An open letter to Michael Savage: How both parties have abandoned the working class — and how we can help

The talk-radio host traffics in harmful reactionary rhetoric. But we have to engage his followers, not ignore them

Published April 11, 2016 6:15PM (EDT)

Michael Savage   (AP/John Storey)
Michael Savage (AP/John Storey)

In my last post, I offered an analysis as to how it came to be that the GOP lost control of such a major chunk of its white working class base, observing that it was not Donald Trump's doing but that of talk-radio host Michael Savage, a decade ago. I made the observation that back in 2006, it was Savage's campaign to block an inane Bush plan to sell off the operations at several major American seaports to Dubai Ports World, a conglomerate owned by the government of the United Arab Emirates, that was the key historical moment when this fissure opened up between the RNC oligarchs and Main Street Joe and Jane GOP.

On Thursday and Friday, Savage read liberally on-air from my essay, which he said accurately recounted the course of events, and wondered a loud what my motivation was for writing it. He was quite complimentary of my writing, while also noting I did take issue with what I consider his over-the-top rhetoric aimed at President Obama, undocumented immigrants, and the religion of Islam.

When Savage gets on one of these rhetorical rolls I would find myself talking back to the radio. For instance, you can't rail against illegal aliens without keeping mind how our NAFTA trade policy destroyed Mexico's farming economy, forcing folks into migration. In the same vein, you can't ignore our bipolar drug policy, that on one had has America's insatiable drug appetite feeding the very drug cartels we want to wage war on.  You want migrants to stay home? Stop policies that destroy and undermine their countries.

While addressing my piece, Savage also referred to an earlier piece I wrote about working on the night crew of a local grocery store to supplement my writing income so I could help my daughters pay off their student loans. This, he conjectured, raised the distinct possibility I might be a closet Trump voter.

Needless to say, I wanted to respond to the voice coming out of the radio, but could not reach Savage via email or phone. So, the letter below will have to suffice. This is a high-risk behavior, for both of us to be caught speaking in a civil way with our polar opposite. However, being of a certain age, I remember the worthwhile back and forth between public intellectuals like the late Bill Buckley on the right and Gore Vidal on the left. America was better for those exchanges. We'll see.

* * *

Dear Dr. Savage,

Bob Hennelly here. On Thursday, you read from my Salon post crediting you with offering “sanctuary,” years before the emergence of the Trump campaign, to the white working-class base that was betrayed by the GOP elite.

You mused about what motivated me to write the piece and speculated on my background and circumstance. I was heartened by the notion that, despite the polarity of our politics, there was the potential for a worthwhile exchange, so I tried to email you and call in to your show. Under the current media structure, such dialogue rarely occurs. However, I was unable to reach you, so here goes take three. I thought I would respond to your questions here:

I was born in the City of Paterson where Alexander Hamilton spotted the potential for an industrial nation. It was also in Paterson, during the great silk strikes of the early 20th century, that labor first stood up to plant owners and paid dearly for it. By their sacrifice, they won the end to child labor and a full-time work week limited to 40 hours.

(Today, ironically, people can't get a full-time job.)

From a very early age, I had no choice but to become aware of the power wielded by local government, because the first elected official I met was Bergen County Sheriff Joe Job, a Republican, who handed me, at 13 years of age, the foreclosure papers on my family’s home in Glen Rock, New Jersey. My father worked in the textile industry, but by the time I was a teenager, corporations started shipping more and more of that industry to foreign shores. Our family, like so many others, felt the impact.

The ravages of unfettered global capitalism are not textbook abstractions to me. I was in the workforce by 13, going to school and working after school and on the weekends. Although I went to a very inexpensive state college, I could not afford to graduate and in my twenties found work as a compositor at the local newspaper. I came into the media business through the loading-dock door.

Now at 60, I have managed to spend the majority of my adult life working in journalism, starting in print and moving into radio and TV news, and later on the internet. But my orientation to the world came through working in a diverse number of settings at all kinds of jobs. I have cleared forests and installed vineyards, poured concrete, caught shoplifters, bounced drunks from bars and even danced ballet at the Lincoln Center.

