Outflanked Democrats need to catch up in media wars
       by Jim Rutenberg of the NY Times
Worried that their party has been outgunned in the political propaganda wars by conservative radio and television
personalities, influential Democrats are scouring the nation for a liberal answer to Rush Limbaugh and the many
others on the deep bench of Republican friends.

For years, Democrats have groused about their inability to balance what they see as the increasing influence
over the electorate by advocates of Republican policies.

But they say their concerns have taken on a new urgency because of the rise to the top of the cable news ratings
by the Fox News Channel, considered by many to have a conservative slant, and the loss of the Senate to the
Republicans in November. Some Democrats say the election outcome enhanced the influence of Fox News
and personalities like Mr. Limbaugh.

 Will slur blacks for food.

The efforts among influential Democrats, particularly liberals, range from a grass-roots talent search for progressive
radio hosts to the creation of research organizations to provide a Democratic spin for the news media, to nascent d
iscussions by wealthy supporters about starting a cable network with a liberal bent.

People working on these projects acknowledged they were venturing into territory where liberals have failed and
failed again, most notably with the short-lived radio programs of Mario M. Cuomo and Jim Hightower, not to mention
Phil Donahue's struggling liberal talk show on MSNBC.

However, they said, the recent Republican gains have perhaps set the backdrop for the emergence of an angry liberal
who could claim the same outsider status that worked so well for Mr. Limbaugh in the early 1990's.

The hurried efforts by Democrats to find more powerful media voices come after years of carping but little action.

"If you start from the premise that the message was right, which we do, then the problem was that it wasn't getting
out to the people," said one official of the Democratic Party who spoke on condition that his name not be used.

With that sentiment, there is a sense within the leadership ranks that the party erred in not building a media support
system after the 2000 presidential election, when it lost the media coordination of the Clinton White House.

"Across the board, we need to muscle up," said John Podesta, the former White House chief of staff for Bill Clinton
and now a law professor at Georgetown University. "That means from the Congressional operations to the party
committees to the think-tank world to, most significantly, beefing up our capacity to communicate with the public
in all forms of media, not just through obscure Internet Web sites but on television and radio."

For his part, Mr. Podesta is discussing with the Internet entrepreneur Steven T. Kirsch and others the creation of a liberal version of the Heritage Foundation, the conservative research group that, along with others of its kind, is credited with helping start the modern conservative movement.

The foundation is part of a circuit of influential conservative groups that are credited with helping to hone a singular message, bolstered each Wednesday at back-to-back meetings held by Grover Norquist, the head of Americans for Tax Reform, and the conservative activist Paul Weyrich. Those meetings are monitored and at times attended by some conservative commentators, columnists and Internet writers.

Democrats have long claimed that the circuit has corralled conservative thinkers, and more important, conservative media, into a disciplined message of the week that gets repeated attention from Web sites like the Drudge Report, Mr. Limbaugh's radio show, Fox News's prime-time talk shows and the editorial pages of The Washington Times and The Wall Street Journal.

Mr. Kirsch, chief executive of the Propel Internet service and a Democratic fund-raiser, said the foundation he and Mr. Podesta envision would do the same for liberals.

"During the last 10 years the opposition has become more organized and the liberals haven't adapted to counter it," Mr. Kirsch said. "We will have components that will include messaging, message delivery and coordination of progressive groups so progressives will speak with more of a unified voice."

Should the organizers succeed at starting a foundation, it would not have anywhere near the number of prominent, outright partisan media voices that its conservative counterparts do.

Democrats can point to a scant few. Their most prominent television advocates, James Carville and Paul Begala on "Crossfire" and Bill Press on CNN's "Buchanan and Press," square off each day against conservative counterparts. Mr. Donahue stands alone on MSNBC, but his program has struggled some against the far more watched Bill O'Reilly on Fox and Connie Chung on CNN.

Conservatives have Mr. Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Michael Reagan and Neal Boortz, who collectively draw an audience of at least 30 million people per week with a strictly conservative message.

They are led, of course, by Mr. Limbaugh, with an estimated audience of up to 20 million people a week, and Mr. Hannity, with nearly 10 million. Democrats, most recently Al Gore, have also complained that the Fox News Channel, overseen by the former Republican strategist Roger E. Ailes, slants its coverage against Democrats, a charge Mr. Ailes denies. Its average nightly audience of about 1.3 million people is the largest in cable news.

In one of the more ambitious of the ideas circulating, a group of wealthy Democratic supporters is toying with the idea of starting a liberal cable network. That endeavor would cost in the hundreds of millions and require the backing of a media company with enough leverage to force it onto the major cable systems.

Democratic officials said that they had discussed a similar idea with Haim Saban, a media mogul and party supporter, a couple of years ago, as Fox News began its ascent, but that he ultimately decided against it, in large part because of the odds against success.

Mr. Saban had no comment, but an associate played down the seriousness of the discussions.

Still, Rob Glaser, the founder and chief executive of RealNetworks, the Internet video service, said he believed there was room to create a progressive version of Fox News.

"There is a hole in the market right now," Mr. Glaser said. "From my personal standpoint, holes in the market are opportunities."

Democrats said a far more readily achievable goal would be to foster national liberal radio personalities.

The task has fallen to a newly formed group, Democracy Radio Inc. It is overseen by a former Democratic Congressional staffer, Tom Athens, with help from, among others, Paul W. Fiddick, the Clinton administration assistant secretary for agriculture and a co-founder of the Heritage Media Corporation.

"We're going to go out and identify talent and help them to create programming and actually connect them with local stations," Mr. Athens said. "We want to plant a thousand seeds and see how many flowers actually arise."

But if history is any guide, the soil may not be fertile. Liberal radio programs have not worked very well in the past. Liberals and conservatives said they believed this was in part because the most prominent liberal hosts have tended to present policy issues in all of their dry complexity while refraining from baring fangs against conservative opponents.

"Most liberal talk shows are so, you know, milquetoast, who would want to listen to them?" said Harry Thomason, the Hollywood producer who is close to Bill Clinton. "Conservatives are all fire and brimstone."

Mr. Athens said his group would encourage its hosts to be more brazen and entertaining.

"Progressives have this problem: They sound too erudite, it's like eggheads talking at you," Mr. Athens said. "We believe that progressive talk radio can be every bit as successful as conservative talk radio if people present and format a show that people like."

Conservatives are skeptical that all of this planning will do the Democrats much good. "It's not a matter of packaging or meetings, it's a matter of ideas," Mr. Hannity said. "The public isn't interested in the kind of liberalism that the Democratic party has come to represent."

Robert Novak, the syndicated columnist and part of the conservative team on CNN's "Crossfire," said the Democrats were making too much about the efficacy of the conservative research organizations. Mr. Novak said he sent a staff member to Mr. Norquist's meetings. But, he said, while the information shared at the meetings is "helpful, it's hardly a decisive factor" in what he writes in his column or says on television.

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