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Howard Kurtz Media Notes

The Making of a Red-State Liberal

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 10, 2005; 8:45 AM

The most widely carried liberal on radio is a "prairie-dwelling, red-meat-eating, gun-toting former conservative" who broadcasts from the unlikely locale of North Dakota.

Since launching his syndicated show last January, former football player Ed Schultz has peddled his Fargo brand of populism to 70 markets, including stations in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami, Phoenix, Denver, Boston and Detroit.

_____More Media Notes_____
Department of Self-Defense (washingtonpost.com, Jan 7, 2005)
Inauguration Under Fire? (washingtonpost.com, Jan 6, 2005)
Pretty Ugly, Pretty Fast (washingtonpost.com, Jan 5, 2005)
Tsunami Politics (washingtonpost.com, Jan 4, 2005)
Social Insecurity (washingtonpost.com, Dec 17, 2004)
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"A year ago they were laughing at us," says Schultz, who debuts on Washington's WRC next week. "I knew I had the talent and could get the job done. I didn't believe what the industry was saying, that liberal talk radio couldn't make it."

Schultz, 50, has a long way to go before he approaches the influence of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly and others in the conservative-dominated medium. His tale of how his second wife helped lead him out of the darkness of right-wing belief is a bit too neat, and some recent fundraising for the Democratic Party raises questions about his independence. But Schultz is an overnight sensation with a red-state base and a regular-guy sense of humor, all of which have been lacking in the liberal world.

The show was developed with $1.8 million from Democracy Radio, a New York nonprofit run by Tom Athans, the husband of Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), with a board composed of three Clinton administration veterans. Another Democratic senator, North Dakota's Byron Dorgan, recommended Schultz to Democracy Radio. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) hosted a fundraiser about a year ago at her home for Democracy Radio and Schultz, which was attended by about 20 Democratic senators, including Hillary Rodham Clinton and Tom Daschle. Such lawmakers "feel the acute pain of having talk radio be mostly conservative," Athans says.

Schultz, in turn, contributed $2,000 apiece to Dorgan and Daschle last year.

Ken Karls, North Dakota's Republican chairman, says he stopped listening to Schultz when the radio host became "more and more friendly" with the state's Democratic senators and kept booking them as guests. "He fed them what they wanted to hear," Karls says of Schultz's liberal audience. "When people disagree with him, he has hung up on them."

Big Ed (6-2, 250 pounds) was a college quarterback who briefly made the roster of the Oakland Raiders but became a sportscaster after failing to catch on in the NFL. He drifted into political talk after voting for Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. "I was pretty much a warmonger and a pretty greedy guy," he says. "I always wanted to make as much money as I possibly could and felt the downtrodden didn't deserve a break."

In the fairy-tale version recounted in his book, "Straight Talk From the Heartland," Schultz saw the light during a first date with the woman who would become his second wife, Wendy, who managed a Fargo homeless shelter. He spoke with military veterans there and realized they were not the bums and freeloaders he had lambasted on the air.

Schultz says his views evolved over time until he declared on the air in 2000 that he was a Democrat. He loves to rip President Bush and "the righties" and calls conservative radio hosts "mean-spirited and intentionally dishonest." Asked if he isn't equally as tough, Schultz says: "I do it with facts. I pound it right back at them. I don't think there's any question the media in this country is intimidated by the Bush White House."

Schultz, who has been profiled by "Today" and praised by Esquire, has received only a sliver of the media attention lavished on Al Franken and the liberal Air America network, which is on 40 stations. Schultz, who is syndicated by Jones Radio and still does his local morning show, casts himself as a broadcaster practiced at entertainment rather than a celebrity trying to learn radio.

Insisting he's no Democratic foot soldier, Schultz criticizes John Kerry as a terrible presidential candidate and says "the righties connect with Joe Beercan better than the Democrats do." He also opposes abortion but doesn't talk about it on the air, calling it "a lousy talk radio topic."

