US liberals look to airwaves to combat right-wing shock jocks

From the archive (legacy material)

Rupert Cornwell | The Independent | 3 December 2003

For years they have been taking it on the chin, from motor-mouth talk-show hosts, take-no-prisoner conservative authors and all-knowing Republican pundits. Now liberal Democrats are fighting back, with best-selling books, a new Washington think-tank and probably their own radio network.
The network idea has failed before. But in today’s acutely polarised US political climate, and the “love him or loathe him” public attitude to President George Bush, the prospects are brighter than in a long while. Progress Media, the company behind it, has bought radio stations in New York, Los Angeles and other major centres. It hopes to be operating early next year, as the 2004 election campaign moves into gear.
Among hosts being lined up are the former Disney executive, Martin Kaplan, the comedienne, Janeane Garofalo and the comedian and author-activist, Al Franken. Mr Franken is negotiating for his own daily talk-show and has also spearheaded another liberal counter-offensive, into the non-fiction best-seller lists where the hottest polemics had long come from the right. The liberal anti-Bush camp has been making the running with best-sellers, among them Mr Franken’s critique of right-wing politicians and media called Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, Michael Moore’s Dude, Where’s My Country?, and The Great Unraveling, by Paul Krugman, the Princeton economist turned New York Times columnist who has emerged as a liberal lion of the op-ed pages. If Mr Franken lands his show, he will be as outspoken as Rush Limbaugh, the doyen of the conservative hosts, and a good deal less pompous. As Mr Kaplan put it: “The self-righteousness of the right is now their greatest weakness. We need to put those people on a whoopee cushion.”
And the rarefied world of think-tanks has felt the new liberal tide. The centre-left still has august strongholds such as the Brookings Institution. But conservative organisations such as the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute, home of many of the neo-conservatives prominent in the Bush administration, make the most noise. They now have a rival in the liberal Centre for American Progress, headed by John Podesta, a White House chief of staff under Bill Clinton, part-funded by George Soros, the financier who has already given $12m (£7m) to Democratic causes to further his mission of toppling Mr Bush. More than $2m of Soros money has gone to MoveOn.Org, the fast-growing Web-based political group marshalling its forces against Mr Bush. Nor is it a coincidence that internet-mobilised activists are a key element in the success of Howard Dean, the liberal standard-bearer and frontrunner for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination.
A talk-radio network could be another powerful Democratic weapon. Liberal radio had not worked, for reasons including the alleged indifference of liberals to having their views repeated, and a penchant for high-minded worthiness which makes for much political correctness, but dreary radio.
But the “stolen election” of 2000 rankles. Mr Bush inspires a hatred in their ranks that more than matches the loathing conservatives felt for Mr Clinton. And Democrats are outraged by ruthless Republican behaviour. They watched, frustrated, as Texas Republicans railroaded through a state districting plan that may guarantee the party control of Congress for decades. They watched, powerlessly, as the Republican majority on Capitol Hill twisted House rules to secure passage of Mr Bush’s Medicare reform.
There is one problem. Only 20 per cent of Americans consider themselves liberal, 36 per cent call themselves conservative and 40 per cent say they are moderate. The activism might back-fire, galvanising true believers but antagonising the centrists Democrats must attract to prevail.