Despite my background in print and broadcast news, these days I write for several places like Salon as a freelancer, because the actual craft of journalism has become captive to large corporations that all too often have other priorities than informing the public. The news industry is now so profit driven, and committed to avoiding employing people full time (with benefits), that it relies less and less on actual reporters and more and more on aggregated content they haven't authenticated backed up by free crowd sourcing. (That's anyone with a pulse and a smartphone.) That's patched together with talking heads spouting opinions with a mix of entertainment personalities.

I am one of the casualties of this realignment. The only silver lining for me is that as a freelancer I can continue to practice journalism using my own news judgement doing the stories the corporate media regularly ignores.

In my work for WBGO, the NPR Jazz station in Newark, for example, I get to walk the streets of the worst neighborhoods in the "Brick City" with a microphone and interview African-American senior citizens, maintaining their rose gardens, in between vacant homes. These derelict structures are the physical manifestation of an ongoing foreclosure crisis that President Obama failed to really deal with, and the media that prematurely declared it over.

These decent people lay awake at night worried that the vacant homes adjacent to theirs will be set on fire by the drug addicts that now claim them. This has happened in the recent past and the fires have jumped to occupied homes. Children have been killed.

I am angry -- like you, only from the left -- because my America is bleeding out. It is not abstract. It is happening right now. There’s no time for a focus group. We are, as my Twitter handle has suggested for years, a Stucknation.

So that’s my context.

As for my motivation for writing the piece about you, it was simple. Our political reporting, as practiced by corporate news, is ahistorical. We hear only handicapping of who might win the election in the future and by how much.

When I read the recent New York Times story about you, having been a long time listener myself, I thought the paper actually missed the story. (Disclosure: I have freelanced for the New York Times.) I wanted to remind readers about your commentary and reporting on the 2006 Dubai Ports deal, when the Bush administration signed off on selling off U.S. port operations to state-owned conglomerate in the United Arab Emirates, because it was one of the rare examples where misrule did not carry the day. Thanks to you -- an informed and engaged public made all the difference. The recent Times story missed this critical part of the Savage Nation narrative.

I felt I could present the totality of my experience of your show that accounted for the things I did not agree with but also described what I found engaging and worthwhile. Of course, for the post on you to come alive it, had to reflect a compression of the historical moment.

Still, this is what I submit is missing entirely from the coverage of the 2016 election. In its place is a patently false narrative about how there was a Great Recession and how, for years now, we have been in a long running “recovery.”

The numbers media analysts use to substantiate this good news are aggregate national data points, like the ones they report out on unemployment. But Dr. Savage, no one lives in the aggregate. People live in counties, cities and towns. So if you want to report on the actual economic conditions of the population, that’s where you look.

Every place has a unique narrative and place matters in reporting the story. As a critical mind and a working journalist, I always double back and ask myself, "How do I know what I know?" Is the economy better just because the White House and the Federal Reserve says so? There’s no replacement for shoe-leather journalism. The only way to get an accurate snapshot of conditions on the ground is to pull the individual data for all the counties that incorporate all our Main Streets. Wall Street is not America!

This is what I did for my last assignment for CBS News MoneyWatch and City & State. As it turns out the National Association of Counties tracks the economic performance of all 3,069 counties. NAC uses four criteria to determine the degree to which a county economy has recovered; annual change in the unemployment rate, post-recession job creation, the county’s gross domestic product, and the median home price.

So far, several years since the alleged recovery kicked in, and only 214, or 7 percent of all of the nation’s counties, have rebounded on all four fronts.

So, here’s what really happened over the last eight years:

  • The so-called "War on Terror" expanded from a few countries to two continents and threatens the social stability of a third.
  • Main Streets saw no recovery.
  • The big banks got bigger.
  • Wealth and income inequality accelerated and African American and Latinos have seen a massive drop in their household wealth with generational consequences.

Meanwhile, in the funhouse of corporate TV news, the pundit class waxes on about the President’s “legacy” recovery, having had limited direct reporting experience with the people or facts on the ground.

The talking heads have no choice but to keep it light and fact free. "Who do you think will win New York? Can you believe that tweet from Trump?" Its empty-headed prattle, cheap pancake make-up over a badly wounded nation, still hurting from the Great Recession and foggy since 9/11.

We are desperate for real reporting, not the aggregation of opinion and conjecture. Hopefully, we can keep this unconventional line of communication open.

By Robert Hennelly

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Media Criticism Michael Savage Talk Radio The Economy The Middle Class