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The Barker and the Shill

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If you’re old enough to remember the days when freak shows were in carnivals and not daytime television, you may know about the barker and the shill. These were carnival employees who both worked to entice customers into entering the mysterious realm of the sideshow, only, their methods were very different. The barker – the correct terminology is the “talker” – was a P.T. Barnum-like character, a bold salesman who sang the praises of the exhibits. Although he was given to the hyperbole of marketing, he made no bones about his agenda: He wanted your business.

The shill was a very different animal. His job was to stand amidst the crowd and pose as one of their number; he would then feign awe as he claimed to have seen the show and that it was truly a jaw-dropping experience. He was trading on his illusion of impartiality, knowing it lent him a capacity to convince that eluded the talker with his obvious agenda.

This occurs to me when I ponder the attempt to resurrect the “Fairness Doctrine” by politicians such as Congressman Dennis Kucinich and avowedly socialist Senator Bernie Sanders. For those of you not acquainted with this proposal, it harks back to a federal regulation in place from 1949 to 1987. Ostensibly it was designed to ensure “fairness” in broadcasting, mandating that if radio and TV stations air controversial viewpoints, they must provide equal time for the “other side.”

Now, as many have pointed out, this effort is motivated by a desire to stifle conservative commentary. After all, it isn’t lost on the radical left that the dumping of this doctrine in 1987 directly coincided with the rise of conservative talk radio. Freed from the threat of hefty government fines, stations were finally able to formulate programs based on market forces and not government regulation. Thus did Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham and many others give voice to the usually silent majority.

Of course, many may wonder why I’d take issue with fairness. Shouldn’t we give the “other side” its day in court, one may ask?

The problem is that this regulation would be applied to talk radio but not arenas dominated by liberal thought – a perfect example being the ever-present mainstream media (which presents the “other side”). This is because talk show hosts trade in red meat commentary, whereas the mainstream press is more subtle in its opinion-making.

Polluting discourse

Fine then, say the critics, that’s as it should be. We don’t have to worry about “responsible journalists”; it’s those acid-tongued firebrands who pollute discourse with their pyro-polemics who bedevil us. And on the surface this sounds convincing, which is why I'm telling you about the talker and the shill.

The dirty little secret behind the Fairness Doctrine is that it punishes the honest. Think about it: Radio hosts are the talkers; they wear their banners openly as they proclaim who and what they are. Sure, they may be brash and hyperbolic, loud and oft-sardonic, but there is no pretense, little guile, and you know what they want you to believe. You know what they’re sellin’ and if you’re buyin’.

The mainstream media, however, is a shill. Oh, not shills working with talk radio, of course, as their talkers are entities such as MoveOn.org and Media Matters, but they are shills nonetheless. They masquerade as impartial purveyors of information, almost-automatons who, like Joe Friday, are just interested in the facts, ma’am. They flutter their eyes and read their Teleprompters, and we are to believe God graced them with a singular ability to render facts uncolored by personal perspective.

In reality, though, the Shill Media is about as impartial as an Imam in a comparative religion class. Let’s not forget that they used to call Republican reductions in the rate of spending growth “budget cuts,” have a habit of referring to pro-lifers as “anti-abortion groups” (they don’t call pro-choice groups “pro-abortion”) and to terrorists as insurgents or even “freedom fighters,” and only seem to perceive hate crime when the victim’s group has victim status. And while I can’t comprehensively document news bias here, suffice it to say the Shill Media is at least as ideologically monolithic as talk radio. Why, in 1992, 89 percent of Washington journalists voted for Bill Clinton; in 1996 the figure was 92 percent. Even outside the Beltway liberal bias reigns, with scribes so situated favoring Democrats by about a three to one margin.

But the point here isn’t the nature or pervasiveness of the bias, but its insidiousness. The Shill Media are the truly dangerous ones because of their illusion of impartiality. There’s a reason why we trust what Consumer Reports says about Buick a lot more than what Buick says about Buick. And if we discovered that Buick’s marketing arm was masquerading as a consumer advocacy magazine, we’d want the subterfuge revealed. Remember, brainwashing is only effective if you’re not aware it’s occurring.

