Gene Weingarten, writer for the Washington Post Magazine, got an idea: he would lock himself in a room for 24 hours straight with 5 TV's, 2 radios and a laptop all tuned to loud, opinionated pundits. After basically losing his mind, he tells us what he learned.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. The premise was simple. Gene Weingarten, a writer for The Washington Post Magazine, spent an entire 24 hours simultaneously monitoring five TVs and two radios tuned entirely to political punditry – Rush Limbaugh, Keith Olbermann, you name it. And at the same time, he was online monitoring political bloggers – all this, for some reason, on Valentine's Day, wearing a tuxedo. GENE WEINGARTEN: I was doing something nobody ever should attempt to do. For a period of two hours, I was listening to both Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly on separate radios, at the same time. I don't know that that's ever been done before, but it definitely should never be done again. BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] Now, you observed that Bill O'Reilly is unhinged, but Rush Limbaugh - there's something about him that you actually found inspiring. GENE WEINGARTEN: I'm not sure “inspiring” is the right word. He's very good at what he does. And when you listen to both of them, you realize how much better Rush is than Bill. O'Reilly is mean and self-righteous, and Rush Limbaugh is funny and mock-heroic; he just doesn't take himself that seriously.
At one point he was speculating that the reason that most of the Democrats were going after Roger Clemens is that Democrats and liberals don't like great American institutions, like baseball and the Boy Scouts. You know, he doesn't really believe that. He was just saying something that sounded funny, and was funny.
O'Reilly, no. O'Reilly is, you know, he's as funny as an aneurysm.
So, yeah, I found myself really appreciating Rush Limbaugh, and that - after a while, that really got me angry with myself. BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] You observed that some of these pundits, the most extreme ones, like Michael Savage, have not tiny little niche audiences, but rather remarkably large ones. GENE WEINGARTEN: I don't know if many of your listeners are familiar with Michael Savage. I was not. But this guy, he essentially, on the evening that I listened, was making the argument that liberals are all potential child molesters, and that if you are a conservative with a child, don't let them go over to a friend's house if the friend's parents are liberals.
You know, and he's saying this seriously. You know, this is not parody. And it turns out he gets ten million listeners a week. You know, New York Times paper edition doesn't have ten million readers a week. BOB GARFIELD: Mm. Now, you identify yourself as a card-carrying liberal in the piece, but the extremity is not confined to the political right. GENE WEINGARTEN: No. It was mostly confined to the political right, until I had the honor of listening to Keith Olbermann. I only barely knew what Olbermann was up to, but he was as over the top as anyone else in the opposite direction. He was busy calling George Bush a fascist and comparing his stance on this relatively minor issue to the Alien and Sedition Act. He was simply a sputtering lunatic, and I hadn't been ready to expect that. BOB GARFIELD: So what's the underlying phenomenon here? Why do we pay attention to pundits who are unreasonable or extreme or polarizing, or worse? GENE WEINGARTEN: It's like hearing a drunk at a party. [BOB LAUGHING] He rises above the babble. And you might hate what he's saying, but you can't ignore it. In a way, it's a cheap buzz. You know, why do people watch prizefights, watch guys beat themselves raw and bloody until one thuds to the ground? There's a basic primal excitement in conflict. BOB GARFIELD: One of the things that you observed in your piece is that punditry, especially in the digital world, somehow manages to instantly create more punditry. GENE WEINGARTEN: Yeah. I actually compared it to something Darwinian in that somebody says something and somebody says something that pretty much echoes it, changes it a little bit, and then eventually somebody says something that really goes off the track. That's like a mutation, and it winds up advancing the dialog in a completely new direction. So it's evolution. BOB GARFIELD: It's clear that at a certain point in this [LAUGHS] exercise, you lost your mind? GENE WEINGARTEN: Well, you know, around hour oh, 18 or 19 you just start losing your focus. You can't listen to all of it at the same time so you focus on little things. And one thing that I wound up doing, late at night - I was in The Washingtonpost.com office – no one was there – I decided to see what would happen if you turned the TV all the way up.
Bob, you probably don't know how many little bars there are, when you turn the volume all the way up on your television set, those little bars, volume bars – do you know how many there are? BOB GARFIELD: I have no idea. GENE WEINGARTEN: There are 63 bars. [BOB LAUGHS] And, you know, I was congratulating myself on that little insight when I realized something else. When the TV is blasting at full volume and some talking head is talking and he's trying to sound very serious, you can hear the intake of breath in between sentences. It's very loud and very clear.
And if you listen to somebody only for the intake of breath, this person becomes a human being gasping for air. [BOB LAUGHING] And you don't know what he's saying, which is great. [CLIP OF MANY BROADCASTS AT ONCE] And that entertained me for a good ten minutes. And in hour 21, ten minutes of entertainment is really, really great.
But at the very end – BOB GARFIELD: Yeah?
GENE WEINGARTEN: - it was four in the morning or something like that - I was listening to a pretty good show, and they were calling for people to send in Valentine's Day memories. They wanted text messages. So I got out my cell phone and I sent them a very long text message.
I described what I'd been doing for the last 22 hours and how I had lost virtually all my confidence in the human race. And I asked them if they could, as a Valentine's Day gift to me, just say nothing for twenty seconds. [PAUSE] They didn't do it. BOB GARFIELD: Gene, thank you very much. GENE WEINGARTEN: Very good being here. BOB GARFIELD: Pulitzer Prize winner Gene Weingarten writes for The Washington Post Magazine.