Targeting the Talkers

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 7, 2009; 11:18 AM

There are no fatter targets for the left than the talk-show titans of the right.

With Bush back in Texas, Cheney writing his memoirs and Palin going rogue on her forthcoming book tour, no one seems to get the liberal juices flowing like Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh (cover of Newsweek) and Glenn Beck (cover of Time).

They are the ones who rile up Obama supporters with their relentless attacks. They are professional provocateurs who draw more attention than the GOP's leaders in Congress or the potential 2012 contenders (and if Mike Huckabee didn't have a Fox show, he'd get even less). They are depicted, fairly or unfairly, as the bellowers-in-chief of a conservative noise machine.

My view is that they control no votes, no factions, no military units, but they do have powerful microphones. Whatever influence wielded by Beck and Hannity and Limbaugh (or by liberal commentators on the other side) stems from their ideas and their talents as infotainers. If they peddle misinformation and exaggerations, that can be neutralized by others in the media marketplace. Nearly everyone dismissed Beck's charge that the president is a racist, but the ACORN videos he and Hannity trumpeted on Fox proved to be a legitimate story.

The latest twist is that a few voices on the right are now openly challenging the talkmeisters. First it was David Frum, and now David Brooks has joined the fray:

"It is a story of remarkable volume and utter weakness. It is the story of media mavens who claim to represent a hidden majority but who in fact represent a mere niche -- even in the Republican Party. It is a story as old as 'The Wizard of Oz,' of grand illusions and small men behind the curtain. . . .

"Over the years, I have asked many politicians what happens when Limbaugh and his colleagues attack. The story is always the same. Hundreds of calls come in. The receptionists are miserable. But the numbers back home do not move. There is no effect on the favorability rating or the re-election prospects. In the media world, he is a giant. In the real world, he's not.

"But this is not merely a story of weakness. It is a story of resilience. For no matter how often their hollowness is exposed, the jocks still reweave the myth of their own power. They still ride the airwaves claiming to speak for millions. They still confuse listeners with voters. And they are aided in this endeavor by their enablers. They are enabled by cynical Democrats, who love to claim that Rush Limbaugh controls the G.O.P. They are enabled by lazy pundits who find it easier to argue with showmen than with people whose opinions are based on knowledge. They are enabled by the slightly educated snobs who believe that Glenn Beck really is the voice of Middle America.

"So the myth returns. Just months after the election and the humiliation, everyone is again convinced that Limbaugh, Beck, Hannity and the rest possess real power. And the saddest thing is that even Republican politicians come to believe it. They mistake media for reality. They pre-emptively surrender to armies that don't exist."

But their influence lies in influencing the debate, not in turning out votes. The Nation's Ari Melber picks up the point:

"Even the proudest pundits would shrink from the notion that they swing elections. (Rush Limbaugh is probably the only exception.) Most members of the activist conservative media machine do not define their success by electoral results. And that is one reason they look so successful right now. . . .

"Glenn Beck has a long list of concerns about the country's direction. Yet since Obama's election, his most successful efforts have focused on attacking members of the administration and (putative) allies. He is trying to stop Obama, not jump-start the mid-terms.

"Congressional Republicans have not exactly distinguished themselves for an enlightened posture towards the new president, but to be fair, even they do not share all of Beck's obsessions. . . .

"At bottom, however, Brooks misses what's really happening beyond the cost to the GOP. The Obama backlash is about now, not future elections. It is about attacking, distracting and delegitimizing the president to thwart his agenda. It is about ratcheting up the national 'discourse,' such as it is, and turning the banal to controversial. It is about framing and distorting the debate -- all to impact how both parties govern in real time. Shaping public policy when you're out of power is really quite an achievement. Sometimes, just being seen is enough."

Being heard, too. Don't forget radio.

Turns out Peggy Noonan isn't a fan of the echo chamber either -- though she gives it to both sides:

"You know the current media environment. You think I'm about to say, 'Boy, what's said on cable, radio and the Internet now is really harmful and dangerous.' And you're right, and it is. Some of the ranters don't have the faintest idea where the line is. 'They keep moving the little sucker,' said the William Hurt character, the clueless and unstoppable anchorman, in 'Broadcast News.' They've been moving the little sucker for 20 years. But it's getting worse, and those who warn of danger are right.

