<b>Brian Lowry: Tuning In</b>

As the furor over Don Imus’ professional self-immolation for an inflammatory remark about the Rutgers women’s basketball team wound down, ESPN’s new ombudsman surveyed the sports channel’s programming lineup and posed a not-unrelated question.

“Who are these people, and why are they shouting at me?”

Describing her first impression of the cable network, Le Anne Schreiber mused, “The yelling anchors sound manic. The yelling commentators sound angry. None of the yellers sounds to me as if he is reacting authentically to something he cares about.” Bingo.

In the wake of Imus’ firing, sage and sober voices such as New York Times columnist Bob Herbert and the Los Angeles Times’ Tim Rutten have wondered if a sea-change has begun — a push-back against rampant incivility in public discourse.

What they and others have missed is the debased overall state of talk, where three factors — let’s call them “Live, loud and legions” — magnify the likelihood of stupid utterances on TV, radio and the Internet.

Put simply, never have more people who know less been provided free rein to talk quite so much. In that regard, pro sports is a helpful model, since league expansion tends to diminish the quality of play — causing one-time minor-leaguers to prematurely reach the majors.

The same has happened in media, where huge demand for content to fill an expanding roster of channels has diluted the talent pool, handing more undeveloped talkers a megaphone. As a template, look no further than standup comedy, where less-gifted acts resort to raunchiness as a substitute for cohesive, well-thought-out material. The same scenario is reenacted on cable nets and radio stations all over.

In the news and sports realms, moreover, many of these programs air live, heightening the risk something irredeemably ill-considered or inane will find its way into the ether. Following the horrible April 16 massacre at Virginia Tech, for example, a Los Angeles radio show engaged in a semi tongue-in-cheek “who do you blame” call-in segment before the shooter had been identified — a bit of tacky excess even for a medium where taste and restraint are consistently in short supply.

Adding fuel to this potential tinderbox is the mantra to be enthusiastic and “Keep your energy up” — reflecting an underlying it’s-not-what-you-say-but-how-you-say-it assumption that the audience must be constantly prodded (or as Schreiber put it, yelled at) lest they lose interest or nod off. It’s why those ESPN anchors bellow about everything, as if NBA draft order were a matter of national security.

The pressure to be upbeat and in your face represents a notable departure from the signature broadcasters that presided over the airwaves not so very long ago. David Brinkley, after all, delivered news and commentary as if he’d just woken from a refreshing nap, and Ted Koppel manages to be compelling without ever raising his voice.

Those old pros made their bones while the getting was still good. By contrast, consider Jeff Greenfield, the astute new senior political analyst at CBS News, whose career didn’t progress as rapidly as it should have at ABC and CNN because he’s a less dynamic on-camera presence than less-perceptive contemporaries, three of whom currently anchor “Nightline.”

So a proliferating roster of ill-equipped people are being paid to talk — frequently live, without a safety net — and told to be as energetic and provocative as possible.

Given that combustible mix, the real surprise is that there isn’t an Imus moment every 10 minutes. No wonder the Wall Street Journal reported that radio is suffering from a shortage of viable candidates to replace Imus — a list that includes several local personalities who have already been disciplined for verbal gaffes and infractions.

Against this backdrop, it’s impossible to envision a talk renaissance materializing any time soon. Pop-cultural trends can be slowed or temporarily halted, but once Elvis danced on TV and the Beatles visited “The Ed Sullivan Show,” history suggests the clock never goes backward — retreating to a time when the equivalent of big-band music is dominant.

So while fantasies about renewed civility and sobriety in our time have never really quelled, it takes a line from a book — one of those things people read before cable expanded to 300 channels — to put such dreams into perspective. Wrote Hemingway in “The Sun Also Rises: “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

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