Right-wing gabbers energized by White House meltdown

The Bush administration is having a meltdown — and the political media, both right and left, are having a field day. Each new government misstep energizes the pundits.

Harriet Miers’ nomination to the Supreme Court — and her Oct. 26 withdrawal — capped a series of events that have been catnip to talkshows, including the ongoing upheaval in Iraq, the administration’s sluggish response to Hurricane Katrina, Social Security, the Minutemen and the prospect of indictments in the Valerie Plame-CIA affair.

“After a highly polarizing election, there was clearly a lull in political talk in general,” says Gabe Hobbs, veep of news, talk and sports for Clear Channel. “The right suffered more than the left; the progressive format is still a young format, so it’s in its growth curve.”

Phil Boyce, program director for WABC, which airs Limbaugh and Sean Hannity back-to-back, points out that talk-radio ratings are up in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Dallas. “Overall, the whole format is getting back on track.”

After a lull in which political talk fell into a malaise — CNN canceled “Crossfire” and pundits spent as much time on the mysterious disappearances of young women as on the events in D.C. — there are signs of a revival.

XM Satellite Radio is launching Fox News Talk and Infinity Broadcasting is debuting yet another conservative politico, Jay Severin, in eight markets.

Part of the newfound zest is coming from a subtle shift in conservative attitudes. Ever since Rush Limbaugh pioneered right-wing radio 18 years ago, talkers have followed a knee-jerk script: Clinton, liberals and Democrats are bad; Bush and Republicans, good.

Now, they are veering from that mantra. Democrats are still targets and the potshots at Bush are selective. But, for the first time, there are potshots.

Meanwhile, liberal commentators — a little slow to come to the table — are seizing on the Bush headaches to spread their message (and increase their ad rates). Clear Channel promotes Limbaugh and Air America side-by-side to gin up controversy in markets (like Washington, D.C.) where they carry both shows.

The Miers mire was the crucible for conservatives. In a rare public appearance on Oct. 18, Limbaugh was interviewed by Hannity at the New Amsterdam Theater in Times Square for an “exclusive” that took a full half-hour on Fox News’ political talker “Hannity & Colmes.”

The king of talk radio and its crown prince illustrated the divide between the conservative opinion-makers and President Bush.

“I’ve been listening to you in this Harriet Miers debate. Look, you don’t think this is the best choice and you’re saying so publicly,” Hannity said, setting up Limbaugh to make his case.

“My program’s done for the American people, for the audience,” Limbaugh said. “My audience is not Washington and it’s not the White House … but my point is this: It’s just so unnecessary. It’s such a pity. It needn’t have happened, this particular choice.”

With the withdrawal of Miers’ nomination, Limbaugh, Hannity and the chorus of newly energized conservative critics of the president can claim their first scalp.

A Republican administration in trouble is a new and unfamiliar environment for conservative outlets.

In a CNN-USA Today-Gallup survey released Oct. 17, the president’s job approval rating had dropped to 39% — the lowest point of his White House tenure. (A week later, it had inched up to 42%.)

Conservative pundits have taken more nuanced positions to appeal to the populist base while not abandoning the president, which means blasting the Miers nomination and seeking to discredit the probe into I. Lewis Libby and Dick Cheney.

“I think (Miers) is an embarrassing nominee; at the same time, I think the Fitzgerald probe is out-of-control and the crime alleged at the base of it is not a crime,” says MSNBC’s Tucker Carlson.

After several years on the air, Limbaugh found his voice during the Clinton scandals during the ’90s. Some predicted that he’d lose his audience when he lost his whipping boy. In truth, the Bush administration has been a rocky one for Limbaugh, but not for those reasons.

Limbaugh first battled a medical condition that threatened to take his hearing and then admitted that he’d been addicted to painkillers.

Since Bush took office, Limbaugh has thrived, as has the genre he helped create. In the post-Rush rush for success, the genre has spawned such hosts as Laura Schlessinger, Michael Savage and Laura Ingraham, and given impetus to the phenomenal Fox News.

Hannity, with his smooth radio skills and TV platform, is acutely aware of his debt to the Dittohead nation. In his Oct. 18 interview with the king of conservative media, he gushed, ” ‘The Rush Limbaugh Show’ is still, by far, the biggest in the country. Nobody comes close.”

And yet one man does come close. It’s Hannity, who enjoys a lead-in from Limbaugh in much of the country. Limbaugh is cleared on about 600 stations around the country while Hannity is at 500. New figures from Talkers Magazine show the two at 13.75 million and 12.5 million listeners a week, respectively.

Limbaugh’s show is distribbed by Premiere, which signed him to an eight-year $285 million deal that carries him into 2009. Premiere — which says the Talker figures are too low, pegging his audience at closer to $20 million — earns $10,000 for each 30-second spot on his show.

Behind Limbaugh and Hannity are Savage at 8 million, followed by Dr. Laura and Howard Stern at 7.75 million, according to Talker.

Stern, who will soon take his act to satellite radio, is the most popular of the non-conservative talkers. He made his reputation with a gonzo, counter-culture attitude that drew scores of fans. But before the 2004 election, he got political, becoming a vehement critic of George Bush.

TV’s conservative pundits suffer from comparisons to the big numbers achieved during the run-up to the presidential elections last year. But with 2.8 million viewers a night over the past quarter, Fox News’ “The O’Reilly Factor” is up over its normal base, as are “Hannity & Colmes” at 2.5 million and MSNBC’s “Scarborough Country” at 515,000.

“The reality is that the better things are going for Republicans, the worse it is for conservative polemical media because it thrives on controversy and thrives on battles,” says Brent Bozell III, president of the conservative Media Research Counsel.

The media snoozed while a closed Bush White House deftly managed its own narrative, and conservative talk looked elsewhere for its battles. While the liberal hosts on Air America have continued to pummel the administration, O’Reilly, a self-identified independent, has trained his eye on stories with a meaty cultural subtext: the cancellation of the prom by a Catholic school principal, live sex shows in Oregon, or the killing of the wife of famed defense lawyer Daniel Horowitz.

A string of missing persons cases, followed by a series of hurricanes, drove cable news ratings over the summer. At the height of the story about the disappearance of Natalee Holloway in Aruba, Fox’s “On the Record With Greta Van Susteren” spent a week atop the cable news ratings heap, edging out even the mighty “Factor.”

But now there are political stories coming out of Washington with the kind of intrigue and passion to reignite partisan audiences. Much of the rage over Miers stemmed from a pent-up fury from those on the right who assumed that a rock-ribbed conservative appointment to the court would be the payoff for their dutiful support of the big-spending, big-government Bush administration.

But some see the Miers nomination as the set-up for a protracted boom in the conservative-pundit business.

Says Boyce: “Hillary’s run for Senate is a dry run for the presidency. The scandals are heating up. The Democrats are desperate to get back in control. And 2006 is going to be huge for talk radio.”

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