Part 2—Les Crane invents a world: At the time of his death in 2008, Les Crane was hardly a household name.
Despite this fact, the New York Times published an obituary which ran almost 900 words. Les Crane had "predated Howard Stern as a 'king of all media,'" the piece somewhat obscurely said.
Three weeks earlier, the Times had published a scathing critique of its own Maureen Dowd. The piece was written by Clark Hoyt, the Times' public editor at the time.
Hoyt savaged Dowd for her gender-driven attacks on Hillary Clinton all through the 2007-2008 Democratic presidential campaign. As far as we know, Hoyt's piece is the only serious critique of Dowd's work ever published within the upper-end mainstream press corps.
(In 1992, Katherine Boo had published her prescient account of the "creeping Dowdism" which, she said, was threatening to consume the mainstream press. Boo's piece appeared in the Washington Monthly. It can't be seen on-line.)
In a piece ignored all over the mainstream press, Hoyt savaged Dowd for the way she'd covered the Clinton campaign. Three weeks later, the Times published a surprisingly lengthy review of Crane's brief, long-forgotten career.
Who the heck was Les Crane? We bring a bit of personal experience to that question.
Crane was one of the people who created the culture known as Trumpism. He did this long before Donald J. Trump entered the political ring.
You could almost claim that Crane was the start of the political/journalistic pestilence with which we struggle today. You could almost say that he started us down the road to Camus's plague-ridden Oran.
Crane helped introduce the form of insincere, low-IQ bombast which has made a joke of our national discourse. Who the heck was Les Crane? A bit of personal history:
In the summer of 1960, our family moved from the suburbs of Boston to the suburbs of San Francisco. We were 12 at the time.
The next year, along came Crane, who wasn't a whole lot older. In the passage shown below, the Times explained his role in our current pestilence, which is, in Frost's words, "now too much for us."
Les Crane arrived on the scene in a burst of bombast and feigned anger. His bosses at ABC quickly saw that this approach seemed to sell. The Times' Bruce Weber explains:
WEBER (7/15/08): An early, and by later standards, tame incarnation of a shock jock, Mr. Crane was a radio star in San Francisco in the early 1960s. From a studio in the hungry i, a nightclub that was a launching pad for performers like Mort Sahl, Woody Allen, Barbra Streisand and Lenny Bruce, he took listeners’ calls from all over the West Coast, fielding their questions, sometimes with a celebrity guest, and often dismissing callers’ comments on current events and culture with brusque wit or outright disdain, simply hanging up on some in what was then a startling breach of accepted etiquette.Long story short: Crane didn't succeed as a late-night, national TV host. Before long, he left the world of broadcast altogether, becoming a producer of video games such as Pong—and no, we aren't making this up.
His station, KGO, was owned by ABC, and the parent company transferred Mr. Crane first to the local television affiliate and then to its flagship station, WABC in New York. The show, initially with the title “Night Line ... With Les Crane” and later as “The Les Crane Show” was first broadcast in September 1963, beginning at 1 a.m. Within two months it was the object of civil rights picketers protesting the appearance on the show of Gov. George Wallace of Alabama.
Calling him “the bad boy of late night television,” The New York Times described Mr. Crane’s role on the show as “public relations expert, complaint-department chief, psychiatrist and tough hero to the callers.”
The show was well-received, and Mr. Crane, telegenic, blithely confrontational and at least partly hip...was attractive enough that the following summer the network gave him a weeklong tryout in the 11:30 p.m. slot with a more conventional talk show, again called “The Les Crane Show,” which was broadcast in five big cities.
But in that early incarnation, he seems to have invented the format in which the deliberate dumbness of the radio "shock jock" is turned loose on the issues of political world. Inexorably, this has led to our current world, which resembles the pestilence-ridden world Camus described in The Plague.
In our recollection, the Times obituary glossed the distinctive trait of Crane's stint at KGO. We recall being puzzled, in a manner the Times describes, by the way he would insult the late-night callers with whom he disagreed. He would then dramatically slam down the phone as he showered them with invective.
(At one point, Variety was more direct in its description of Crane. It described him as "the popular, confrontational and sometimes controversial host of San Francisco's KGO. Helping to pioneer talk radio, he was outspoken and outraged some callers by hanging up on them." What an exciting game!)
In our recollection, this "startling breach of accepted etiquette" lay at the heart of the controversy which quickly swirled around Crane. "And the less the better," was one instant refrain as he succeeded mightily on the local level.
Crane was stupid, abrasive, rude. And alas! Bringing the eternal note of sadness in, the corporate suits apparently liked what they heard and saw.
His loud, bombastic insult shtick was an instant attention- and ratings-grabber. The suits believed they could make money with Crane. They moved him to the national level, where he didn't succeed at that time.
Crane didn't succeed at the national level. But the Times obituary seems to say that he invented something new in that short stint at KGO, when his stupid, rude and faux behavior helped create a world.
Could it be true? Did Les Crane invent a world, a world which still exists?
We've never seen an attempt at a full history of the road to the serfdom of modern "talk." But as it turned out, it was a short step from Crane's insincere insult shtick to the world of national low-IQ ratings stars like Don Imus and Howard Stern, whose entire approach is based upon deliberate reversals of standard decorum.
Once you let Imus and Stern on the air on a national basis, it turns out to be a short step to Rush Limbaugh, and then to his million imitators. And after Rush, we got Fox News—and Chris Matthews, and Keith Olbermann. And Brian Williams whining and crying about the disgraceful intentions which lay behind Candidate's Gore's three-button suits.
Williams, who plays a liberal on cable today, was being paid at that time by Jack Welch, the near-billionaire conservative boss of NBC News.
Today, this insincere, low-IQ style is spreading through the liberal world in broadcast form and on the Net. The mainstream press corps complains about this kind of behavior when it comes from Donald J. Trump. They observe a code of silence when it comes from influential colleagues within their own money-clutching guild.
Did Les Crane invent a world? As an example of how faux his whole exercise was, Crane was winning a Grammy, in 1971, for his spoken word recording of the poem Desiderata.
Ten years earlier, he had possibly created a world by slamming down the phone on callers as he heaped insults on their heads. Now he was bullshitting the world with his thoughtful rendering of lyrics such as these:
Go placidly amid the noise and the haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons.You really can't make this sh*t up! But this is part of the way our failing nation has become a pitiful, hopeless version of Camus' plague-ridden Oran.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even to the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons; they are vexatious to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Unfortunately, Crane's success at KGO displayed some basic facts. We the people are eager to chase the excitement of feigned anger and hyperbolic misstatements.
Money can be made that way. Warning:
Tomorrow: Maddow discusses Trump
For extra credit only: The leading authority on Crane's career describes the topic here