May 25, 2005,
Democrats like to call themselves the party of ideas. But what they don’t usually tell you is that since taking their place on the Endangered Species List of political parties (how’s that for irony?) Democrats seem to be stealing an awful lot of their new ideas from…the Republicans! Take, for example, Arianna Huffington’s new Huffington Post, which started landing with a thud on our virtual front porches a couple of weeks ago bearing a striking resemblance to its conceptual father "The Drudge Report." (And this wasn’t even the first idea Arianna has stolen from a Republican: On August 7, 2003, she became the second foreign-born California celebrity with an indecipherable accent to announce her candidacy for governor, and I think we all remember how that went.)
Liberal Hollywood’s favorite Greek’s forum offered few surprises during its first few weeks other than a resounding silence from no-shows like David Geffen and Warren Beatty, both of whom Arianna repeatedly claimed were “on board” while promoting her new liblog’s debut to potential readers and, more importantly, investors. Sadly, Larry Gelbart has participated, and the TV legend’s desperately unfunny, pun-laden offerings to date have incited at least one former admirer to declare, “This guy wrote M*A*S*H*?”
Which, given the Post’s genesis, isn’t particularly surprising. Arianna pitched this latest elaborate ploy to write off her cocktail parties as a business expense in terms of it being a "group blog," which is another way of calling it a personal journal-by-committee with all the charm, originality and integrity that that implies. Others describe it as a virtual think tank, although judging from what "The Huffington Post" has trotted out so far it feels mostly like a groupthink tank.
Apart from its larcenous origins and hit-or-miss content the other glaring weakness of "The Huffington Post" is that it’s pretty much what sources like N.P.R., the A.P., and most TV networks already offer: a conventional left-of-center perspective with a few conservative voices tossed in for window dressing. Contributors of note so far include Walter Cronkite (who helpfully declared the Vietnam War un-winnable in 1969, thus spoiling the ending for millions who thought that still to be determined), Gary Hart (who's been reduced to offering his written insights at no charge), and someone named Laurie David, who I gather is married to a famous person. We’re still waiting for that first, promised posting from Maggie Gyllenhaal, who recently became the latest Hollywood figure to blame the United States for the 9/11 attacks.
Let's hope for their sake "The Huffington Post" works out better for Democrats than Air America Radio has so far. Launched with great fanfare a little over a year ago, Air America's modest goal was to replicate the success (and political influence, naturally) of conservative talk radio. This would be a neat trick, as talk radio started out an essentially new medium and now attracts tens of millions of once disenfranchised listeners every single day while providing the play-by-play for a cultural revolution. Not the kind of Cultural Revolution where millions of Chinese people starve to death; the kind of cultural revolution where millions of Americans finally get a voice in the mainstream media.
As opposed to Air America, whose Al Franken-hosted morning show currently draws fewer listeners in New York City than its predecessor on the dial: a veritable ratings juggernaut of all-Caribbean music and chit-chat. As to Franken's on-air appeal, remember what it was like to have to sit through a three-minute sketch on Saturday Night Live starring him? OK, now imagine three hours of that. Every morning. Before you’ve even had your coffee. Any questions? Meanwhile, Air America's Los Angeles affiliate currently draws a whopping three-tenths of one percent of listeners in that bluest part of our bluest state, but at least they didn’t have to kick an all-black radio station off the air first like Al Franken did in New York.
In addition to Franken the Air America line-up includes Randi Rhodes, a conspiracy-theorist harpy from Brooklyn with the on-air demeanor of an involuntarily retired stripper. Rhodes is the sort of erudite commentator whose afternoon excursions into political nuance are punctuated by zany sound effects and songs about bouncing boobies. When she's not telling listeners how smart and educated she is Rhodes is the sort of spellbinding broadcaster who gets words like "assert" and "insert" confused. Rhodes’ most recent contribution to civil discourse was a skit during which sound effects were used to graphically simulate the assassination of President Bush funny, funny stuff. The good news for Randi was that this revolting segment has actually increased her average daily listening audience by about three Secret Service agents.
After Al Franken signed on most people assumed that Air America would be where washed-up Saturday Night Live stars go to die, which is terribly unfair: Janeanne Garofalo never achieved star status during her years at SNL. As a talk-radio host Janeanne's grim, on-air personal unraveling is nothing less than a daily promo for the "How To Throw Away A Show Business Career" course she seems destined to teach at the Learning Annex. Anybody remember when Janeanne Garofalo was bright, engaging, and very funny? To my great sadness, I do.
Here’s how shallow the Air America talent pool is: Eighties retread Stephanie Miller has now been enlisted to repurpose her stale, cowbell-and-air-horn morning-zoo hackery as “political satire with an edge!” After a full year plus on the air, and untold millions in free publicity, Air America is still "finding its voice" and if I know anything about anatomy it might try looking up its own backside. And considering how much they love irony you'd think somebody at Air America would have noticed that a radio "network" with only 50 affiliates is in no position to belittle a wartime Coalition with 63 member states. Besides, I’m pretty sure that when your network boasts more wealthy patrons on its masthead than actual listeners, it's not technically a network anymore. As of today Air America is on their second set of millionaire benefactors and their latest can’t-miss scheme to boost ratings was adding TV's Jerry Springer to their line-up. Whose reputation stands to be more damaged by this latest development- Jerry Springer's or Air America's is anybody’s guess.
Meanwhile in the television world Democrats are plenty steamed about all the viewers (and voters) they're losing to FOX News. They’ve decided to start their own liberal cable TV news network and the man they want to run it is…Al Gore. Well, at least now he can be president of something. And it’s not like Al’s ever let them down before. Gore’s proposed cable-TV network ("Currents") seems poised to revolutionize television the way his other invention the Internet revolutionized the dissemination of hardcore porn and unsolicited mortgage offers. Instead of conventional TV shows Currents will feature "pods": programming snippets ranging from 15 seconds to about five minutes long. (Great, somebody is finally doing something to rein in the burgeoning attention spans of America's youth.) Current's "pods," some of which will be provided by viewers (which I suppose would make them “pod people”) will cover issues ranging from spirituality and jobs to fashion and the environment.
And you thought Al Gore couldn't get any more boring or irrelevant.
But why choose Al Gore to head up your new TV network? Maybe so that when the ratings come in and they’re really low you can demand a viewer recount. Like "The Huffington Report" and Air America Radio, Currents TV promises to offer as much cutting-edge alternative media as its wealthy leftist patrons can afford.
Imitation was once said to be the sincerest form of flattery, then of television. And with Democrats co-opting the power of the web, talk radio, and cable TV from their GOP counterparts, imitation may already have become the sincerest form of politics. But these ham-fisted Democratic attempts to hijack the new media share a common flaw: the false premise that what’s held Democrats back the last few Election Days was their inability to “get their message out.” Attention Democrats: the American people have heard your message loud and clear, and the more they hear of it the less they like it. You can launch all the feeble new media ventures you like (“Hey, how about a liberal ‘zine? That’ll turn this thing around!”). You can spend as much of George Soros’s fortune as he’s stupid enough to part with. You can even get Margaret Cho to come back out of the closet and denounce President Bush again or did she do that already? Thing is, until you advance a political philosophy that has some sort of connection with mainstream America you might just as well get used to being the minority party no matter how many New Media outlets you horn in on. And as for "The Huffington Post," I’m predicting it’ll be at least as successful as Arianna’s last campaign for governor and you can quote me on that.