V. Reform

A. The Oprah Winfrey Show

As many talk shows became more manipulative and bizarre, veteran host Oprah Winfrey was one who decided she had had enough. She deliberately revamped her top-rated program in the 1990s to offer a more wholesome product, even though it meant that her show lost some viewers. “I am in disbelief about things that are happening on television talk shows. How low can we get?” she said in a February 1999 interview with the London Sunday Times. She described her reluctance to continue “interviewing more dysfunctional people” on her 200 hourly programs each year. As part of her positive civic effort, Winfrey began hosting a regular on-air book club segment to promote literacy. It proved so popular with her estimated 7 million viewers that it created instant bestsellers for many authors featured on the show.

B. Talk Radio Changes Tone after World Trade Center Terrorist Attacks

Talk radio offered people a chance to talk through their fears after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. In the days following the hijackings and devastating attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and Pentagon in Washington, radio stations reported that talk show calls were up by 50% or more.

G. Gordon Liddy immediately urged that the United States attack at least five nations that he said were harboring terrorists. Callers also vented their anger and frustration. Host Howard Stern did not challenge one anti-Muslim caller’s proposal to shoot everyone with “a towel on their head” in Patterson, New Jersey. But many of the vitriolic talk show hosts cooled their rhetoric. Across the nation, there was less frivolity and willingness to pander to hate speech, according to Michael Harrison, publisher of a talk radio trade magazine, Talkers. Police in Seattle, worried that anti-Muslim attacks might he incited by talk shows, found that a precautionary statement they issued denouncing such talk show rants seemed to have a positive impact.

When televangelists Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell tried to blame liberals, feminists, and abortion rights advocates for inviting such terrorist attacks, President George W. Bush, who had relied on their support during his campaign, denounced their statements. Some hosts who previously would have played into the nation’s paranoia and anger seemed chastened when confronted by such genuinely shocking events. Sex shock jock Tom Leykis invited callers sympathetic to the radical Muslims to explain their views. Even Rush Limbaugh, who made a career out of slandering liberals, chided a caller who denounced the “Hollywood liberals” who staged the fundraising telethon to help the victims of the September 11 attacks. Liberals had been emailing him that they wanted to put partisanship aside at this time of crisis, Limbaugh said, concluding, “Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt.”