Which side of the talk radio wars do you suppose our "mainstream" media outlets favor? If you have to ask, then just look at the news coverage of talk radio scandals.
When Rush Limbaugh acknowledged an addiction to painkillers in 2003, the news media couldn't get enough of his misfortune. The Newsweek cover story by Evan Thomas called Rush "a childless, twice-divorced, thrice-married schlub whose idea of a good time is to lie on his couch and watch football endlessly." CNN anchorman Aaron Brown confessed that "the subject is Rush, made worse no doubt by the permanent smirk that seems to be attached to my face."
Or what about radio and TV talker Bill O'Reilly? When ex-producer Andrea Mackris sued him for sexual harassment last fall, the networks and other media outlets pounced with glee. ABC and NBC were so excited to put O'Reilly's accuser on the air with her lawyer that they gave them seven- and eight-minute interviews -- an eternity in TV land -- almost as many minutes as those networks devoted to covering and analyzing the final presidential debate that morning.
On July 26, bloggers busted open a brand-new talk radio scandal, and the hypocrisy was juicy: The ultraliberal Air America radio network, the folks who would call themselves Compassion for the Poor Radio, had taken $875,000 from a children's charity as a "loan" that it hasn't paid back. An Air America executive that also served as development director for the Gloria Wise Boys and Girls Club of the Bronx made a "diversion" of funds for the struggling leftists.
Air America is no small potato in the eyes of "mainstream" media outlets. After all, when the network launched last year with its six paltry stations, the coverage was massive. Al Franken was its rock star. So with Air America embroiled in scandal, there would be a media feeding frenzy, right? All I can hear are the crickets. Let's compare the coverage, then and now.
The New York Times put Air America's debut on the front page, and published a huge cover story on Al Franken in the New York Times Magazine. In June, they promoted Al Franken for the U.S. Senate. And this is a New York City scandal, right?
But it took the Times two and a half weeks to publish one bland story, inside the local-news section with a lead that focused on the troubled charity, not Air America's scandalous participation. That's still better than nothing -- which was what the Times' national edition carried.
The Washington Post published a breezy front-page article plugging Air America's 2004 debut, not to mention an even larger profile on the front of the Sunday Style section. They lavished more than 7,000 words on Air America host Randi Rhodes last September in a Washington Post Magazine cover story. Current scandal coverage? Post-watching blogger Christopher Fotos found an AP dispatch (also two weeks delayed) on the Post website, but noted it didn't make the actual newspaper.
Newsweek hyped the debut in a big three-page spread, featuring a Bush-mocking "photo illustration" of Franken standing on an aircraft carrier in a flight suit. Scandal coverage? Nada.
Time writer Richard Corliss could only give a page to the network's debut, ending with the plea: "America needs Air America." In April of 2005, Corliss hyped the network's first anniversary: "The story has a happy ending for liberals -- or at least a promising second act." Scandal coverage? No way.
ABC gave the Air America debut a morning news story, an evening news story and an entire broadcast of "Nightline." Coverage of their scandal? None.
CBS promoted the launch in brief anchor mentions, and then aired a long profile of Air America star Al Franken on "Sunday Morning." Scandal coverage? Zip.
NBC highlighted the launch with a Franken interview in the morning, and an evening news story. Scandal coverage? Nothing.
NPR promoted the launch on their talk show "Talk of the Nation," as well as their evening news show "All Things Considered," but then aired a critique of their programming on the same show a few weeks later from Michael Harrison. Scandal coverage? Zero.
Then there's CNN, which aired Air America start-up stories in heavy rotation on the weekend before the network debut, as well as promotional stories across their prime-time lineup on Debut Day. A few days after the scandal broke, CNN's blog reporter noted in the afternoon that bloggers Brian Maloney and Michelle Malkin were pushing this story. But CNN has had no story of its own.
That's rich, because in October of 2003, when "NewsNight" anchor Aaron Brown was announcing his smirk over Rush's troubles, he brought on his guest -- ready for this? -- Al Franken, who sneered Limbaugh could never recover, because then he'd have "nothing left" for radio.
Al Franken will never need to recover from media scrutiny.