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April 3, 2003

Conservative talk radio analyzed by Pitt political scientist

The seeds of David C. Barker’s book on conservative talk radio were planted in 1993, when he took a sales job that required a lot of driving in the Houston, Tex., area.

“And you get tired of pop music all the time. The only real alternative there was conservative talk radio, especially Rush Limbaugh. I was already a political junkie, so it was a natural draw for me,” said Barker, a Pitt associate professor of political science.

The hottest topic of conversation at that time was the Clinton health care proposal. “In my judgment, Limbaugh and others were mischaracterizing the arguments,” Barker said. “And I had friends from college, whom I had always considered relatively sane people, and all of a sudden they’d be talking about what Rush Limbaugh said. I began to sense that talk radio could be affecting this debate.”

That thought lingered in the back of his mind until he entered a political science graduate program at the University of Houston. “I started thinking that maybe there was something to this and that it could be analyzed in a serious, scholarly way,” Barker said. “What I found, in a sentence, was: Talk radio matters; persuasion does occur.”

Barker’s findings were the subject of his dissertation and, buoyed with additional data, became the basis of his analytical book, “Rushed to Judgment: Talk Radio, Persuasion, and American Political Behavior” (Columbia University Press, 2002).

“The basic question of the book is: Do people actually become more conservative as a result of listening to conservative talk radio? Or, do people who listen already think that way anyway?” Barker said.

He was surprised at the extent of conservative talk radio’s influence.

“The basic conclusion, drawn from survey data, is that persuasion occurs in a variety of ways,” he said. “First of all, people’s opinions, over time, reflected the opinions of the hosts more after listening; second, listeners became more inclined to vote Republican; third, they became more participatory, that is, they’re more likely than non-listeners to engage in politics, whether that means talking about issues, voting, contributing to or working for a campaign, sticking a bumper-sticker on their car.”

Finally, he said, listeners were simultaneously more informed and more misinformed about politics.

“By informed I mean they’re more likely than the general public to be able to tell you the name of their congressman, the names and number of the Supreme Court justices, or know basic questions of policy,” Barker said. “But they are also more likely to take as fact those opinions that have been given a partisan slant. For example, did the deficit go up or go down? Did the economy improve or not improve? These are objective questions, but the conservative talk radio listener is more likely to get them wrong.”

In designing his methodology, Barker focused on Limbaugh, breaking down the content of his message into topics, and measuring the frequency that Limbaugh discussed them and the number of times on average the listeners tuned in.

“I found out that Limbaugh almost never talks about abortion or gay rights or affirmative action,” Barker said. “His is much more of an economic message, much more of an anti-government-spending message — that’s the key.”

Barker reasoned that, if listeners were being persuaded, he should find an increase in conservative attitudes over time on the issues Limbaugh emphasized, and no change on those issues he didn’t stress.

“There’s a nice, almost perfect, linear relationship between how often a topic was discussed and the degree to which listeners’ opinions changed over time. If Limbaugh never talked about an issue, the listeners’ attitudes didn’t change. The beauty of the data is that the same people were interviewed at different points in time.”

To gather more data, Barker conducted a scientific experiment, with funding from the National Science Foundation. Barker randomly gave half a sample group a seven-minute tape of Limbaugh and the other half seven minutes of classical music. He compared their attitudes in a survey, and further asked them to pretend they were legislators debating the merits of a bill.

“The people who heard Limbaugh were more likely to express conservative attitudes in the survey; and they were more likely to speak and to argue and take part in the deliberations [as mock legislators], as though they were emboldened,” he found.

Then, after coming to Pittsburgh in the late 1990s, Barker, working with Pitt’s University Center for Social and Urban Research, studied Allegheny County Republicans’ attitudes during the primary race for the presidential nomination between John McCain and George Bush.

“I looked at changes in attitudes over the two and a half months between December 1999 and mid-March 2000,” Barker said. “The Limbaugh message during this time started as pro-Bush, but not really anti-McCain. Unless there’s a reason to, you don’t normally bash people in your own party.”

But as McCain gained some momentum by winning the primary in New Hampshire, and then primaries in Michigan and Arizona, Limbaugh began sabotaging McCain’s candidacy. Barker said, “The message became increasingly, vitriolically against McCain,” accusing McCain of “dividing people” and even likening and engaging in “Clintonesque exploitation par excellence,” as Limbaugh put it.

Barker found that the more frequently Republican respondents reported listening to Limbaugh the more likely they were to support Bush during this timeframe.

“What surprised me is that at least one out of five [surveyed] Republicans in Allegheny County reported listening to Limbaugh at least once a week,” Barker said. “That’s a very high number, especially given that this isn’t the South, and it shows the opportunity for influence here.”

The reasons that conservative talk radio is popular in the region are the same as elsewhere. The convenience of radio allows listeners to do other activities, like driving to work.

“It’s also a direct response to the Federal Communications Commission under the Reagan administration in the mid-1980s doing away with the Fairness Doctrine,” which required equal time for airing opposing viewpoints, Barker said.

“What still is puzzling to me is how talk radio has been dominated by conservatives,” Barker said. “There’s been a lot of speculation about that, but I don’t think anybody really knows. It might be that because the very nature of liberalism is to have tolerance for different points of view, [liberal hosts] tend to come off as pedantic. Listeners want black and white; they don’t want gray.”

He added that conservatives tend to be distrustful of mainstream media and gravitate toward hosts who share their views, while liberals for the most part are comfortable with watching network TV news, reading the newspaper or listening to NPR.

— Peter Hart

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