Illustration by Peter Bennett

On the second day of Air America, the new talk-radio network geared toward liberals (not the CIA), I tuned in to Unfiltered, a show hosted by Lizz Winstead, Rachel Maddow and Chuck D, the once-dazzling mastermind of Public Enemy. The first guest was Christopher Hitchens, the leftist heretic who has become a defender of the Bush administration’s War on Terror. Either Lizz or Rachel (I couldn’t yet tell them apart) asked what he made of the recent doings in Falluja, where mutilated American corpses had been hanged. Hitchens may be the Iraq war’s most articulate defender, and he replied exactly as one knew he would. After pointing out that such barbarity confirmed that the U.S. had waged a just and necessary war, he began explaining why the invasion was, and still is, a good thing.

Knowing that Air America was created as the antidote to right-wing talk radio, I was waiting for someone to get in Hitchens’ face — you know, challenge his facts, pick apart his reasoning, or at least do an O’Reilly and tell him to “Shut up.” But Rachel (I believe) merely said something like, “I don’t agree with what you’re saying, but it’s always good to hear from such an interesting contrarian.” Then the segment ended, leaving Hitchens’ entire pro-war riff not just unscathed but untouched. Even Hitch seemed a tad nonplussed at getting off scot-free.

Air America has a long way to go. Although its opening days boasted a few amusing moments — Al Franken claimed to be broadcasting from an underground bunker 3,500 feet below Dick Cheney’s — the first programs only made The Daily Show shine brighter. Majority Report’s sharp Janeane Garofalo appeared subdued by seriousness, and when the surprisingly dull Chuck D interviewed Spike Lee, I kept thinking that the perpetually pissed-off filmmaker was the one who ought to be hosting — attitude is one thing Spike’s got 40 acres of. The network’s flagship, Franken, is a smart, funny, decent man, whose Stuart Saves His Family remains an unappreciated gem. But he has trouble knowing when to kiss a joke goodbye — remember his old SNL bit about “me, Al Franken”? — and The O’Franken Factor keeps belaboring his spat with Bill O’Reilly, who many of his listeners have probably never watched. They’d as soon sleep with either Cheney as turn on Fox News.

While most of the left listened to the shows with dawning, er, yawning horror — some of us secretly thinking we would have made far better hosts — we were still willing to cut Air America some slack. The first few weeks were bound to be rocky. Such generosity of spirit, though, was missing from the right. True, nutso-Christian hipster Cal Thomas did echo Chairman Mao — “Let a thousand pundits bloom,” he told Nightline with feigned benevolence — but otherwise, conservatives were scornful. Hilariously, they appeared less offended by Air America’s Bush-bashing than by the fact that it had hired talk-show hosts who were unqualified — a failing that didn’t seem to bother them when Dubya was running for president.

Michael Reagan pontificated about the craft of radio and paying one’s dues (like being the son of The Gipper?). Strident Laura Ingraham told Chris Matthews that doing talk radio was far different from doing standup comedy. (Would someone please explain the right’s insatiable appetite for blond harridans?) Appearing on Ted Koppel, conservative talk show host Blanquita Cullum — who appears to be the satanic alter ego of Carol Channing — asked Franken why he’d borrowed from O’Reilly by naming his show The O’Franken Factor. Al patiently explained that this was a joke. (In fairness to Blanquita, this particular joke was moribund long before Franken’s show actually aired.)

Although the right-wing skeptics were simply playing politics, they were correct that most big-time talk-show hosts spend years honing their skills in local radio markets. Limbaugh’s talent may be on loan from God (he got the OxyContin from his maid), but it took him two decades to earn a national platform. Before Rush could establish his intimate rapport with those 15 million dittoheads, he had to learn how to fill long on-air hours without becoming boring, and he had to master his instrument, that amazingly expressive voice whose strangulated musicality is ideal for vaulting from gleeful outrage to outrageous glee.

