Right-wing talkers adjust to prexy's falling numbers

President Bush’s approval ratings are near record lows, as are Vice President Dick Cheney’s following a hunting accident that not only renewed charges of White House secrecy but also made him a ripe target for latenight comics. So what are conservative talk and cable hosts to do?

Hey, how ’bout them Oscars?

Talk hosts always tackle a wide variety of subjects, but with the Bush team increasingly looking like the gang that couldn’t shoot straight — literally, in Cheney’s case — there’s a certain value for right-leaning talent in changing the subject.

Recent Republican travails would seem to weigh heavily on the high-profile talk hosts at Fox News Channel, which, even in its news coverage, occasionally blunts rough edges when covering the current White House.

Although Fox rejects the conservative label, when other nets last week pounced on newly released video showing Bush being warned of possible disaster in New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina, the channel downplayed the most damaging video snippet along with Bush’s statement days after the storm that “I don’t think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees.” (AP subsequently clarified its initial report, noting that the president had been warned about the levees “topping,” which is different from a “breach.”)

At the same time, a few conservative hosts are joining in the chorus of Bush administration criticism on issues such as the Dubai port-management deal, lending some credibility to their claims that they don’t simply parrot Republican National Committee talking points. At the very least, political passions make for a lively debate, the life’s blood of programs such as Fox News’ “Hannity & Colmes.”

Both TV and cable talkers are also finding ancillary topics that play to a conservative base. The so-called “culture wars” and “liberal Hollywood,” for example, figure to get a vigorous workout in the wake of the Oscars, just as the suspension of a teacher for comparing the president to Adolf Hitler became a much-discussed story last week.

This isn’t to say that conservatives are joining ranks with liberal Air America, where hosts such as Al Franken, Randi Rhodes and Mike Malloy deliver a non-stop rant against the president. But it does show that the nation’s top-ranked conservative radio and TV hosts are showmen first and presidential apologists second, or to hear them tell it, not apologists at all.

“First and foremost I’m an entertainer; I’ve got to put eardrums next to the box,” says syndicated conservative talker Larry Elder. “There’s a reason people don’t watch PBS. It’s highly informative, but it’s boring.”

For Elder, the Oscars represent an inviting target with a spate of nominated films that hew to typical liberal Hollywood storylines, including oppression of gays, the heroism of journalists in the McCarthy era and rampant racial tension in Los Angeles.

“Ratings are not the same as votes,” says Talkers magazine editor Michael Harrison, who tracks the top talk-radio personalities in the country, including Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage. “(Some) people like to listen to people they disagree with. We learned that when Rush had his drug problem; it made him more interesting.”

Party affiliations can also be challenged as news cycles fluctuate. Take Hannity — as reliable a Bush supporter as exists on TV — who has parted with the president on the ports deal and expressed dismay over out-of-control government spending.

Bush’s problems also proved a boon to Fox News in February, when “Special Report” host Brit Hume landed an exclusive interview with Cheney. That show ended up finishing February as the third-highest rated hour on cable. Rivals quickly accused Cheney of fleeing to friendly territory to tell his story — a charge Fox, the dominant cable news ratings leader, dismissed as sour grapes.

For his part, Bush praises the rise of alternatives to the so-called “mainstream media” in “Strategery,” the new book by Washington Times correspondent Bill Sammon. In the book, the president is quoted as saying, “I find it interesting that the old way of gathering the news is slowly but surely losing market share. It’s interesting to watch these media conglomerates try to deal with the realities of a new kind of world.”

History has shown that hosts such as conservative standard-bearer Limbaugh can withstand shifts in the political winds, including the changeover from the Clinton administration to Bush.

Some analysts wrongly predicted Limbaugh’s demise without Clinton to kick around. Similarly, Fox’s ratings consistently double the audience of nearest competitor CNN, indicating it’s not strictly perceived politics but rather a combination of brash attitude, hustle and showmanship that have contributed to the net’s success. (A degree of sensationalism doesn’t hurt, either, as Fox devoted considerable time last week to another old standby, with Greta Van Susteren spending two nights interviewing Joran van der Sloot, a figure in the case of missing teen Natalee Holloway.)

Another factor for the viability of a conservative sounding board even as Bush’s popularity wanes is that the audience for cable news remains relatively small, meaning thatsome partisans are apt to seek out channels where they perceive that the administration will receive a “fair and balanced” shake.

Lower-rated news channels such as CNN Headline News and MSNBC have posted recent rating gains, while Fox exhibited moderate slippage during February, to about 1.5 million viewers nightly. February numbers are tainted by the Olympics, which depressed ratings across the cable spectrum. Fox reports that its top-rated show, “The O’Reilly Factor,” is averaging 2.5 million viewers a night since the Games’ Closing Ceremonies.

MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, among cable’s leading political animals, thinks he knows why conservative talkers flourish, even while the President’s numbers plummet: “They go to his right — they don’t want to be out there defending the port deal or Harriet Myers. It’s a brilliant thing and it always works.”

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