BOB GARFIELD: On New Year's Day, the New York Times reported that Democrats felt outflanked by media pundits on the right. There's no shortage of conservative fire-breathers on radio and TV, but where are their liberal counterparts? Why no Rush Limbaugh of the left? Alan Colmes, the designated liberal on Fox News Channel's nightly show Hannity & Colmes, thinks the answer has to do with the left's discomfort with broad-brush, broadcast-friendly analysis.
ALAN COLMES: I think because conservatives have a tendency to look at, at issues in a very black and white way, they've done a very good job of reducing issues to bumper sticker mentality, so the conservative message does very well within the confines of talk radio and television.
BOB GARFIELD:Let me ask you this: when I bite my lip and listen to Rush Limbaugh or, or some of the conservative voices on the Fox News Channel or when I read Ann Coulter or some of the more strident conservative voices--
ALAN COLMES: Right.
BOB GARFIELD: -- the media have to offer, I, I, I can't help but noticing that a lot of the debate is through the prism of what the liberals have to say. There seems to be an obsession with liberalism and liberals--
ALAN COLMES: Right.
BOB GARFIELD: -- to the exclusion of actual policy discussion!
ALAN COLMES: They have made a living putting up straw men and saying here's what a liberal thinks, here's what a liberal is, let's knock down this liberal, and they, they demonize people like Nan-- when Nancy Pelosi was chosen to be house leader-- she became characterized as a "San Francisco liberal" which is code for a "gay-loving left wing lunatic." This is the politics of demonization, and it works very well! It's very entertaining, and it works very well in the medium!
BOB GARFIELD: So-- let's bring this back to you. You are the liberal side of the Hannity & Colmes nightly confrontation--
ALAN COLMES: Right.
BOB GARFIELD: -- and you're sitting there - I, I guess you're the human straw man, no?
ALAN COLMES: Well why are you insulting me? Because they try to make me a straw man doesn't make me a straw man!
BOB GARFIELD:I'm not, I'm not insulting you! I want you to look at your, yourself in the dynamic that is created on Fox News Channel in, in the Hannity & Colmes program. Are you there from the perspective of the listeners as an equal to Sean Hannity or are you a foil?
ALAN COLMES: According to whom?
BOB GARFIELD: In, in the minds of the people who are watching the program?
ALAN COLMES: Well I, I'm not in their minds. I don't-- [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
BOB GARFIELD: Let's just say - let's just - to say most of the audience is conservative, let's - for argument's sake.
ALAN COLMES: I would concur that there are probably a large number of those people, because they automatically agree with Sean Hannity, and automatically disagree with me. Many conservatives feel that for so many years their voice was not heard, and that to have a strong conservative voice on this medium encourages them and gives them hope that they previously didn't have, and some of them may view me as window dressing or think that I'm there simply as a foil. But that's their problem.
BOB GARFIELD: Well then what's it like to go on the air every night knowing that the audience is pre-disposed to disregard whatever you say, no matter how well you say it?
ALAN COLMES: Well you made a monolithic comment! I think there's a large part of the audience that, that does not agree with me, and they're pre-disposed not to believe the things I say; but on the other hand, I -- it's more fun for me to be in a situation like this than to preach to the choir!
BOB GARFIELD: Let's talk about radio now.
ALAN COLMES: Okay.
BOB GARFIELD:Rush Limbaugh is a-- a phenomenon, obviously. But there's no opposite number on the left. Do you think there is an opportunity there for someone like you to do what he is doing or do you think the dynamics just make it impossible?
ALAN COLMES: Oh, I think there's definitely the opportunity for the right liberal host, whether it be me or somebody else. Now I think is a really good time, cause you've got the conservatives in charge of all three branches of government; they run the courts, they run the legislative branch, they run the executive branch -- what better time to put on somebody who can push some, some of those buttons and stick pins in those balloons? After all, Rush rose to prominence when he was going against a Democratic Congress and later the Clinton administration. It's when you have the opposition - the loyal opposition that I think there's a real opportunity, and I think that could be done very well.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, well we'll be listening for you! Alan Colmes, thanks very much!
ALAN COLMES: Thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD:Alan Colmes is the liberal half of Fox News Channel's Hannity & Colmes. So who will rush to be the leftie "Rush?" One person thinking about it is humorist Al Franken, who believes the trick is not to be bombastic but to be -- credible.
AL FRANKEN: People on the left -- liberals -- don't want to hear simplistic demagoguery. They want to hear information. This is why NPR is accused of being liberal -- because liberals [LAUGHS] listen to it, [LAUGHS] and liberals listen to it because you get a BBC report about what's going on in Afghanistan. And they don't want to hear Rush Limbaugh going like [IMITATING] "There was not one iota-- of memorializing at the Wellstone memorial, my friends." [LAUGHTER]
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, so sometimes he's a little skimpy on the facts; that's true.
AL FRANKEN: Oh -- sometimes?! [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
BOB GARFIELD:Are you suggesting that it - were there a liberal counterpart to Rush Limbaugh who used the same techniques, they couldn't make it because the liberal mind, by its very nature, simply will not countenance such distortions and, and sophistry and trickery?
AL FRANKEN: You put it very well. I really believe that.
BOB GARFIELD: So should you end up in the talk radio business, maybe--
AL FRANKEN: Yes?
BOB GARFIELD: -- where's your audience going to come from?
AL FRANKEN: My audience is going to come -- I'm going to -if I did this -- and I'm considering it, it would be a different kind of show! But I would definitely try to answer the Rushes and the Hannitys and the, and those people. And--hopefully get an audience! But I'm - I won't do it - I refuse to do it by cheating and distorting.
BOB GARFIELD:If, if it's mostly true that the right wing radio hosts and, and the Ann Coulters of the world are successful because they are spending most of their time reacting to the alleged bias of the "leftist press," would a left wing show talk about issues or would it be--obsessed with the right wing media to the exclusion of actually discussing the news?
AL FRANKEN: I would think, I would think that you would be able to - I would be able to talk about them in, in concert. In other words, I think the, the -- it's not just the right wing media that's lying - it's the - it's the Administration.
BOB GARFIELD:Well, as you said, this is all strictly in the-- the earliest stages, so let me just take this opportunity to wish you prospectively--hypothetical good luck-- [LAUGHTER]
AL FRANKEN: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: -- in the theoretical event that this ever takes place.
AL FRANKEN: Well, I, I hypothetically thank you for your good wishes.
BOB GARFIELD: Al Franken is a humorist and author of Oh, The Things I Know: A Guide to Success, or, Failing That, Happiness.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, digital armor, dubious football calls and your letters.