Hiding your bias

This is why the Fairness Doctrine is an insult to the intelligence of anyone possessing more than a modicum of that quality. Its message is, hey, hide your bias well, be a slick propagandist and you’ll proceed unmolested. But dare not tell the truth or be so bold as to bare your soul. Like an ostentatious literary critic, we appreciate subtlety and abhor straightness. Lying lips trump truthful tongues, don’t you know?

Thus, far better than a fairness doctrine would be a “Truth in Media Doctrine.” And here’s its mandate: When a correspondent is shown on the nightly news, there must be a caption to the effect of, “Dan Rather, Clinton-Gore-Kerry voter” or “Katie Couric, lifelong Democrat.”

Hey, why not? Let’s strip the masks off the shills. Otherwise, it’s a bit like letting Mullah Omar sing the praises of Islam while dressed as a Catholic priest. And shouldn’t these “responsible journalists” be at least as honest as those troglodytes in talk radio?

I wax satirical but, in reality, ensuring disclosure is far easier than securing fairness. In fact, how could the latter possibly be achieved? After all, media bias lies not just in how news is reported but also in what they choose to report on in the first place. Why do they decide to focus on sex discrimination in the construction industry instead of transgressions by abortionists? Why Abu Ghraib instead of the oil-for-food scandal? Why that which helps or harms one cause but not another?

The fact is that the media chooses the social battlefields and decides which way salvos will be fired. Human judgement is in play when they decide whether to broadcast or bury, how often a story will run, what terminology will describe it and what imagery will attend it.

Then, the idea that fairness is ensured by disseminating the “other side” presupposes that there are only two sides, but an issue isn’t a coin. There are often a multitude of sides, therefore, a dictate to present both sides simply means government input in the process of discrimination. And that’s what it is, since only two sides will be chosen from among many. What about the libertarians, Greens, Vermont Progressives, Constitutionalists, Christian Freedom Party members and communists? Oh, silly me, I forgot. The communists are giving us the Fairness Doctrine.


Now, some will say the other side is simply a refutation of the talkers’ controversial positions. But here I note that much of talk radio commentary is in fact a refutation of Shill Media positions. Thus, insofar as this goes, talk radio doesn't need to be balanced by the other side.

It is the other side.

So, affirmative-action and quotas in commentary? Please. Should I think Big Brother capable of factoring millions of different elements into a media formula and developing a paradigm for fairness? Sure, let’s have the Post Office run the press.

Of course, the dirty little secret is that the Fairness Doctrine is about everything but. Its proponents are political shills, bristling at the fact that their talk radio test balloon, Airhead America, only succeeded in talking its way into Chapter 11. Their spirit is the same one that gives us speech codes in colleges and corporations, the effort to stifle grassroots lobbying and hate speech laws. Perhaps it’s that those who can teach, do, and those who can’t, legislate.

You know, there’s an image conjured up by this scheme, that of a sullen, pouty little child complaining, “That’s not fair!” and stamping his foot with arms akimbo. But as John F. Kennedy observed, “Life’s not fair.”

No, it certainly isn’t. Some people are born with intelligence, others aren’t. Some people possess logic, reason, sound ideas, philosophical depth and powers of persuasion, others don’t. I guess the less gifted’s recourse to this ploy is a tacit admission that they bring no ammunition to the battlefield of debate. And now it seems they fancy big government  as a substitute for big ideas.

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About Selwyn Duke

  • Good article. Interesting take on this issue and not as dry as my earlier article was.


  • Arch Conservative

    Just a recent example of how biased the MSM media is.

    THis past weekend there was a pro-life March in Washington DC to which 200,000 American citizens showed up to take part in. There was no coverage of this event on ABC, NBC, or CBS.

    When an antiwar event in DC took place later in the weekend it was the lead story on these networks.

