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Howard Kurtz Media Notes

Laura Ingraham, Reporting for W2004

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 30, 2004; Page C01

NEW YORK, Aug. 29 -- As Laura Ingraham begins broadcasting here for the Republican convention, her sympathies are hardly a secret.

The radio host served as master of ceremonies at a Minnesota rally for President Bush 11 days ago. She regularly ridicules John Kerry as "very left-wing," Teresa Heinz Kerry as a flake and John Edwards (dubbed "Silky Pony") while chatting up a parade of mostly conservative guests. And she just as regularly lambastes what she calls "the media machine helping John Kerry."

Laura Ingraham, talking out of the right side of her mouth -- and Democrats don't want to hear it. (Rich Lipski -- The Washington Post)

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"My goal is not to be an objective analyst," says Ingraham.

She is one of more than 100 radio hosts, most of them on the right, descending on Madison Square Garden for Bush's renomination. She has become one of the medium's hottest properties since signing with Talk Radio Network one year ago, airing on 250 stations, including such powerhouses as New York's WABC and San Francisco's KSFO, along with her home station at Washington's WTNT.

Talkers magazine Editor Michael Harrison, who praises Ingraham as "a very smart woman," says Bush needs all the help he can get from radio yakkers. "He has legions of defenders, and even though many are preaching to the choir, some of Bush's problems are so profound that he needs the choir to stay loyal," Harrison says.

Talk radio emerged as a conservative political force in the 1994 elections, when Republicans captured Congress and made Rush Limbaugh an honorary member of the freshman class. Since then, the right's dominance of the medium -- and the rise of new stars such as Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly -- has bolstered Republicans and dogged the Democrats (despite the efforts of the tiny liberal network Air America).

Administration officials such as Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice are happy to call in to Ingraham and her conservative colleagues (Rice has been on Hannity four times in recent months). "We are so proud of you," Ingraham told the national security adviser during a recent interview.

Bush campaign spokesman Terry Holt calls Ingraham "a happy warrior," adding: "It's a fun show to do, it's a fun show to listen to. She's a very effective host."

But the Kerry camp refuses to book guests on Ingraham's show. "She is a partisan," says spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter. "We prefer to spend our time talking to the mainstream media. The people Laura reaches are conservative Republicans who will never vote for John Kerry."

Ingraham, who has interviewed Kerry in the past, says he should definitely make time: "Maybe he can fit us in between hair appointments and his secret talks with world leaders who hate President Bush."

Ingraham (pronounced IN-gram) is on her third or fourth career by now. First female editor of the Dartmouth Review. Reagan administration speechwriter. Clerk for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Criminal defense lawyer for Skadden, Arps. In the late '90s she became a CBS commentator, hosted the program "Watch It!" on MSNBC and wrote books (including "The Hillary Trap") before getting behind the radio mike.

What's striking about Ingraham's 9 a.m. program is how she seamlessly mixes politics and pop culture, talks about her dog and her search for a husband, and leavens it with what she admits is "sophomoric humor." She does a "Lie of the Day" and "Guess the Guest" (by playing Larry King's questions), chats up Darrell Hammond of "Saturday Night Live" and once interviewed a man who invented bird diapers.

"I don't want to hear about politics three hours straight from anyone, let alone me," Ingraham says. "It gets monotonous for the listener. It wouldn't wind my clock."

She's glad she is no longer on cable: "I don't have to talk about Scott Peterson. I don't have to talk about Michael Jackson, except to treat it as a circus. I can talk about substantive, goofy and funny stuff and find angles on stories that maybe aren't being discussed."

As for her political role, "I'm a conservative first and a Republican second. I've been very critical of the Bush administration on a host of issues," including immigration, judicial nominations and not adequately explaining the war on terror.

While Democratic Party Chairman Terry McAuliffe has appeared on Ingraham's show, she admits it's sometimes hard to get Democrats to play ball. Ingraham says some guests are put off by her degree of preparation and aggressive style (she once hung up on a caller for greeting her as "babe").

"It's fun to debate," she says. "I never want to host a show that's all Republican voices. That's mind-numbingly dull. I love mixing it up."

Ingraham has always displayed a knack for grabbing attention. In 1995 she co-founded the conservative retreat Dark Ages as a counterpoint to the liberal Renaissance Weekends. She posed in a leopard-print miniskirt for a New York Times Magazine cover on young conservatives.

Being one of the few nationally syndicated women in a male-dominated medium is irrelevant to her success, says Ingraham, but she must be doing something right. Her spring ratings were up from the previous winter by 143 percent in Washington, 114 percent in Los Angeles, 325 percent in San Diego and 39 percent in New York.

The program is a daily exercise in deconstructing, and ridiculing, what Ingraham calls "the elite media," complete with sound bites from "Today" (Katie Couric and Matt Lauer are frequent targets), "Hardball" and the Sunday shows. She says she knows television's "editing tricks" but also points out when journalists are fair.

In recent weeks Ingraham has been hammering Kerry over the Swift boat controversy, saying he wants to silence veterans who don't support him, and even mocked his appearance on the "Daily Show." But, she insists, "when I think the administration is goofing up something, I'll say it."

The same applies to her: "I can make fun of myself and say, 'That was really stupid.' "

Loaded Response

After sending out a routine press release on abortion, the National Right to Life Committee received a stinging e-mail from Todd Eastham, a Reuters editor in Washington:

"What's your plan for parenting & educating all the unwanted children you people want to bring into the world? Who will pay for policing our streets & maintaining the prisons needed to contain them when you, their parents & the system fail them? Oh, sorry. All that money has been earmarked to pay off the Bush deficit. Give me a frigging break, will you?"

Douglas Johnson, the committee's legislative director, says it's "sad" to see "such blatant hostility" toward the Bush administration and unborn children. But Eastham, saying he doesn't usually edit stories involving abortion, responds that he read the release "as a personal political solicitation and was not responding in my capacity as an editor. I didn't intend this as a professional communication." Reuters spokesman Stephen Naru says it's "unfortunate" that an editor "chose to offer his personal opinion."

The Scoop That Wasn't

Newsweek's Web site last week touted as a big "exclusive" a story about "a previously undisclosed Navy record" that backed John Kerry's account of being under fire when he won a Bronze Star. Small problem: The Nation's David Corn had reported the Bronze Star citation to another Navy man a week earlier. "I'm sorry, I'll write him a nice note," says the Newsweek author, John Barry. "Put it down to a bit of overzealousness on the part of our Web people."

Time Traveler?

Harper's Editor Lewis Lapham has apologized for a piece that described the speeches at the not-yet-held Republican convention, saying "the rhetorical invention was silly" but "the mistake" is "serious."

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