Coughlin felt betrayed by his listeners who ignored his call, and two weeks after the election he gave a farewell address, saying, "It is better for me to be forgotten." The forgetting had already begun. He had violated a cynical political and talk show principle: The trick is to follow popular opinion so closely that people think you're leading it. Coughlin tried to mold it and direct it. He failed.
In 1938-1939, he capitalized on the looming war, an economy sliding back toward depression, and growing distrust of institutions to return for another broadcast season. But critics now had the courage to confront the vulnerable broadcaster. Stations and sponsors dropped him as listeners abandoned him. His final broadcast was in May, 1940.
Socrates believed that, for a democracy to survive, citizens need to listen to opposing arguments. In our multimedia society, it is virtually impossible to avoid the opposition, which may be why many of us -- perhaps too many - zero in on commentators who share our beliefs. We seek affirmation by "experts." But few of us ever let them lead us farther than we want to go.
Keith Olberman thought his audience would follow him from MSNBC to Al Gore's new network, Current TV, where he would anoint the Democratic nominee; it never happened. Rush Limbaugh opposed John McCain in the GOP primaries in 2008 and Mitt Romney in the run-up to the 2012 nomination. He eventually followed his listeners to those candidates, not the other way around.
Despite what their egos may tell them and cause them to tell us, the army of talk show hosts are not dictators of public opinion; nor are we the mindless followers they would like us to be.
Guiniven retired this year from James Madison University, where he taught corporate communication and public issues management after 30 years in corporate and political public relations. He can be reached at jguini...@gmail.com.