"Two examples from just the past week. A few days ago, I was sent a link to a screed by MSNBC's left-wing anchorman Ed Schultz, in which he explained opposition to the president's health-care reform. 'The Republicans lie. They want to see you dead. They'd rather make money off your dead corpse. They kind of like it when that woman has cancer and they don't have anything for us.' Next, a link to the syndicated show of right-wing radio talker Alex Jones, on the subject of the U.S. military, whose security efforts at the G-20 Summit in Pittsburgh show them to be agents and lackeys of the New World Order. 'They are complete enemies of America. . . . Our military's been taken over. . . . This is the end of our country.' Later, 'They'd love to kill 10,000 Americans,' and, 'The republic is falling right now.'

"This, increasingly, is the sound of our political conversation. It is not new to call this kind of thing destructive, though it is. It is a daily agitating barrage that coarsens and inflames. It tears the national fabric. But it could wind up doing worse than that."

Noonan worried about violent and unstable people hearing such rants.

Footnote: Speaking of Rush, he's part of a group bidding for ownership of the St. Louis Rams. "Limbaugh -- a native of Cape Girardeau, Missouri -- first mentioned his interest in owning the NFL team this spring, and has now teamed with St. Louis Blues owner Dave Checketts to submit a bid." Though the team isn't officially for sale. You may remember Limbaugh's brief career as an NFL commentator, till he talked himself out of a job.

Letterman's Lover

Was Dave involved in a love triangle? Or, more accurately, a sexual triangle? The New York Post, which tends to be well sourced with local prosecutors, reports:

"Pretty former 'Late Show' staffer Stephanie Birkitt revealed in her diary that she continued having sex with boss David Letterman even after moving in with her CBS-producer boyfriend, who later allegedly tried to extort him over the affair, sources told The Post.

"Letterman and Birkitt enjoyed romantic hikes last fall at his sprawling ranch in eastern Montana -- where he was married in March -- while her boyfriend, '48 Hours Mystery' producer Robert 'Joe' Halderman, stayed home in Connecticut, the sources said.

"At the time, Birkitt, 34, insisted to Halderman that she and the 62-year-old Letterman had just 'a platonic relationship,' a source said. 'I'm his best friend,' Birkitt told the worried 51-year-old Halderman, the source said. . . .

"The multimillionaire comic even did his best to keep Birkitt, a graduate of Benjamin Cardozo Law School, on his payroll. After she graduated in June 2008, he offered her a job as his personal lawyer, the sources said. Birkitt later tried to use the generous offer to persuade Halderman to have children with her, saying she would bring in the bucks in her new job and he could stay home as a Mr. Mom, the sources said.

"Halderman exploded when he read Birkitt's diary in December and learned that she was still carrying on a steamy affair with Letterman, the sources said."

I wonder who they're casting in the movie.

Maureen backs Dave:

"Letterman's talent doesn't give him a free pass -- he described his own behavior as 'creepy' -- and his wife (a former staffer at NBC) has a right to be deeply hurt and furious.

"But it's absurd to compare a jester (unmarried at the time) to Bill Clinton and other philandering pols. Officeholders run as devoted family men upholding old-fashioned values. They have ambitious public agendas and loyal acolytes whose futures depend on whether these leaders succumb to reckless dalliances.

"As Craig Ferguson, whose show is produced by Letterman, joked: 'If we are now holding late-night talk-show hosts to the same moral accountability as we hold politicians or clergymen, I'm out.' "

Dowd may cut Letterman some slack, but a major women's group has turned on him -- sort of: "The National Organization for Women calls on CBS to recognize that Letterman's behavior creates a toxic environment and to take action immediately to rectify this situation. With just two women on CBS' Board of Directors, we're not holding our breath." What action does the group have in mind? Sensitivity seminars?

Are the revelations hurting Letterman? They might be. "Nearly one-third of Americans say they are less likely to watch "Late Show" host David Letterman following the funnyman's admission that he has had affairs with women who work on his CBS show. . . .

"A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that 29 percent said they are less likely to watch the show after Letterman admitted on Thursday that he was the target of an extortion plot connected to an affair he had with staffer Stephanie Birkitt. Just five percent said that Letterman's disclosure of sexual misbehavior makes them more likely to watch the show. A whopping 63 percent said it has no impact on their decision to watch the show.

"Forty-two percent of adults still have at least a somewhat favorable opinion of Letterman, but that's down eight points from May, while 46 percent view him unfavorably."

