Letter 13: “Host”

Dear Mr. Wallace,

I try to teach my AP English Literature students to pay very close attention to the form or structure of a passage – be it prose or poetry – as it may be a reflection of the content and the theme the author is trying to convey.  This is most true with poetry, in that the rhyme and rhythm often contribute to the meaning of the work as a whole.  Each poetic form has a set of rules to follow, and following those rules can greatly enhance the theme of the poem.[1]

With “Host,” you break from your traditional form of paragraphed text and footnotes,[2] so I immediately tried to figure out why.  Why this format of flowcharts on crack within the body of your text?  Why not resort to your signature footnotes?  I can only imagine the migraines that this essay gave the editors and publishers.

Several pages into it, the reason started to become clear.  The world of political talk radio, of which the subject of your essay, John Zeigler, is a part, is an extremely confusing, mixed-up, jumbled mess.  I recall the transcript of a conversation with a station executive, in which you unsuccessfully tried to get her to define the word “stimulating,” which is the core adjective of the radio broadcast.  Or how Mr. Zeigler was fired from his job as a talk radio host at one station in the midst of a firestorm of controversy, only to be hired shortly thereafter by another radio station in a much larger market that just happened to be owned by the same parent company.  So getting fired actually ended up turning into a promotion.  Trying to wrap one’s brain around the business of “stimulating” talk radio is a difficult task indeed.

But it seems that the jumbled mess that is political talk radio is a reflection of the political system that talk radio talks about.  Like talk radio, politics these days seems to favor personality over actual politics.  Candidates, like the talking heads who praise or persecute them, often seem more concerned about being “stimulating” than they do about affecting policy.  Voters often cast their ballots on the basis of which candidate they’d most like to sit down and have a beer with, rather than who would make the better leader of the free world.  Ever since the famous Kennedy-Nixon television debate, public appearance[3] has become a top priority for any candidate.  Campaign promises and political agendas are reduced to three-second “stimulating” sound bites.  Electing a public official, especially on the national level, seems based more on likability than on leadership.

In addition, politicians, like the pundits, rely heavily on fear and anger to win the favor of the masses.  More important than fixing our problems is telling us who’s to blame for them and how bad things will be if the other guy – or gal – is elected into office.  They – again both the politicians and pundits – don’t want an informed, intelligent citizenry.  They want purely emotionally driven votes, and two of the most powerful emotions that drive voters to the polls are fear and anger.  They thrive off of these feelings, as reflected in the polls and the listener ratings and, most importantly, the advertising dollars.

Your essay here, “Host,” in all its arrows and textboxes, shows us what a huge jumbled mess both our political system and the talk radio coverage of that system truly are.  The form follows the function.  You use a jumbled mess of an essay to illustrate what a jumbled mess it all is.  There is some truth in there somewhere, it just gets lost in all the rhetoric and the tangents and the “stimulatingness.”

My question, then, is who is going to actually make sense of it all for us?

[1] For example, in a villanelle, the first and third lines of the first stanza are repeated throughout the rest of the poem.  This can give the poem a sort of “one step forward, two steps back” feel to it.  These are often poems of lament, and the repetition in the poem gives the reader a sense that the poet is stuck or wallowing in his or her sadness.

[2] And footnotes within the footnotes and interpolations and…

[3] That is, appearance on television and radio, and now online.