk radio regularly, as opposed to 17 percent of the public as a whole. (Unsurprisingly, conservative hosts also dominate the the Arbitron ratings). It may have gone to their heads a little bit; they may have forgotten about radio’s idiosyncrasies as a means of communication. The failures of the Bush administration have woken the country up; conservatives now need to find a way to communicate with people who are actually paying attention.

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