Looking for a voice in all the wrong places
WASHINGTON — If you're someone who believes the right wing has more "opinion leader" outlets than it can shake a stick at, and that the left has done a dismal job of keeping up, these are heady times indeed. The new "liberal radio station," Air America, is up and running with Al Franken as the marquee draw. Former Clinton White House official John Podesta has gotten the new "liberal think tank," the Center for American Progress (CAP), off the ground.
Meanwhile, former vice president Al Gore is rumored to be near a deal to establish a liberal cable channel.
These efforts are designed to combat the many conservative talk-radio stations, conservative think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute, and conservative TV news outlets such as Fox News Channel.
But the new organizations all suffer from the same problems. They are all in danger of failing to do what they claim they want to do: become "antidotes" to right-wing thought.
• They're too negative. Each of these outlets (save the cable channel, which does not yet exist) defines itself by what it opposes or what it is not. Air America says, "The right has had its say for the last three years." CAP says, "Every day we challenge conservative thinking that undermines the bedrock American values of liberty, community, and shared responsibility."
• They're too stereotypical. Both Air America and CAP behave like the right's caricature of the left. In an environment in which non-Republicans are having their patriotism questioned, does Air America really need to offer a morning drive show called "Morning Sedition?" It just confirms the suspicions of the skeptics and further marginalizes the left.
• They're too gleeful. CAP is designed to be (and billed as) a think tank, offering concrete policies and ideas that are essentially progressive. But think tanks work and are listened to because, while they take an ideological stance, it is typically not overtly political. But CAP seems to revel in playing electoral politics. Someone discovered some private notes and memos of a Bush administration staffer, and CAP has, for days now, been enthusiastically posting them and commenting on them. Its website reads more like a campaign site than it does a source of information.
If the desire is to offer red meat to the faithful, this strategy may work well. But, to win the hearts and minds of undecided America, they are far, far from where they need to be.
Think about Fox News Channel's infamous motto, "Fair and Balanced." It promises something that a broad swath of Americans feel they lack: balanced news coverage. Certainly conservatives believe themselves to be shut out of the opinionmaking industry, and will gravitate to such slogans, but in addition, most of America sees no place for themselves in public discourse. Fox's motto speaks to them, too ... and so the network picks up adherents; people begin to look to Fox as an information source.
Meanwhile, the new Air America focuses on not being Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly. If a listener is vacillating, or just feeling fed up with what he hears, he's not going to seek out information from sources as polarized as these. But maybe he will if he wants propaganda, or only to hear opinions he agrees with.
But if a listener's heart or mind is ready to be won over by an alternative to the anger and vitriol seen on the right, these new left outlets will turn him off just as much, if not more so. He'll end the day even more shut out than when it began, because of these frantic efforts to achieve partisan parity.
And so, where are we to look for a public voice that is truly balanced, is not trying to sell, and is not spinning the truth?
I've yet to discover it.
• Brad Rourke is a consultant who works on public issues and ethics.