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New Yorker too soft on Savage?

This week's New Yorker includes a profile, written by Kelefa Sanneh, of right-wing-radio star Michael Savage. It's a great read--but is it too easy on its subject?

Generally speaking, Sanneh seems to have a sort of bemused affection for Savage, who he casts as a heterodox conservative with an endearing melancholic streak and a penchant for highly entertaining, free-associative riffs. In Sanneh's words [paragraphing added]:

[W]hen Savage talks about his chief influences he is most likely to mention the old-timers he listened to as a kid in New York: Symphony Sid, the beloved jazz d.j.; Mel Allen, the old Yankees play-by-play man; Jean Shepherd; the pioneering monologist.

From that perspective, Savage might merely be the latest--and probably one of the last--in a long line of garrulous old-school New York radio personalities.... The form of Savage's show--the quick cuts from one topic to another, the way familiar political observations give rise to baffling digressions, the fluctuating tension between his blue-state life and his red-state message--is at least as important as its content, which means that it's hard to understand him, and his appeal, at second hand. The immoderate quotes meticulously catalogued by the liberal media-watchdog site mediamatters.org are accurate but misleading, insofar as they reduce a wilfully erratic broadcast to a series of political brickbats [emph. added].

All this seems reasonable if, like Sanneh, you don't describe those "immoderate quotes" in detail, and instead emphasize--among other things--a pretty amusing Savage riff on whether or not he'd eat his gray poodle, Teddy.

It seems less reasonable, though, if you actually cite the remarks in question. These include:

"Every day, Obama's somewhere doing something magnificent--until eventually you wake up, your guns are seized, your free speech is gone, your children are in the hands of the perverts, and the churches are under the hands of the government." (May 20)

"It's pretty apparent to me that Obama hates America and the history of this country. It's pretty apparent to me that he harbors a deep grudge against America.... Obama is raping America. Obama is raping our values. Obama is raping our democracy." (April 21)

"I warned you that if there were a terrorist event in America, the first people to be targeted by the spineless cowardly communist federal government would be patriots who owned guns. I warned you that 2 years ago, that the government would use any pretext to take your freedom away, to take your guns away... I would be surprised if we don't have the equivalent of a Reichstag fire in this country within one year... Because I have a terrible, terrible fear that we have communist radicals running this country. It's worse than I feared. And I am asking you what you can do about it." (April 15)

 "[Obama] is a dangerious man.... Obama has a plan to force children into a paramilitary domestic army.... your child will be conscripted by the Obama fascists, put into a uniform, and God knows what they're going to be forced to do. This was done by Hitler with the Hitler Youth. This was done by Stalin during the dark days of the Soviet Union.... " (March 23)

"Are they [the Obama administration] capable of hoodwinking the average American, sufficient to bring about the Maoist revolution that they dream of, with death camps?" (March 16)

"Obama may be getting ready to organize his own personal army--not of brownshirts, but of greenshirts.... If Obama should appoint thousands or more than thousands of people to the environmental green czar to work for him, and then he deputizes them, and gives them guns, and gives them authority over that of the the local police, you will know that we are repeating history.... You see, there was another man in another country who rose to power on an army of street thugs. And he had a friend named Ernst Rohm who headed up an organization called the SA. The SA was a political army which protected the Nazi Party leadership as it battled political opponents, and terrorized the German people who opposed Hitler.... It seems that the Obama appointees have almost the same exact policies as the Nazi Party did." (March 13)

"I think [Obama] was hand-picked by some very powerful forces, both within and outside the United State of America, to drag this country into a hell that it has not seen since the Civil War...." (March 19, 2008)

Earlier today, I spoke with Eric Boehlert, a senior fellow at Media Matters. As you might expect, he took issue with the generous tone of Sanneh's article.

"I thought the piece continued this trend, in the mainstream press, to play nice with right-wing hatemongers," Boehlert says. "The New York Times did it last summer, with an 8,000-word magazine cover story on Rush Limbaugh, written by someone who was a devoted fan of Limbaugh's and had written glowingly about him in the past. That piece barely made any mention of the guts of Limbaugh's show, which is hate. And now we see it with Michael Savage as well.

"There's this really creepy contrarianism that glossy magazines love," adds Boehlert. "And they just refuse to deal with the larger trend, which is this unleashed, unhinged hatred that's been dumped into the mainstream media. I don't think Michael Savage is weird or interesting or funny; I think he's dangerous. And it's sort of baffling that the New Yorker would want to so drastically misrepresent what his radio show is."

A few months back, writing for Columbia Journalism Review, Michael Massing urged the press to keep an eye on the nastier manifestations of anti-Obama rhetoric. If nothing else, this week's New Yorker piece will probably make a lot of people a lot less inclined to take Savage's rants seriously.

Since plenty of listeners do take Savage seriously--and since some of them might be inclined to take his exhortations to their logical extreme--that's bad news.

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