But Schultz is clearly close to the party. In a 2003 speech at the Capitol, he urged two dozen Democratic senators to support liberal radio, after which he says Clinton offered to help. In recent weeks, he raised thousands of dollars by asking listeners to contribute to the party's successful effort to win a recount for Christine Gregoire in the Washington state governor's race. "I don't know the first thing about Christine Gregoire," Schultz admits, "but I know there were allegations of election fraud."

Will Schultz abandon North Dakota for big-city stardom? He just rented an apartment on Capitol Hill and plans to spend more time here.

A question from this column has prompted one of three Baghdad brothers to leave the blog they had launched to support Iraqi democracy.

Omar and Mohammed Fadhil, who are both dentists, stopped by for an interview last month during a visit to the United States. They said Ali, their brother and co-author of their site, IraqtheModel, couldn't make the trip.

Now Ali has declared in an online posting: "I had some serious doubts about that trip to the U.S. and did express them to my brothers. I saw that it was an unnecessary risk."

After Omar and Mohammed were ushered into a hastily scheduled meeting with President Bush, the trip's coordinator provided an e-mail address to ask the brothers about their reaction to the Oval Office session. This reporter's message apparently went to Ali.

"I got a mail from a journalist in the Washington Post asking about the meeting with (POTUS). After that mail, I decided to quit," he writes. Concerned that the Arabic media picked up news of the Bush sitdown from this column, Ali says: "It's one thing to risk your life for doing what you believe in and serving your country and humanity and it's totally another thing to risk your life just to meet (POTUS)."

Omar and Mohammed said last month that they refused to be afraid about speaking out. Ali, meanwhile, apologized for suggesting in his farewell posting that some Americans had been engaging in unspecified bad conduct and he would "expose these people in public very soon." That declaration, he writes, "was probably the most stupid thing I've ever done in my life."

How exactly did Newsweek's Evan Thomas score a post-election interview with John Kerry? "The pundits have never liked me," the Democratic candidate told him. "Is it the way I look? The way I sound?"

"A lot of it was off the record," Thomas says of the 2 1/2-hour session. "I would get him to put certain things on the record." Kerry summoned Thomas to his Boston townhouse in early November to complain about the harsh and gossipy tone of the magazine's behind-the-scenes post-election report -- now expanded into a book -- noting, for instance, that Newsweek twice called him soporific.

"I'm sorry he felt that way," says Thomas, who tried to get Kerry's permission to report the remarks before the book's publication this week. "I think he was doing his duty to stand up for his staff and family, for Teresa." Thomas's talk with Kerry prompted him to make a few changes in the manuscript.

Daniel Finney resigned as a St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter after being suspended for blogging. But not just any kind of blogging. As reported by the Riverfront Times, Finney wrote "Rage, Anguish and Other Bad Craziness in St. Louis" under a pseudonym, often ripping his employer. Of the Post-Dispatch's annual 100 Neediest Cases drive, which the veteran reporter wrote about for the paper, Finney said on his blog: "I must admit that I feel as if a good number of these needy cases could be avoided by a well-placed prophylactic."

Finney, who declined an interview request by The Post, told the Times: "It was a kid's mistake, and I'm old enough to know better, and I regret it."

Back to Beltway news...the next big battle is the age-old war over spending:

"In his budget request to Congress, President Bush will try to impose firm, enforceable limits on the growth of federal benefit programs, and the chairmen of the Senate and House Budget Committees say they strongly supported that effort," says the New York Times.

"Administration officials and Congressional aides said Mr. Bush would also seek cuts in housing assistance for low-income families, freezes or slight increases in most domestic programs, and larger increases for domestic security. The spending plan for 2006, like the appropriations enacted for this year, would give priority to military operations and domestic security over social welfare programs...

"Officials at the affected agencies said he would propose a virtual freeze for the National Science Foundation and a very small increase for the National Institutes of Health."

