Why Even Try The Imitation?

I'm inclined to like rich people who give their money away, who endow the wings of hospitals, keep museums afloat and make it possible for philharmonics to play on. So Anita and Sheldon Drobny are my kind of folks. They've written hefty checks to support programs for children, the arts and Jewish philanthropies. And they've also announced that they would provide a whopping $10 million for something else: an attempt to develop programming to counter the rightward tilt of talk radio.

Mr. and Mrs. Drobny, I salute you, you're wonderful, save your money. And I say that from the bottom of my liberal little heart.

In the internecine warfare between the poles of politics, poles that the vast majority of Americans eschew, the question of whether the media are dominated by left or right has become the reigning parlor game. The Drobnys, along with a lot of other well-connected liberals, have been appalled by the tsunami of high-profile conservative commentators out there. The obvious answer was to try to foment a liberal counterpoint to the Sean Hannitys, the Laura Ingrahams and the Rush Limbaughs.

But obvious answers are often the wrong ones, and so it is in this case. The difference between what many conservatives are doing on air and what liberals ought to be inclined to do is a difference not of ideology, but of technique. And the technique of disdain, derogation and dismissal isn't something you really want to cultivate when the media need content and thoughtful analysis now more than ever.

Look at Ann Coulter, who became the agent provocateur of conservative media with a best-selling book titled "Slander" and another called "Treason." (Next up: "Impetigo!") What is a lifelong liberal, a Roman Catholic who devours books and is nuts about this nation to make of Coulter's assertion that liberals have contempt for religion, don't read and hate America? In your heart, you know she's wrong.

But that's not the point. Coulter has said with gusto that she wishes Timothy McVeigh had blown up the New York Times building, that all Muslims need to be converted and that all reporters are "retarded." There's the crux of the matter in that last word: middle-school rhetoric. Sometimes the level is more poisonous than puerile. That was the case when Michael Savage lost his TV job because he said he hoped a gay male viewer died of AIDS. The executives at MSNBC, the right wing of the parent network, declared themselves shocked. Shame on them; they hired him precisely because his phony last name was a reflection of his on-air persona.

The ascendancy of these commentators allegedly arises from frustration, the frustration of conservatives with what is said to be the overwhelmingly liberal media. There are oft-invoked poll figures: reporters and editors tend to be more liberal in their positions on social issues than the American people. In his book "What Liberal Media?" Eric Alterman suggests that conservatives milk this for all it's worth, playing the bias card in hopes that reporters will lean over backward to prove they're fair. But conservatives needn't bother; reporters have become so paranoid about accusations of bias that they work almost reflexively to refute it, frequently to the detriment of liberal institutions. That's how George W. Bush got a free pass on donning Top Gun gear to land on an aircraft carrier when Bill Clinton would have been lambasted for doing the same.

Conservative journals and TV shows aren't riven by such guilt; they're happily unrepentant about their own rightward slant. And unlike liberals, conservatives don't eat their young. Liberals feel such a need to prove that they see all sides that they can't wait to tell you about their bad one. If Bill Bradley had been a conservative running for president, supporters would have talked endlessly about his intellect. All liberals ever discussed was his inability to give a barnburner of a speech. Liberals always made Mario Cuomo sound like a spiky pedagogue instead of an uncompromising intellectual. Both are correct, but which one is useful to the cause?

Cuomo's brief stint on radio is used to prove that liberals can't cut it in the on-air arena. Why would anyone think that former politicians would make good entertainers? That's what these programs showcase, and why they prosper in the age of reality TV--the heat without light, the sarcasm, the rhetoric are all in the name of that bastard child of the television age we call infotainment. The problem with hiring some entertaining liberal commentators is that the obvious suspects--Robin Williams, Chris Rock, Michael Moore--are already making too much money being professional entertainers.

Would it be worth the trade-offs to mimic the form? While it's fine for Al Franken to call his upcoming book on the right "Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them," you don't want an entire network of that sort of invective. Bottom line: you can't out-Coulter Coulter and still maintain any standing as someone who is in favor of really illuminating the issues. Is it worth spending millions trying to mimic a technique that's too often just a grown-up version of nah nah nah nah nah nah? Nah.