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Political Animal

The L Word

By Brian Morton | Posted 2/20/2008

After WYPR sacked Marc Steiner from his public radio show recently, I noticed something interesting on the Baltimore Sun's comment board following the paper's story about the whole sorry tale.

As Barbara Mikulski put it after soundly beating E.J. Pipkin in 2004, "We are a blue state, we are neon blue, we are cobalt blue, we are blue in the face." And Baltimore is the blue hub in the middle of it all.

But if you read the comments board, you would think that it's not legitimate to be a liberal in Maryland, especially on the radio. Amid the regrets posted there, every now and then there's a comment by someone essentially saying, "good riddance to another liberal." Now, if you look across the Baltimore airwaves, you'll note that historically there has hardly been a shortage of conservatives on talk radio--talk radio is virtually wall-to-wall right-wing talk. But when one talk-show host with a liberal bent--a local one at that--gets the axe, the right wingers come out of the woodwork as if to say that liberals have no place being on the air. Yet all a Republican has to do is lose a race for governor in this state, and there's a seat waiting in a studio at WBAL Radio for at least a year, from which to opine about the liberals of Maryland.

Conservatives have built their towering media machine, starting with the message mavens on K Street and the $25 million-plus budget of the Heritage Foundation, onto the Washington Times and the Wall Street Journal, through the radio shows of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Michael Savage (the top six talk radio hosts in America are right wingers, according to Talkers magazine), and with the help of Fox News and Bill O'Reilly. They know there's no shortage of places to find their particular brand of political ideology. So what's with the rancor that liberals have a place on their airwaves?

It was only in 2006 when the powers-that-be at MSNBC started seeing the rise in popularity of host Keith Olbermann--not someone you could classically call a liberal, but someone who insisted on using his platform to hold the Bush administration to account for all of the excuses and shifting rationales behind the Iraq War, the fired U.S. attorney scandal, the deplorable conditions at Walter Reed and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, among others. But in 2003, when the Dixie Chicks were made persona non grata in the world of country music (and the larger world of pop radio) and questioning the administration was considered tantamount to treason, Olbermann said that his superiors at the network were angry with him when he featured two liberals on their air back-to-back.

It's now 2008, and we have both a Democratic House and Senate--but unlike five years ago when Olbermann pissed off the network brass by having Janeane Garofalo and Al Franken on one after the other, you don't see that kind of programming happening on the air.

Despite the sea change in public opinion after what Republicans have done to the country over eight years, the media is still living in the frightened grip of pro-business conservatives and right-wingers who do not see liberal points of view as legitimate ones. In some places, and predominantly in the media, "liberal" is a word to be avoided as much as it was back in the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan first made it a dirty word.

By the time George W. Bush took office, the entire mechanism was in place to not only deny liberals a seat at the table (I'm not being hyperbolic here--remember Rep. Bill Thomas calling the police to throw Democratic House members out of the Capitol library back in 2003), but to deny them a place in the public process of democracy. This begat the rise of what blogger Dave Neiwert calls "eliminationist rhetoric," in which it isn't enough to push liberals out of the discourse--better to render them illegitimate altogether.

It wasn't long before any argument made could be dismissed simply by saying, "she's a liberal." Ann Coulter has made a fortune selling books with increasingly escalating claims--"godless," "slander," "treason"--that launched a tidal wave of other authors writing tomes that speak of progressives as if anyone to the left of Joe Lieberman should be driven into the sea. The latest, almost a comic reduction ad absurdum of the decade's worth of right-wing rhetoric, is Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism, which attempts to tie almost anyone who has ever worn Birkenstocks, eaten a salad, or pulled a lever for the local Democratic candidate for dogcatcher to the political traditions of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis.

It would be nice to think that there is a place on the radio for a liberal like Marc Steiner and a seat at the table for the party whose authors don't write books linking political parties to mass murdering war criminals. I'd like to think there might be something called "the loyal opposition" again in America.

Then again, Fox News Radio host Tom Sullivan was just saying last week that listening to Barack Obama speak was like listening to Hitler rousing up a crowd, so maybe we're in for more of the same.

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