Hot Air: The New Propaganda

Originally published in the Rocky Mountain Chronicle, this five part series examines the shock jock phenomenon… Colorado-style

Talk radio content that is disrespectful, foments prejudice and stereotypes, and promotes inflammatory language is the subject of media ethics research by Patrick Plaisance, an assistant professor of journalism and technical communication at Colorado State University.

“Across the spectrum on radio right now, you’ll hear all kinds of ethically questionable content,” Plaisance says, “but should it be protected? I say absolutely yes.” He contends that people need a better sense of media literacy because the American public does not comprehend the blurring of lines between news and “infotainment.” As a media ethicist, Plaisance is concerned that news consumers don’t understand the reasons and motives behind the bombardment of news, features, editorials, advertising and talk radio programming. The key lies in the nuances of media content, and that’s where the majority of the public is illiterate. The irony is that even with an overwhelming number of news sources, people naturally gravitate to what comforts them or affirms their worldviews.

“Conservative talk radio is particularly effective in this because it trades in gross generalizations and assumptions that are not investigated, substantiated or backed up by evidence,” Plaisance says. “So it’s very easy for people to take these claims as fact. It’s convenient and expedient in lieu of real analysis and introspection.”

The challenge, he says, is educating media consumers to become more critical and aware that bias travels along a two-way street: Both the provider and the consumer carry a set of ideological baggage that colors how they perceive information.

In a post-communist world, it’s curious that right-wing radio embraces “agitprop,” the favored mass communication technique of the Bolshevik movement to inform the masses and incite them to act.

Plaisance laughs at the analogy.

“We have in media research what we call ‘the new propaganda,’ which is not top-down government pronouncements but rather it’s in the form of everyday talk that presumes to be authoritative and authentic,” he says. “Talk radio is a cultural phenomenon in response to the fear and insecurity that drives our sense of American exceptionalism, a hyperpatriotic superiority complex that is so prevalent in conservative politics.”

Read the companion chapters of the “Hot Air” series here.