Can Talk Radio, Again, Derail Immigration Reform? Probably Not.

What happens when 46 conservative hosts broadcast from one D.C. hotel.

National Journal
April 22, 2013, 6:30 a.m.

It’s odd stand­ing in the middle of a dozen talk-ra­dio hosts, all broad­cast­ing from the same hotel ball­room. From the out­set, it’s just a dozen people talk­ing (or rant­ing) to them­selves. But you know hun­dreds of thou­sands are listen­ing. Walk­ing down the row of hosts on Wed­nes­day was like strolling through a slid­ing ra­dio dial on a con­ser­vat­ive-only fre­quency. Snip­pets of chat­ter fade in and out:

“Where’s the vi­ol­ence from the tea party?” … “Has he vis­ited the sur­viv­ors of Benghazi yet?”…  “And Janet Na­pol­it­ano’s been ly­ing her ass off.”

The hosts were just a few feet from one an­oth­er, sep­ar­ated by red-vel­vet cur­tains in the hotel just blocks from the Cap­it­ol. It didn’t seem im­possible for one broad­caster’s voice to be in the back­ground of an­oth­er’s show.

This was the Fed­er­a­tion for Amer­ic­an Im­mig­ra­tion Re­form’s sev­enth-an­nu­al “Hold Their Feet to the Fire,” ra­dio row. Forty-six con­ser­vat­ive talk-show hosts, from me­dia mar­kets across the na­tion, came to this hotel to dis­cuss (or evis­cer­ate) the bi­par­tis­an im­mig­ra­tion re­form bill that was un­veiled 2 a.m. Wed­nes­day. The bill seeks to give a path to leg­al res­id­ency and even­tu­al cit­izen­ship for the 11 mil­lion un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants in the coun­try, provided that cer­tain bor­der-se­cur­ity con­di­tions are met. 

Roy Beck, founder of Num­ber­sUSA, a group that seeks to bring im­mig­ra­tion to pre-1965 levels, comes every year. This year, he was mak­ing the rounds to 10 ra­dio sta­tions.

“It’s a little bit like be­ing at a day labor site,” he said, de­scrib­ing the event.

“Or like speed dat­ing?” I asked.

“It is like speed dat­ing, that’s true,” he said. “But it is like a day labor site, you’re just there. The little pickup truck drives by. Drives real slowly. And I go, ‘I’m avail­able! I’m cheeep!’”

FAIR provides a cor­ral of guests like Beck — heads of in­terest groups, bor­der-town sher­iffs, ranch­ers, and some con­gres­sion­al rep­res­ent­at­ives (Marco Ru­bio made an ap­pear­ance Thursday) — avail­able for the ra­dio show’s dis­pos­al. While FAIR doesn’t man­date the hosts talk to any­one in par­tic­u­lar, the for­um al­lows for a con­sist­ent mes­sage. And their in­ten­tions are clear: “Our view is that we would like to know as much about this pro­pos­al as pos­sible, and we would like to de­feat it early on,” FAIR Pres­id­ent Dan Stein said.

Re­lated Story: Who Are the 11 Mil­lion Un­doc­u­mented Im­mig­rants?

Sher­iff Paul Babeu of Ari­zona is one of more pop­u­lar guests in the stable. Babeu — you may re­call — provided one of the more in­ter­est­ing side stor­ies of the 2012 elec­tion. He stepped down from co­chair­ing Rom­ney’s cam­paign in Ari­zona and even­tu­ally his con­gres­sion­al bid after al­leg­a­tions that he had threatened a former male lov­er with de­port­a­tion. He has denied this.

In uni­form, with big gold “SHER­IFF” pins on his shirt col­lars, he said he was sched­uled to talk to 30 ra­dio hosts. As a sher­iff in a county near the Mex­ic­an bor­der, he has be­come a to­tem­ic crit­ic of the Home­land Se­cur­ity De­part­ment. “What we want out of this is a se­cure bor­der that pro­tects our state, pro­tects our coun­try,” he said. “As re­cent as this week that we had large groups of 100-plus [bor­der cross­ers] that we haven’t seen for years. That’s a clue that the reas­on what’s hap­pen­ing is be­cause of the pro­spect of am­nesty, the pro­spect of a path to cit­izen­ship.”

His voice, his opin­ion as a bor­der-area sher­iff, would reach hun­dreds of thou­sands. “Lit­er­ally I can go from one in­ter­view to the next,” he said, “Talk to some­body in Alabama, talk to some­body in Vir­gin­ia, and then talk to some­body in Phoenix. You can’t do that nor­mally. Now we have a nuc­le­us to get this in­form­a­tion out in a co­ordin­ated ef­fort.”

***

There’s a bit of déjà vu here. Or a least a déjà vu FAIR would like to re­cre­ate. In the sum­mer of 2007, such a co­ordin­ated ef­fort among talk-ra­dio hosts killed a George W. Bush-backed, bi­par­tis­an im­mig­ra­tion deal that was gain­ing mo­mentum in Con­gress.

“The con­ser­vat­ive hosts really did make a cru­sade,” Mark Jurkow­itz, a me­dia re­search­er with Pew, said. “It’s hard to quanti­fy how many [sen­at­ors’] votes were changed in 2007, I don’t know. But I do know the talk hosts — and prob­ably no one more so than Rush Limbaugh — are very cap­able of mo­tiv­at­ing their listen­ers to make calls about a cer­tain is­sue.” (Limbaugh was not present at the FAIR event. It was mostly re­gion­al out­lets.)

Dur­ing the lead up to the vote in the Sen­ate, im­mig­ra­tion was the No. 1 story across me­di­ums. It amoun­ted to 9 per­cent of the news hole, a slightly high­er share than the bur­geon­ing pres­id­en­tial race. But con­ser­vat­ive talk ra­dio took it to the next level — im­mig­ra­tion made up 31 per­cent of their cov­er­age.

Trent Lott, the Re­pub­lic­an Sen­ate whip in 2007, re­ceived a lot of those calls from talk-ra­dio listen­ers. “I’ve had my phones jammed for three weeks,” he told The Wash­ing­ton Post at the time. “Talk ra­dio is run­ning Amer­ica,” he lamen­ted after the bill’s de­feat. “We have to deal with that prob­lem.”

But it’s not 2007. There’s a grow­ing liber­tari­an bent in the Re­pub­lic­an Party, a bent that might fa­vor a freer flow of labor. Then there’s Marco Ru­bio, a “Gang of Eight” mem­ber and rising con­ser­vat­ive star. While his le­gis­la­tion is not find­ing fa­vor among the talk-ra­dio hosts, he still holds their re­spect.

And while Pew no longer col­lects week-by-week data on news cov­er­age, it doesn’t take a sur­vey to know im­mig­ra­tion is not the top story. That was ap­par­ent just walk­ing around the broad­cast sta­tions. Much of the talk was about Bo­ston.

“Ob­vi­ously the at­ten­tion is go­ing to be there and should be there,” Helen Glover, a Rhode Is­land-area host (and former Sur­viv­or con­test­ant) said. “It’s a bal­ance, be­cause we’re so close to Bo­ston, it needs to have equal amount. We try to weave them both in at the same time.”

“I’m afraid [im­mig­ra­tion] is go­ing to be sub­dued,” she said.

And then, it was like a talk news broad­cast for one.

“As Rahm Emanuel said, nev­er let a good crisis goes to waste…. Does this mean you go ahead and start this dis­cus­sion now without giv­ing Bo­ston the re­spect it de­serves? It’s not the time to be put­ting this in­form­a­tion out, or god for­bid, schedul­ing hear­ings.”

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