<b>Brian Lowry: Tuning In</b>

Rosie O’Donnell is leaving ABC’s “The View” in June, which should send conservative talkers like Sean Hannity, Larry Elder and Bill O’Reilly into a collective state of mourning.

With the Bush administration’s poll numbers in the tank, the loudest voices in the talk community have seemingly been eager to change the subject to more enticing topics and targets, and they have consistently found a big fat ripe one in assailing the Hollywood left.

Among that crowd, O’Donnell — an outspoken liberal, lesbian and occasional conspiracy theorist with a daily platform — has become Public Enemy No. 1, the personality the right-leaning establishment most loves to hate.

Still, she is hardly alone. As O’Reilly noted on his Fox News Channel show, conservatives went to town with the tabloid story involving “30 Rock” star Alec Baldwin — another liberal performer who has publicly voiced contempt for the Bush administration — over the foaming-at-the-mouth voicemail he left for his young daughter, which was leaked to TMZ.com.

As a snapshot of the cable-news infatuation with Hollywood, on April 23 — amid debate over funding the war in Iraq, the Virginia Tech massacre’s aftermath and controversy swirling around Atty. Gen. Alberto Gonzales — Fox’s “Hannity & Colmes” led its telecast with the Baldwin affair, cloaking the debate with questions about when such tirades are abusive to children.

Up the dial a bit on MSNBC, “Scarborough Country’s” lead story was the White House Correspondents Dinner dust-up involving environmental activists Sheryl Crow and Laurie David, who confronted presidential advisor Karl Rove. “Hollywood Heavyweights Take on D.C.,” the teaser for Joe Scarborough’s program bellowed.

The same day, O’Reilly sounded almost apologetic for not having pounced on the Baldwin saga sooner, proceeding to examine the nasty divorce for five minutes with Ann Coulter wannabe Michelle Malkin before she dubbed the sordid matter — without a hint of irony — too unsavory to discuss.

Finally, nationally syndicated radio host Elder made the considerable stretch of comparing O’Donnell’s intemperate remarks about President Bush with the flare-up surrounding radio host Don Imus, and has joined other conservatives in railing against antiwar advocate Sean Penn — among other things suggesting that the box office failure of “All the King’s Men” might have stemmed from a backlash against the actor’s politics.

Anyone else see a trend?

Even Republican officials have embraced this strategy, with Oklahoma Sen. James M. Inhofe weighing in about singer Crow and “An Inconvenient Truth” producer David’s spat with Rove, accusing “Al Gore and his Hollywood friends” of hypocrisy.

There’s not much of a mystery here. However unpopular President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have become, the hostility toward Hollywood’s elites is always simmering among conservatives, who resent having pampered multimillionaire stars “demand we change the way we live,” as Imhofe told the Washington Times.

Indeed, some actors — mindful of vitriol directed at “Hollywood values” — recognize they represent a potential political liability to candidates and causes they endorse. Discussing his support of Democratic contender Barack Obama, George Clooney said to the Los Angeles Times, “I told him I would do anything for him, including staying completely away from him.”

There is considerable cynicism and calculation in the hyperbolic outrage directed at luminaries such as O’Donnell and Penn who, like these talk hosts, haven’t been elected to anything but enjoy ready access to the media. For a Bush administration mouthpiece like Hannity, pillorying showbiz figures appears to serve as a thinly veiled distraction — deflecting attention away from thornier issues while scoring points with his conservative base.

It also makes good business sense if, as is generally presumed, younger viewers are more likely to tune in when the focus shifts to entertainment, since the audience profile for talkradio and particularly cable news is by media standards geriatric, with a median age over 60. Small wonder that most cable talkshows incorporate dedicated pop culture segments — feeling that analysis of “American Idol” and Britney Spears, however awkward, beats Social Security hands down in attracting advertiser-friendly demos.

Given all that, expect O’Donnell to be right back in the crosshairs as soon as she lands in a new forum. Because while the truths these stars seek to espouse might be inconvenient, these big-name targets are the kind of sitting ducks even Cheney would be hard-pressed to miss.

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