Good thing he's not running for reelection.

Intellectually Inconsistent?

The Republicans have hurled a number of arguments at Obamacare -- and Jonathan Chait argues in the New Republic that they don't add up:

"On the first day of the Senate Finance Committee's hearings on health care reform, Senator Jon Kyl, a fiery free-market fundamentalist, assailed reform as a 'stunning assault on liberty.' By day two, he had turned to the more prosaic task of reversing the bill's cuts in the Medicare budget. The elderly, Kyl fretted, 'have reason to be worried that portions of this bill could affect their care.' Note that neither health care experts nor even the AARP believes the cuts would hurt senior citizens. But Kyl and the Republicans have managed to outflank even the most hard-core pension-rights lobbyists.

"One could muster ideological extremism to make the case that the government has no business subsidizing health insurance for people who can't get it. Alternatively, one could make the equally nutty case that Medicare should not lose a single dollar from its budget, however wasteful and inefficient it may be. But no political philosophy on earth could justify both of these fanatical positions at once. Somehow, though, the Republican Party has managed to stake out this absurd territory--Claude Pepper minus the social conscience, Milton Friedman without the small government."

On the other hand, the Dems got lots of political mileage denouncing Newt's Medicare reductions in the '90s. Majority parties, though, have to govern.

The Democratic plan is winning a few converts, but does it matter? "Okay," says Time's Karen Tumulty, "maybe it's not enough to call a groundswell. But after former Majority Leader Bill Frist told me last Friday that he would end up voting for the bill were he still in Congress (with some caveats about the shortcomings of the legislative language as it now stands), we've heard from some other GOP voices in support of the basic contours of Barack Obama's health care reform effort: Bush Administration HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (who ran as a Republican, but who is now an independent)* and Mark McClellan, who ran both the Food and Drug Administration and the Medicare and Medicaid programs under George W. Bush.

"But what was more striking, in its own way, was this op-ed yesterday by Louisana Governor Bobby Jindal, making what the headline described as a 'conservative case' for health reform. Why? Because much of what Jindal calls for is in the legislation."

The catch, as Tumulty points out: None of them can vote in Congress.

Knocking Nobama

Conservatives are savoring Obama's new comedy image. National Review's Rich Lowry goes the sarcasm route:

"A buzz-generating Saturday Night Live skit mocked President Barack Obama for not yet having accomplished anything. Not fair. Obama has been on a roll.

"In nine months, he has breathed life into the Republican party, boosted pro-lifers, tarnished the reputation of regulation, bolstered traditional values, increased the public's desire for immigration restriction, and shifted independent voters rightward. If only RNC chairman Michael Steele were so deadly effective.

"No, Obama hasn't, as once promised, turned back the oceans. Maybe if he gets a second term. Nonetheless, revivifying conservatism almost before books announcing its death could be published qualifies as a feat almost as miraculous. . . .

"Obama's liberal grandiosity has reminded people why they tend to be conservative, something they wanted to forget during the last four years of the Bush administration."

The I-Debut

Imus's first show certainly drew some eyeballs to Fox Business Network: 177,000 viewers, Mediaite reports, a huge increase over the channel's 21,000 average.

Blogging for Pay

At first blush, I like the new FTC rule that bloggers be required to disclose when they're being paid off by the companies they're writing about. But Jeff Jarvis has a different take:

"It is a monument to unintended consequence, hidden dangers, and dangerous assumptions. . . .

"First, Pay Per Post et al, as I realized late to the game, are not aimed at fooling consumers. Who would read the boring, sycophantic drivel its people write? No, they are aimed at fooling Google and its algorithms. It's human spam. And it's Google's job to regulate that.

"Second, the FTC assumes -- as media people do -- that the internet is a medium. It's not. It's a place where people talk. Most people who blog, as Pew found in a survey a few years ago, don't think they are doing anything remotely connected to journalism. I imagine that virtually no one on Facebook thinks they're making media. They're connecting. They're talking. So for the FTC to go after bloggers and social media -- as they explicitly do -- is the same as sending a government goon into Denny's to listen to the conversations in the corner booth and demand that you disclose that your Uncle Vinnie owns the pizzeria whose product you just endorsed."

Still, they're not being prevented from blogging about Uncle Vinnie's pizza. And what if they're blogging about Microsoft and accepting freebies?

Howard Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

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