    And yet anyone who believes their is a leftist slant to the MSM is imagining it?


  • Emry

    “The mainstream media, however, is a shill.”

    And a corporate shill at that, as is talk radio.

    When you say: “…far better than a fairness doctrine would be a “Truth in Media Doctrine.”, you are in fact calling for Iraqi freedom fighters to be referred to as freedom fighters, rather than untruthfully as insurgents and terrorists.

    Please link us to examples of US corporate mainstream shill media referring to Iraqi freedom fighters as “freedom fighters”.

  • Actually, I am not certain some comprehend the terms adequately. From someone who was in the life for quite a while, allow me to attempt elucidation.

    Faux news and the rest of the MSM, including talk radio are all talkers/barkers.

    Jeff Gannon/Guckert in the WH press room was a shill.

    The difference is in pretending to be a mark/consumer, rather than the more straight forward job of salesman.

  • Arch: I don’t know quite what it means for your media bias spin but the satellite rig in our house brings us news channels from many countries.

    There’s Fox and CNN from your country in addition to British, French, Chinese, Indian and Russian channels plus the English language version of Al Jazeera.

    We only learned of these two demonstrations on the Russian news channel!

  • Baronius

    Solid article, great examples.

  • Bliffle

    “Unfairness” is the universal lust of humans, since it leads to monopoly of some resource which can then be used to extort tribute from others, whether in the form of land, water, sex, money, slavery, etc.

    Humans only seem to seek “fairness” and “justice” when they feel themselves to be shortchanged and can perceive a favorable reversal of fortunes when they riot under the banners of “fairness” and “justice”. Of course, they don’t really mean it, they are just dissembling for their own benefit.

    Every political faction exhibits evidence of falsely crying for “fairness and justice” on numerous occasions, so unfairness is both undeniable and ubiquitous. Every unfair dictator claims that he is being fair to SOMEONE and that’s his claim to virtue. Hitler invaded Poland to create a fair environment there for the Germans living in Poland. It helps to recruit some past injustice, real or imagined.

    The “unfairness” of MSM seems to not be a monopoly, since every side claims the other sides have the monopoly. The right complains that the NYT and WaPo have lefty writers; the left complains that the NYT and WaPo publish righty editorials and support invasions, etc.

    There seems to be no way to verify every article published beforehand. No censor is omniscient. So we rather depend on post-publishing rebuttal, and even lawsuits or criminal action for egregious malevolence.

    What to do, what to do? Censor? Vett? Rebut? Sue? Monopolize? It’s hard to be fair. Only a Solomon, apparently, can dispense justice, and we don’t make enough Solomons to judge all the cries for Justice, even if we were willing to appoint Solomons: they’re not PC by someones judgement.

  • So much ado about nothing.

    pot, meet kettle.

  • Nancy

    I wish God would afflict the entire species with unavoidable, baldfaced, total honesty – of speech if nothing else, kind of like in “Liar, Liar”. Permanently. There’d be a LOT of people at the top in deep, deep doo-doo. Permanently.

  • Clavos

    Well-crafted, interesting article, fairly presented.

  • THis past weekend there was a pro-life March in Washington DC to which 200,000 American citizens showed up to take part in. There was no coverage of this event on ABC, NBC, or CBS.

    When an antiwar event in DC took place later in the weekend it was the lead story on these networks.

    I get my news from newspapers mostly, and both events got coverage. And they did point out that the anti-war rally was quite small and that the anti-abortion rally was quite large.

    But the most delicious part is that once again Bush phoned in his ambiguous mesage to the cell-saving whackos and wouldn’t let himself be seen with them.


  • Heloise

    What happened news-wise this weekend? My cable was out the WHOLE weekend. It was like withdrawal it was so painful.

    Democracy Now showed movie stars and regular people at the anti war demo. Was it NOT on regular coverage? People are starting to chat up the obscene amount of money spent to kill, and destroy Iraq.

    Is this worse than Vietnam? Yes. Why? Because it will cost a million times more money and could cost a million times more lives before it is over.