I'll believe it when I see it. Everyone talks tough at the beginning of a budget year and usually caves by the end.

As I predicted...the Bush administration, in the person of N. Gregory Mankiw, says his boss isn't planning to cut retirement benefits, as they define cut:

"President Bush's top economic adviser, responding to criticism of the administration's plans to shore up Social Security, said the White House isn't seeking to slash retiree benefits, but aims simply to stop the system from showering ever-larger benefits on each new generation of retirees," the Wall Street Journal reports.

Bush and Clinton now have a "surprisingly warm and personal" relationship, says Newsweek.

The Gonzalez hearings are still making waves.

Slate's Dahlia Lithwick delivers this indictment:"The problem with Alberto Gonzales' Senate testimony wasn't that he was a weasel who refused to answer straight questions: Such conduct is de rigueur at confirmation hearings. The problem with his testimony is that it highlights the most toxic aspect of the Bush administration -- its willingness to be 'brave' only in private.

"Consistently throughout the testimony, Gonzales chose to be irresponsible, forgetful, and unaccountable on issues that warrant serious intellectual scrutiny. There is, for instance, a legitimate legal argument to be made for torturing terrorists -- such as al-Qaida operations chief Abu Zubaida -- in 'ticking time bomb' situations. Even liberal legal scholars such as Alan Dershowitz have been brave enough to make the argument publicly. But Alberto Gonzales was not. There are crucial empirical questions about whether torture even produces reliable information (and if it does not, why even solicit a Bybee memo?). John Ashcroft was willing to opine on that subject. But Gonzales was not.

"There is a legitimate legal argument to be made about the applicability of the Geneva conventions to stateless terrorists who wear no uniforms. Gonzales was brave enough to make it in his draft memo of January 2002. But he barely had the stomach to stand behind it -- suggesting that it might be 'appropriate to revisit' the conventions -- the way you might revisit your choice of wedding florist. There is also a theoretical argument to be made that the president can unilaterally disregard what he deems unconstitutional statutes. Clinton's acting Solicitor General Walter Dellinger made that argument in 1994. But Gonzales was barely brave enough to concede it in a hypothetical -- insisting over and over that the issue would never arise since the president just doesn't believe in torturing people.

"Why is a man so unabashedly willing to 'lean forward' on the boundaries of the law in the plushy comfort of his White House conference room, willing to be blown back into near-limbo position when it comes to articulating his legal views in public?"

Salon's Eric Boehlert skewers Fox over its tsunami coverage:

"On the eve of the Alberto Gonzales confirmation hearings for attorney general, Fox's Bill O'Reilly was doing what he likes best Wednesday night, uncorking a verbal tirade against guests who believe -- unlike Gonzales -- that the U.S. should observe the guidelines of the Geneva Convention. Torture, Iraq and patriotism were all bound up in a typical us vs. them 'debate.' And the best part for Fox News? It had nothing to do with the tsunami that devastated South Asia. To date, the news outlet has covered the disaster haltingly, exposing itself once again as, first and foremost, the home of angry Republicans.

"Whereas rival CNN has torn up its regular programming and dispatched an army of staffers to the ravaged region, Fox News appears to be going through the motions on the colossal story. Rather than breaking news, Fox feeds off partisan sparks. And it's hard to get angry about a natural disaster because empathy does not lend itself to outrage -- although that hasn't stopped the high-priced talking heads at Fox from trying to turn the tsunami into a contentious issue.

"If the Republican National Committee doesn't have an angle on the story, then neither, apparently, does Fox News. And the last time we checked, there were no GOP talking points on natural disasters of biblical proportions. The best Fox News could do in terms of political spin was to bolster claims by the Department of Defense that the Bush administration was not slow to react to the crisis. Fox also routinely referred to the White House's 'initial' aid package as being worth $35 million, not the more accurate and paltry sum of $15 million. At one point during the Dec. 31 telecast, a picture of George Bush appeared in the upper left-hand corner of the Fox News screen with the words 'Stop the Bush Bashing,' according to News Hounds, a Fox News watchdog site. . . .

