OFF THE GRID

I Understand Lou Dobbs

Jul 30, 09 | 7:20 AM   byMichael Wolff
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Does Lou Dobbs feel sheepish about finding himself the troglodyte of American broadcasting?

That is a rhetorical question. To be the troglodyte of American broadcasting—TAB—is to have broken through to the sweetest spot in the media business. You’ve reached the heights of the form. You’re going for immortality in your profession.

Curiously, it looks easy. Any Neanderthal, it seems, could do it. You don’t have to be smart, you have to be stupid. Just let all your bias and anger hang out. Don’t filter.

Actually, reasonableness and nuance are easy, conflict is hard. The TAB is that person, on radio or television, who, through mind-numbing repetition, is able to articulate and represent a point of bitter conflict in American life. Making this more difficult, the TAB has got to do this before America knows it’s a point of bitter conflict. The TAB has got to become one of the main characters of this conflict.

You have low-rent broadcasters across the country trying and failing to rise to this level. This is the grail at Fox News and few reach it. It’s now the gold standard at YouTube—your little ditty has got to, outrageously, capture a perfect outrage. Everybody else in broadcasting is an also-ran against the TAB. Only a special sort of clarity—reductio ad absurdum—cuts through the clutter and shines.

It seems like blunt-force opinion, but it’s not. It’s finely tuned. Dobbs began his rise to TAB with rants against immigration. All right, a hot button, but, one might have reasonably thought, a fairly boring one. But Dobbs understood its repetitive power. Then, in a stroke of broadcasting brilliance, he linked it to the president himself. This is a kind of genius. Now, he goes a step further and links it all to a conspiracy to silence none other than Lou Dobbs.

This was a broadcasting strategy first defined in the mid-seventies by Paddy Chayefsky in the movie Network. Peter Finch as Howard Beal is the broadcaster who, in the midst of a breakdown, is “mad as hell and not going to take it anymore,” a position that appalls his network but galvanizes America.

Chayefsky’s satire was really about the interest of American networks in maintaining their monopoly market share with phony respectability. Chayefsky did not anticipate the reverse broadcast model, where little networks and unknown broadcasters would come along and gain market share—and hence, respectability—by claiming to be mad as hell.

Lou Dobbs has scored. And he’s not resting. He’s working it. He’s got your attention and he’s going to do whatever is necessary to keep it.

More of Newser founder Michael Wolff's articles and commentary can be found at VanityFair.com, where he writes a regular column. He can be emailed at michael@newser.com.

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OFF THE GRID is about why the news is the news. Here are the real motivations of both media and newsmakers. Here's the backstory. This is a look at the inner workings of desperate media, the inner life of the publicity crazed, and the true meaning of the news of the day.

 

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