August 16th, 2015
04:59 PM ET

Michael Smerconish on Reliable Sources: “I see shades of Morton Downey Jr. in so much of the political environment today”

Today on CNN’s Reliable Sources, CNN’s Smerconish host and syndicated radio host, Michael Smerconish, joined host Brian Stelter. They discussed Morton Downey Jr.’s influence on the political environment & discourse, and even Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. They also talked about whether there’s an antidote for the tone he influenced.

Reliable Sources airs Sundays, 11 a.m. to noon (ET).

Video & Text highlights and a full transcript from the show are available below.

MANDATORY CREDIT for reference and usage: “CNN’s RELIABLE SOURCES”

VIDEO:

Downey's impact on modern media

TEXT HIGHLIGHTS:

Smerconish on seeing Downey Jr.’s influence on today’s political environment: I see shades of Morton Downey Jr. in so much of the political environment today, where a member of Congress would shout out at the president of the United States, "You lie," during an address to a joint session of Congress. I mean, it was not like this pre-Downey.  Downey was a mile post in the transformation of talk radio on a local basis.  Ideology didn't used to matter.  What mattered was your ability to conduct a conversation and to interact with telephone callers.  This was the beginning of litmus tests.  This was the beginning of everybody reading from the same talking point hymnal. 

CNN host, Michael Smerconish, on how Morton Downey Jr. influenced political discourse: I think, if you were to chart the lack of civility today and go back in time as to when it all began, this man would be a milestone.  I mean, Morton Downey Jr.'s program in the late '80s was absolutely a turning point in terms of what talk radio then was and what cable television eventually would become. …sadly, I think this stuff works.  …If Morton Downey Jr. were among us today and a talk radio host, he would have bought into birtherism.  He would likely have been the one to call Sandra Fluke a slut.  I can easily imagine him to have said what Glenn Beck said, which is that Barack Obama is a racist with a deep-seated hatred for white people.  …I think that these individuals with microphones – have led too many of our elected officials, because they control primary voters.  – so the lack of civility and the polarization in Washington, I say, is directly attributable to this style of media performance.

Smerconish on seeing Downey Jr.’s influence on Trump’s presidential campaign: I think that the Trump appeal is likely to some of the same people, those 20- and 30-somethings who would show up in Secaucus and applaud Morton Downey when he would do this nightly television program.  I think it's the same mentality and frankly that it plays to the very lowest common denominator.

Smerconish on whether there’s an antidote for the tone he influenced: I think that there is. And I think it's a recognition of people, that they need to stop conflating where they get their news and where they get their entertainment, because I think so much of what we see today is entertainment that is masked as news.  And when individuals among us are reliant upon these type of sources, I think it really does take the nation in the wrong direction.

FULL TRANSCRIPT:

THIS IS A RUSH FDCH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

BRIAN STELTER, CNN HOST: Do you remember Morton Downey Jr.?

His talk show blew up the world of daytime TV back in the late 1980s, as Downey spewed populist rage and pushed every liberal button.  His theatrical, over-the-top style arguably set the stage for everything from Rush Limbaugh to reality TV to the Tea Party.

And he is the focus of a new documentary called Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie, premiering here on CNN, Thursday night. I want to think about the impact that this man had on media.

And CNN's Michael Smerconish was just starting out in talk radio as Downey's influence started sweeping across the country.  He's written an op-ed for CNN.com.  It says, "The Man Who Drove Us Into Our National Ditch."

And Michael joins me here on the set now.  So, tell me about this driving into the ditch.

MICHAEL SMERCONISH, CNN HOST & SYNDICATED RADIO HOST:  Well, I think, if you were to chart the lack of civility today and go back in time as to when it all began, this man would be a milestone.

I mean, Morton Downey Jr.'s program in the late '80s was absolutely a turning point in terms of what talk radio then was and what cable television eventually would become.

STELTER:  You have been outspoken about not wanting to pander to the extremes on any side of politics.  You know, your radio program and your program here on CNN emphasize moderation many times, and not the extremes that we sometimes hear on radio.  Do you think that there is a lesson in Downey about what not to do for hosts like you?

SMERCONISH:  Well, sadly, I think this stuff works.  I mean, frankly, take a look at the climate today.  If Morton Downey Jr. were among us today and a talk radio host, he would have bought into birtherism.  He would likely have been the one to call Sandra Fluke a slut.  I can easily imagine him to have said what Glenn Beck said, which is that Barack Obama is a racist with a deep-seated hatred for white people.  So, I think it's a continuum.  But, Brian, this is more than a cultural phenomenon.  Unfortunately, I think that these individuals with microphones...

STELTER:  Yes.

SMERCONISH: ...have led too many of our elected officials, because they control primary voters.  And so the lack of civility and the polarization in Washington, I say, is directly attributable to this style of media performance.

STELTER:  Maybe what is surprising is there aren't more people on TV like him today.

SMERCONISH:  Well, I think that there are.

STELTER:  You think so?

SMERCONISH:  Yes, I do.  I just thank God - I don't think that...

(CROSSTALK)

STELTER:  But he is talking about throwing up in a congressman's face.

(LAUGHTER)

SMERCONISH:  It's true, but I think that if you take a look at the level of discourse that surrounds us - I mean, look at the Trump phenomena and what it plays to.

I see shades of Morton Downey Jr. in so much of the political environment today, where a member of Congress would shout out at the president of the United States, "You lie," during an address to a joint session of Congress. I mean, it was not like this pre-Downey.  Downey was a mile post in the transformation of talk radio on a local basis.  Ideology didn't used to matter.  What mattered was your ability to conduct a conversation and to interact with telephone callers.  This was the beginning of litmus tests.  This was the beginning of everybody reading from the same talking point hymnal.

STELTER:  Trump and Downey actually were good friends at the time of his show.  There are some images that we can show of that. And I think Downey even lived in the Trump Tower when it first opened.

SMERCONISH:  He did.  He absolutely did, yes.

STELTER:  So, do you see influence in Trump's presidential campaign?

SMERCONISH:  I think that the Trump appeal is likely to some of the same people, those 20- and 30-somethings who would show up in Secaucus and applaud Morton Downey when he would do this nightly television program.  I think it's the same mentality and frankly that it plays to the very lowest common denominator.

STELTER:  Is there an antidote for the style that we are hearing about from Morton Downey Jr. or that we now see elsewhere on TV and radio?

SMERCONISH:  Brian, I think that there is.

And I think it's a recognition of people, that they need to stop conflating where they get their news and where they get their entertainment, because I think so much of what we see today is entertainment that is masked as news.  And when individuals among us are reliant upon these type of sources, I think it really does take the nation in the wrong direction.

STELTER:  Maybe that's the takeaway from a film like this – that that's actually entertainment we are seeing, and if you mix it or confuse it as news, that you are making a mistake yourself as a viewer.

SMERCONISH:  But as you - as you well know - and Pew Research has documented this - so many among us are entirely dependent upon singular news sources.  Never have we had so much choice, and yet very few seem to be exercising it.  So, if you are reliant on a media outlet, and if it's giving you that type of a presentation, well, you are taking in entertainment.  You think that it's news, but it's not.

STELTER:  Michael, usually a Saturday morning anchor for us, thanks for being here on Sunday morning.

SMERCONISH:  Thank you for having me.

STELTER:  Good to see you.

SMERCONISH:  You, too.

STELTER:  And a reminder:  The film Evocateur will premiere here on CNN on Thursday night, 9:00 p.m. Eastern time.

###END INTERVIEW###

 


Topics: Brian Stelter • CNN • Reliable Sources
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