"Even when faced with covering a global humanitarian crisis, Fox News is incapable of turning off its robotic partisanship, not to mention its ever-present sense of victimization. . . . Back on the night of Dec. 30, when CNN was going wall-to-wall with its tsunami coverage, Fox was airing, as the Los Angeles Times noted, a rerun of O'Reilly interviewing actress/fitness guru Suzanne Somers.

"While Fox News seems oddly bored with the tsunami coverage, CNN does at times seem a bit too enthralled by the story. Its wall-to-wall coverage has been reminiscent of the media's weeklong Ronald Reagan wake last summer."

Tim Rutten of the Los Angeles Times makes a somewhat different comparison in the cable coverage: "The most dramatic increase went to CNN, the most traditional and -- shall we say, mainstream -- of the trio. In the week after the tragedy, CNN's daily audience increased 38%, while its prime-time viewers grew by a striking 46%. Fox News, cable's ratings leader, experienced more modest gains of 20% and 25%, respectively.

"There's a simple explanation for the disparity. While Fox is a series of chat shows linked by snippets of fragmentary information, much of it derived from other sources, CNN not only has maintained its domestic and international news-gathering capabilities, but -- in recent weeks -- also has renewed its managerial commitment to the primacy of hard news. Because it was able to draw on the resources of its own Bangkok, Indonesian, New Delhi and Hong Kong bureaus, as well as CNN International's network of regular stringers, CNN had more than 80 journalists on the scene within days of the disaster. Fox News had 30. The BBC, whose audience grew at an even greater rate than CNN's, had more than 100 people in the field. "Real news is covered in the same way that real wars are won: by putting enough boots on the ground."

But CNN's ratings usually decline when a major event fades from the news.

Wonkette picks up on a bit of tsunami stage-managing:

"Senate majority leader Bill Frist is getting flack for stage directing a photo shoot in Sri Lanka, reportedly telling a staffer, 'Get some devastation in the back.' This seems insensitive and opportunistic, but at least it's honest. Folks like Jeb Bush just sort of shuffle in front of orphans and hope someone notices."

InstaPundit Glenn Reynolds opines on Armstrong Williams accepting $240K from the Education Department to tout the president's policies:

"I've never had anybody offer me money in exchange for blog posts . . . but I have been offered substantial amounts of money to author opeds furthering the agenda of some people. I declined; even if it were an opinion I already held, undisclosed third-party payola just seemed wrong to me. I think the same thing's true for blogs, which is why I think that the DaschlevThune folks should have disclosed the money they got.

"On the other hand, payola for op-eds of the sort I describe above isn't so unusual that people should think the blogosphere is more likely to suffer from undisclosed payments than other areas -- something that the Armstrong Williams case illustrates, too, of course. I'm rather skeptical of the notion of some sort of Official Blogger's Code of Ethics, with blogs that sign on displaying the seal of approval. Kind of reminds me of the Comics Code Authority, and I'm generally skeptical of those kinds of ethics codes anyway."

Has "blog" become a radioactive word? Check out these comments from Editor & Publisher:

"'I think there's a real role for blogs in the future of online journalism,' says Doug Feaver, executive editor of washingtonpost.com. But how exactly to handle them, he says, 'is one of the main questions for mainline news sites.' For starters, there's the question of terminology. 'We're going to have to call them something else,' Feaver says, noting the 'baggage' the term carries with some newspaper editors.

"His designated successor, Jim Brady, who takes over in February, notes that when they discuss blogs with editors from the print Post, they don't use the 'b' word."

And here I thought I was blogging away! How deluded of me. It's actually an online compilation written in real time with links to news stories and some bl--I mean, some journals of Web opinion. I stand corrected.

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