Last week was Laura’s big week. Yes, that Laura, the First Lady. As in Laura Ingraham, the First Lady of talk radio.
But first the story of James Wong Howe. A Chinese-American, he was one of the great Hollywood cinematographers, winning two Academy Awards, for The Rose Tattoo in 1955 and for Hud in 1963. Making nice money and looking for investments, he decided to open a Chinese restaurant. A photographer was hired to take a publicity shot of the restaurant’s facade; to get the whole window into the shot, he had set up his camera in the middle of the street, blocking traffic. Howe, hearing the commotion, came running out of the kitchen wearing an apron. “Listen,” he said. “Why don’t you just use a wide-angle lens and you can stand on the sidewalk?”
“I’ll take the picture, Mister,” the fotog snapped. “Why don’t you just worry about your noodles?”
Some variant of this episode has been happening for years in the media, with the talking heads of television talking down to the talking mouths of radio. They follow this simple principle: if you sit for an hour in makeup and then read news from a teleprompter on camera for a few minutes, you’re a true journalist; but if you sit in a dank studio with a mike, your brain scrambling at breakneck speed to fashion coherent responses to a range of callers, then you’re just an entertainer. “I’m a pedagogue, you’re a demagogue.” Even Rush Limbaugh, with multi-millions of college-educated listeners, can never get an idea of his quoted seriously on a television news show; they refer to him only derisively, careful to mispronounce his name as Limbo or Limbow.
For months now, talk radio hosts have been hammering home the complaint that major media outlets are hampering the war effort in Iraq by reporting only the bad news. This has been a very effective argument, rallying the troops of the conservative base, and occasionally, when their broadcasts reached the front, rallying the real troops. Yet it hardly resonated beyond the echo chamber of alternative-media geeks; people who wear their Michael Reagan T-shirt and sip from a Sean Hannity coffee mug while perusing G. Gordon Liddy’s newsletter.
Last week all that changed when Esquire Laura (as opposed to Doctor Laura) was a guest on the Today Show and made these same points. Suddenly the media world was in an uproar, with features everywhere on the subject. Responses ranged from denying that it was so to pleading guilty-with-an-explanation by citing the dramatic immediacy of violence to the ultimate dog-ate-my-homework excuse by the New York Times: not enough manpower to go scout out the good news. Why was Laura Ingraham’s voice heard where so many of her colleagues had found deaf ears? Answer: the TV folks listened because she was one of their own.
Throughout the 1990s, Laura was a TV presence who was always fascinatingly elusive. Both in her role as a commentator for CBS and hosting her own program at MSNBC, she managed to blunt the edge of the surrounding TV liberalism without sending up red flags as a movement conservative. Although the New York Times Magazine made her a cover girl in 1995, tagging her as a young conservative, her TV persona was artfully crafted not to alienate with labels. Her frequent appearances on the Don Imus radio show were always clever and spunky, debunking liberal cant and pap as a sort of detached wry observer who has no horse of her own in the race.
Only the most alert political junkie types were aware that she had been a rah-rah Reaganite from Day One. She wrote for the Dartmouth Review, became a speechwriter for the Reagan administration in its last two years, and after earning her law degree from University of Virginia, she clerked for Clarence Thomas on both the U.S. Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court. By not wearing these credentials on her sleeve, she navigated a successful — and effective — course through the rocky terrain of television journalism.
It’s like when I went to the Nassau Coliseum to see the New York Nets and Julius Erving of the ABA in a playoff game against the Kentucky Colonels. Already six feet tall at age 14, I asked for the under-16 half-price ticket. “You’re under 16?!” the cashier asked/accused. “Next month,” I mumbled. “I’ll be 16 next month.” After she sold me the ticket, I absorbed the absurdity: I had just lied to make myself older to buy the younger ticket I deserved. Laura deemphasized the things that should have entitled her to respect if the TV world were normal, to buy a place at the table where she was eminently qualified to sit.
You never want to use the word “mole” in a sentence about a beautiful woman, so we’ll say she was our “plant” on TV, an eminently un-potted one. Now we have her on radio where she belongs, a forum that allows for a fuller deployment and display of her intellect and passion. And every so often she can pop her head back into the TV green rooms and go “Boo!” — and all the elitist boys and girls are forced to listen.