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Talkers hunt new villains

Republicans dominated the election and the Democrats are reeling, so what's a conservative talk-radio host to do?

November 20, 2004|Paul Farhi | The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Their guy just won reelection by 3.5 million votes. Their party strengthened its majority in the House, in the Senate and in statehouses, with the Supreme Court possibly soon to follow. "Moral values" -- their kind of stuff -- are tres chic.

This could be a disaster for the nation's right-wing talk-show hosts.

Election day was a triumph for conservatism, but it may have been a mixed blessing for the people who yak about it on TV and radio. Conservative talk, by far the most popular kind on the airwaves, has always traded on an undercurrent of grievance, a sense of being the underdog against the implacable, oppressive forces of liberal "elitism." The further conservatives were from power, the better the Us-vs.-Them model worked. The right-wing media matured and prospered under Democrat Bill Clinton, whose two terms in office were a gift that kept on giving to the Limbaughs, G. Gordons, Savages and lesser lights of the electronic right.

But now? Now the big pinatas of the left -- the Kerrys, Michael Moore, gay marriage -- have all been smited. Now the underdog is the overlord of ... well, just about everything.

What's a right-wing diss jockey supposed to rant about now?

After a little postelection gloating -- Rush Limbaugh was still making fun of Kerry supporters who said they needed psychological counseling to deal with the election result -- the outlines of the New Outrage have been emerging in the last few days.

The new targets could be fellow Republicans, and the talk-show hosts who love them.

Talk show hosts say they are perfectly willing to eat their own on a variety of intraparty issues: judicial and Cabinet appointments, the federal budget deficit, immigration reform.

"This is the time when all the fun begins," says radio host Laura Ingraham, whose show is heard on 290 stations nationwide. "I think it's liberating to be in this postelection period.... The talk-radio audience can only live off Teresa Heinz Kerry for so long. It becomes rote. The campaign is fun and exciting, but now we're going to move on to new meat."

Ingraham has no existential dread of being a conservative talk-show host in an age of conservative dominance. Republicans, after all, aren't monolithic or infallible, she says. And if all else fails (or bores) in Washington, she says there are always "cultural" issues to dissect. (Where have you gone, Scott Peterson?)

"I don't wake up every day thinking who are my targets going to be," she says. "We look for compelling stories, narratives and humor. It's not about a target but about having a philosophy and trying to highlight it."

Besides, the old reliables aren't going away completely. There's Hollywood, Hillary Clinton, the "liberal" media and liberals generally.

But Joe Scarborough, a former Republican congressman from Florida who now hosts MSNBC's nightly "Scarborough Country," says the challenge for conservative hosts will be to prove "that we're more than just the Pravda of the right."

He adds, "I think that's going to be difficult for some people. I honestly don't know what Sean Hannity is going to be able to talk about. If you've been reading off the Republican National Committee's talking points like he has for the past four years, it's going to be hard to be critical of the status quo."

Hannity declined to fire back.

"They'll be smart to turn on themselves and talk about which conservatives are the 'true' conservatives," says Michael Harrison, publisher of Talkers, a trade magazine about the talk-show business. "If they keep beating up liberals, it will ring hollow over time. People realize this isn't 1993 speaking, it's almost 2005."

If right-wing talk blossomed the more it tilted against Democratic power, then perhaps the conditions are right for a liberal counter-reformation. That is certainly the fondest hope of the people behind Air America, the liberal talk network that went on the air seven months ago.

"You could argue that the best thing for us was the reelection of George Bush," says Air America's Al Franken. "The country may be swirling down the toilet, but it's given us great stuff to talk about."

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