Wednesday, February 20, 2013

A Dirty Little Secret

P.T. Barnum was famous for putting on a show that 1) people wanted to see and 2) kept people talking. He presented ordinary things in extraordinary ways, and his presentation made him a household name in the mid-1800s. Interestingly enough, he was also a Republican legislator and highly sought after speaker – a fact that makes this editorial even more relevant.

When he established “P.T Barnum's Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan & Hippodrome,” which later became known simply as the “Barnum and Bailey Circus,” PT Barnum reached the height of his career as he paraded his troupe across the world.

Because of his inventive promotional style, he was known as the “Shakespeare of Advertising” and his public persona’s love of fame was once quoted as saying, “I don't care what they say about me, just make sure they spell my name right.”

Still, no matter how much he promoted his business or the character he publicly portrayed, he was a man much greater than the sum of his parts. He was an author and a philanthropist who hated slavery and racism, believed in suffrage, and helped establish the hospital in Bridgeport, CT where he lived. As a member of the state House, speaking to the Connecticut legislature over the ratification of the 13th Amendment, he said, “A human soul, ‘that God has created and Christ died for,’ is not to be trifled with. It may tenant the body of a Chinaman, a Turk, an Arab or a Hottentot – it is still an immortal spirit.”

While a politician in 2013 would refrain from using terms like “Chinaman” and “Hottentot,” taken in the context of Barnum’s time, those were not derogatory terms, and his sentiment was simply that a life is a life, and we shouldn’t discount that.

More and more frequently I hear people blast talking heads like Rush Limbaugh, Rachel Maddow, Keith Olbermann, S.E. Cupp, and others like them.

Those on the left scream about the ones on the right and vice versa. “How DARE he/she say INSERT INFLAMATORY STATEMENT HERE! Can you believe what that right wing fascist/lefty communist said on INSERT TELEVISION/RADIO PROGRAM HERE?”

Yes. Yes I can, because it’s all about understanding perspective.

Perspective is important. Keeping “pundits” in perspective is important, and here’s the dirty little secret.

Cupp, Limbaugh, Maddow, Olbermann, and the others don’t get on network airwaves and rant as volunteers.

They’re paid and paid well, but there’s a catch. They have to produce.

They have to build an audience because it’s that audience that helps determine advertising rates. The greater the number of viewers, listeners, or readers, the more an outlet can charge for advertising. If Cupp, Limbaugh, Maddow, or Olbermann aren’t producing an audience, that means people aren’t watching, listening, or reading that particular media outlet. If people aren’t watching, listening, or reading, ad rates and ad sales drop. That hurts a media outlet’s profitability.

You see, talking heads have bosses that include radio and television and newspaper and magazine executives, and those radio and television and newspaper and magazine executives have bosses that make up corporate boards charged with increasing profits, and those corporate boards have bosses made of stockholders who expect return on their investments. In other words, entertainment is a business, and talking is part of the job.

Don’t get me wrong. The talking heads on both the left and right believe a lot of what they say, but like Barnum, each is greater than the sum of his or her parts. In their private lives, these entertainers are parents, spouses, philanthropists, community volunteers, hobbyists, and just regular people.

When it comes to their work personas, though, it’s their job to get you to listen, watch, or read. It’s their job to get you passionate, engaged, or even mad. It’s their job to say things that get you to talk about them and to get your friends to listen, watch, or read so that they get passionate, engaged, or even mad. Then they’ll tell their friends, and, well, you get the picture.

The talking heads are like P.T. Barnum. They’re sideshow promoters. They’re circus ringmasters charged with getting viewers, listeners, and readers to buy a ticket and watch, listen to, and read about their daily or weekly circus. The only difference is that instead of sword swallowers, fire eaters, and a traveling menagerie of characters, today’s barkers parade opinions designed and phrased to raise your blood pressure.

So when you see CNN, MSNBC, FOX News, and other outlets in any form of media, and you see, hear, or read something that really gets to you, take it in the spirit in which it was intended – a means to increase radio and TV ratings, spur a greater readership, and generate more web traffic.

Oh, and if there are any radio, television, or magazine execs reading this and looking for new carnival barkers, to you I simply say, “Step right up! This way to the greatest show on earth!” Call me.

Taft Matney is a partner with TM Public Relations, a strategic communications and governmental affairs firm in Greenville, SC. Follow him on Twitter ( and "like" TMPR on Facebook (

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