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22% of Americans get news from talk jocks

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Special to The Times

Rush Limbaugh lambastes “environmental wackos” and “feminazis” from his “Excellence in Broadcasting Network”; Bill O’Reilly thunders outrage from his “No-Spin Zone”; and one in five Americans call it getting their daily dose of news, according to a recent survey.

The poll examined news media preferences, and found that 22% of those surveyed said they get their news every day from talk radio programs. That figure is double what it was only four years ago, according to the Gallup Poll’s Tuesday Briefing, released last week.

“The growing trend of news in this country is interpretation ahead of the facts, of talk rather than information,” said Amy Mitchell, associate director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a Washington, D.C.-based organization dedicated to raising the standards of American journalism.

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“There’s certainly nothing wrong with listening to Rush Limbaugh for what Rush Limbaugh provides,” Mitchell said, but “Limbaugh isn’t concerned about an objective portrayal of the facts, and he admits that.”

She said the danger lies in listeners “taking it as the facts without deciding for themselves. It’s not producing an informed democracy.”

Al Rantel, host of a daily talk show on KABC-AM (790), said he tries to make sure his listeners understand the distinction.

“Let’s not kid ourselves: Talk radio is entertainment. I’m flattered that many people trust talk radio to get their information from,” Rantel said, but “it’s a three-hour editorial. People should know talk radio is opinion and commentary, and we are not unbiased.”

Talk-radio pioneer Michael Jackson went even further, calling the findings “extremely sad.”

“I wouldn’t want my most ardent listeners to think of me as their major source of news,” said Jackson, who had been on KABC for three decades and was most recently on KLAC-AM (570) until the station dropped its talk format last month. “I think people become groupies, following their favorite talk-show hosts, and see them as the font of all knowledge, and they take what they say as accurate.”

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But talk radio listeners are savvy enough to make up their own minds, says Robin Bertolucci, director of AM programming for Clear Channel-Los Angeles, which owns KFI-AM (640), the area’s highest-rated talk station, and home to Limbaugh’s show.

“People are smart. People can make decisions that this is the guy’s opinion. The information consumer is intelligent enough to decide,” she said.

Furthermore, some programs do offer more than diatribe and dogma, she said. For example, KFI hosts John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou say their weekday afternoon program highlights stories that the mainstream media ignore.

“They feel that they fulfill a mission that’s otherwise unfilled,” Bertolucci said, “or they take a story that everyone else is doing, and cover it in a way that’s unique.”

The Gallup survey also confirmed a breakdown that anyone listening to talk radio could already presume: Nearly twice as many Republicans as Democrats listed talk radio as their news source, 29% to 15%.

The figures reinforce the idea that Limbaugh and his audience of self-proclaimed “dittoheads” are in sync, and that the conservative majority of talk-show hosts like him and Sean Hannity are preaching to the choir. It may also explain the dearth of such hosts toward the left of the political spectrum.

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“Some people argue that Republicans and conservatives use talk radio to get their message out and create turnout,” and that there isn’t a corresponding mouthpiece on the Democratic side, said Frank Newport, editor in chief of the Gallup Poll.

But Mitchell said talk radio in its current form “started as a counter to what was seen as a liberal bias in the print press.” She said many such accusations of bias are not necessarily accurate, however -- an assertion that Bertolucci challenged.

“A lot of conservative Americans have felt for a long time that the traditional news media does not tell their side of the story,” Bertolucci said. They chafe on their perception of mainstream news outlets as the gatekeepers of information, and believe the perspective they offer “is as skewed as any other.”

“That’s sort of the conservative rallying cry: ‘Who are you to tell me what I can know?’ ” she said. “Rush Limbaugh is arguably a news program as much as Peter Jennings is, though it’s filtered through Rush Limbaugh.”

But Jackson said listeners shouldn’t believe each source is as balanced as the other.

“Probably at least 90% of the [talk radio] hosts are extremely conservative, and end up being more and more spokespeople for the administration,” he said.

Talk radio tied in the Gallup survey with National Public Radio, each getting 22% of respondents to say that’s where they get news every day. But both lagged far behind local TV news, at 57%, and local newspapers, at 47%. And respondents who said they got their news from talk radio weren’t necessarily excluding any other sources, Newport said.

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“A heavily news-involved respondent could have said yes to all of them,” he said.

Having such a diversity of information sources is the healthiest, wisest approach, Rantel said. “You shouldn’t get all of your food from McDonald’s,” he said. “I think you have to be more well-rounded.”

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