Even then, Rush’s success didn’t come in a cultural vacuum. Where Air America seeks its liberal audience through a Field of Dreams scenario — if you broadcast it, they will come — it took years of an organic process to produce today’s conservative talk radio. It’s the unruly offspring of that other ’60s counterculture, the short-haired one that sowed the seeds of a right-wing movement that eventually produced not only Ronald Reagan but the Christian Coalition, Newt Gingrich, George W. Bush and John Ashcroft. The whole thing “Jes’ Grew” (to borrow from Ishmael Reed’s great novel Mumbo-Jumbo), and radio stars like Limbaugh were its natural flowering.

For decades now, the right has been fueled by rage at being excluded, a fury that seems inexhaustible. Evidently it’s not enough to have held the presidency for 16 of the last 24 years, to control the Congress and the Supreme Court, to dominate talk radio and the gargantuan Clear Channel (which helped organize pro-Iraq war rallies), to boast a network mouthpiece in Fox News, to have twice as many daily papers endorse Bush as Gore and to watch vaunted liberal publications such as The Atlantic Monthly and the Washington Post slide steadily to the right. Conservatives, as ever, want even more.

All this wanting finds fervent expression in talk radio, which never wavers in its hatred of what Eric Alterman calls the SCLM, “the so-called liberal media.” Strangely, for all their heady air of aggression, these attacks on the media are rife with a sense of victimization — the very quality that conservatives often accuse minorities of exploiting to win undue sympathy. Poor us, they moan, our viewpoint is not being represented. As Michael Kinsley laughingly observed, right-wing pundits apparently want some sort of affirmative action for conservatives in the media — the only social bias they care about.

Ever since Air America was announced, conservatives have been insisting that our airwaves are already awash with liberal radio. “I have three letters for you,” Andrew Sullivan cockily declared: “NPR.” Now, in one obvious sense he’s wrong. National Public Radio doesn’t jigger the facts like Fox News, nor does it broadcast leftish equivalents of Limbaugh, Ingraham or Sean Hannity (loutish gasbag, Irish division), who makes one respect the wit and sensitivity of Jimmy Kimmel. When Bill O’Reilly stomped off Fresh Air last year, NPR’s ombudsman announced that host Terry Gross had been too hard on the poor guy — a man who throws guests off his show when they rile him. I wonder what Fox News’ ombudsman (as if!) says about that.

Ironically, NPR’s constant attempts at even-handedness betray its true political colors. Like The New York Times, it clings to the liberal fantasy that it’s actually neutral, beyond ideology. Liberals want to believe that they are fair and balanced, which is one reason they’re so aghast at Fox News’ sloganeering use of that phrase for a network whose fans love it precisely because it’s not.

Far more than early-show amateurism, it’s this instinctive desire to appear evenhanded — Franken brought on his pal G. Gordon Liddy to prove he has friends on the right — that may prove the greatest threat to Air America. Talk radio thrives on electrified outrage, the passionate battle of blacks-and-whites, not the lulling gray of nuance and rational argumentation. Yet the latter is the habitual mode of today’s pragmatic liberalism that chooses Mr. Gray Nuance, John Kerry, over feisty Howard Dean (Yeaarrggh!) or a genuine (if goofy) progressive like Dennis Kucinich. Democrats may cheer Kerry’s hyperbolic “bring it on” rhetoric today, but their pleasure is slightly guilty. They know that he, like them, doesn’t really enjoy stridency.

Still, it’s been Bush’s peculiar triumph to wind liberals up and prove that it’s not only the right that can get turned on by its rage. God, the left has fun hating him. That’s one reason why Air America’s best show is hosted by little-known Randi Rhodes, who may have the moniker of a porn actress but has spent years in south Florida getting her liberal-Limbaugh shtick down pat: This is one cookie who’ll never lose an argument. Flinging anti-Bush quips to her audience like an empress tossing bread to the throng — she predicts the death of Osama as an October Surprise and asks why networks don’t broadcast footage of Dubya sitting cluelessly in that classroom on 9/11 — Rhodes does everything you’d expect an outraged liberal talk-radio host to do. She reams the right, blames Bush for the world’s ills and treats unfavored guests rudely — Ralph Nader hung up on her in a huff. Rhodes is exactly what most Democrats want in this election year of living angrily. She’s fair and balanced in their direction.

LA Weekly