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In the media, a vast what-wing conspiracy?
by Jon Talton
4 March 2003

Until liberalism can move beyond the dreary tut-tutting of its contemporary message, it won't attract a wide audience.

Phil Donahue, revived on MSNBC and quickly canceled, seems the latest example of how liberals can't succeed in the media business.

Even so, the wealthy Drobny family of Chicago recently announced that it would spend $10 million to seed a liberal radio network to counter the influence of Rush Limbaugh and the army of right-wing talkers. This despite the repeated failure of liberals, including Jim Hightower and Mario Cuomo, to make it on talk radio.

Meanwhile, critics of the Bush administration's war plans assert that peace would be preserved if not for the pervasive conservative bias in the media.

Seems like only yesterday when the words "liberal media" seemed redundant. What happened?

For one thing, "media" is a plural word, and over the past decade, the mass-media business has shattered into masses of media. The television networks, whose news divisions were bastions of old liberalism, are under severe pressure from rivals on cable. Many of those rivals, especially Fox, learned that a sizable audience of Americans was hungry for conservative ideas to be treated with more than contempt.

Radio revived itself with libertarian and conservative talk-radio formats around the nation.

Station managers, syndicate presidents and investors discovered this right-wing audience was loyal, growing and often upscale. Not surprising, the money flowed to this growing sector.

Limbaugh is the most dramatic example of this change, even though he is a talent who can't be contrived by producers or focus groups.

Interestingly, Limbaugh's critics on the left appear not to have listened to the show, and that may be part of the reason no "liberal Limbaugh" has emerged.

Limbaugh is caricatured as a right-wing screamer, purveyor of hate and the dark guru to an audience of mind-numbed robots.

The real Limbaugh is funny, attractive and principled. His views are closely argued and reasoned, and supported by extensive, if selective, research. Even his anger is carefully calibrated on a menu that serves exquisite parody, optimism and celebration of American bootstrapping.

One result is that Limbaugh's audience members believe they are part of an intellectual enterprise, learning things they would never find in the mainstream networks and press. But even many liberals listen to the show for its entertainment value.

Until liberalism can move beyond the dreary tut-tutting of its contemporary message, it won't attract a wide audience.

And that's too bad. Many important events never make it into a national conversation.

For example, a judge just allowed US Airways to walk away from its pension obligations to pilots. Don't expect to find this on talk radio.

Not that liberalism has no outlet. National Public Radio is as close to a liberal radio network as one is likely to find. The Drobnys might do better putting their $10 million into All Things Considered. Also, traditional media outlets have many college-educated staff members who naturally tend to lean left of center in their world view, if not in their reporting. Then there's the expanding universe of new media online, with outlets for every enthusiasm.

The result is the most diverse media sector in history. But not everyone's voice carries the same distance.