    It ain’t over till the last tank rolls out.


  • Heloise

    Good article, yes. But one thing has to be reversed: Life is fair. We have to keep coming back to reap the good and the bad we have sown in past lives. The Buddhists understand this. The Tibetan Buddhists lost their homeland and their statues to the invasion of another imperialist regime: China.

    I was in India and saw the many displaced Tibetans sitting out on the street trying to make a living selling items in the open market. China destroyed something it could not understand, something OLDer than itself.

    No one called this a religious war. Why? Because the Chinese basically rolled in and over that country. Does this sound familiar? This is why we have never challenged China and never will. If we do it will be the last war. Was it not a religious war because the Chinese are atheists extraordinaire?

    There are so many examples from history. Hitler was like a newbie killer compared to some of the others.



    Awwww, S. Duke, yet another repressed, whiney, marginalized right-wing Christoid.

    Poor baby.


    This is SUCH a non-issue.


  • Mohjho

    “The mainstream media, however, is a shill”

    Really? A shill? The whole mainstream media? And here I thought it/they were just large corporations selling add space to boost profits for their share holders. WOW

    “Some people possess logic, reason, sound ideas, philosophical depth and powers of persuasion, others don’t.”

    Maybe you should leave the analysis to those in the smart group.

  • Maurice

    Well written and timely with Al leaving Err America.

    Mohijho – …they were just large corporations selling add (sic) space to boost profits…. Yes all are in it for the money. Some are confused as to why the money doesn’t flow. I think it is for the same reason that books on the right outsell books on the left.

  • Maurice

    Advertisements contain the only truths to be relied on in a newspaper.
    Thomas Jefferson

  • Nancy

    Certainly the newpapers can’t be entirely relied on these days, either; poor ol’ Thomas J. would have a hard time of it these days, what with the degree of sophistication & outright chicanery involved in (and socially acceptable without outrage by the public) these days. I don’t even read the NYT, WSJ, or WP without asking myself who owns this, who wrote this, & what’s their agenda? Which, in a sense, is as it should be: we should none of us just accept any statement or judgement at face value; in that direction lies torpor & mental laziness, & we turn into sheeple. One of the most valuable lessons one of my Vietnam-era teachers taught me was “always question authority”. My major frustration with the MSM is not so much that they’re barkers, but that they focus on stupid, lurid stuff like the Jonbenet thing when there are much larger, far more important issues needing exposure; they have the attention span of gnats – which is a tragedy, because the public being equally vapid requires constant reminding.

  • Clavos

    Um, Nancy, TJ was saying that ONLY THE ADS can be believed…

  • Nancy

    OK. I didn’t read it that way, so thanks for the explanation.

  • Nancy

    Sometimes perhaps me no speak-a de Eeengleesh, ya know?

  • The ads can’t be believed either, they are just a bit more honest about trying to fool you than the rest of the stuff.

    Going to refrain from stepping onto the soapbox and lecturing about the origins of marketing/PR/advertising and that they come from yankee Calvinist roots or pranking your neighbors as something to do…how the carnivals and sideshows refined much of it….how those principles were mixed with propaganda techniques after WW2 and how the whole mess has evolved into a seriously horrible Beast which hurts us more than most realize…

    nah, not going to get into it.

  • Nancy

    With me, at least, you’re preaching to the choir. I’m already well aware of the marketing monsters & their various agendas.

  • Baronius

    Heloise – huh? The fall of Vietnam led to the regime of Pol Pot and at least a million deaths in SE Asia. I doubt that the Iraq war is going to cost a trillion lives.

    Dave – I know of no sitting president who has ever attended a march of any kind. Even Nixon mingled among the anti-war protesters (whom he was not likely to be mistaken for supporting). As I understand it, the idea is to avoid the appearance of a government-sanctioned rally.

  • Baronius

    That should be, Nixon “only” mingled…

  • Lumpy

    According to a story I read today the new budget yanks almost all government funding from PBS and NPR.