Alan Colmes knows that progressives don't like his style. But FOX's lone liberal talk-show host is just asking for a little respect.
He's proud, in fact, of his reputation as the laid-back half of Hannity & Colmes on FOX News. His on-air persona, he says, is consistent with the style of "a true liberal, someone who considers both sides."
There is, however, one way to raise Colmes' ire: Ask him if he feels like the token liberal on a conservative-dominated network.
"The only way to make the case that FOX is not fair and balanced is to not give me my due," he said halfway through a recent phone interview about his new book, Red, White and Liberal, his voice rising for the first time. "I'm half the show and I get exactly half the time. To suggest that I'm less potent is just absurd."
Love him or hate him, liberals need to face the fact that Alan Colmes may well be the most prominent liberal pundit in America today. He shares a full hour with conservative partner Sean Hannity on FOX News every night, and enjoys ratings that best Larry King Live (which airs in the same time slot on CNN) and even the venerable Crossfire. Colmes also spends three hours on the radio every evening as host of FOX News Live. No other liberal commentator can match the sheer volume of Colmes' daily exposure.
Nor has any other suffered quite as much derision at the hands of his ideological fellow travelers. Eric Boehlert of Salon once called Colmes "unbelievably toothless." Al Franken described him as "the lone Washington General" on FOX -- a reference to the opponents of the Harlem Globetrotters, who were expected to lose every game on purpose -- in his book Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them. The progressive media watchdog group Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) wrote that, compared with Hannity, Colmes is "a rather less telegenic former stand-up comic and radio host whose views are slightly left-of-center but who, as a personality, is completely off the radar screen of liberal politics."
Colmes may never be able to shake this unflattering image completely, but with his new book, he proves he can throw a meaner left hook than his critics might have expected. Among the recent glut of angry left-wing books, Red, White and Liberal is the only one that attempts to actually build a case for progressive politics (as opposed to merely building a case against George W. Bush). But that doesn't mean there's no criticism of the current administration. The book makes persuasive arguments against the Iraq War, Attorney General John Ashcroft, the Bush tax cuts and the war on drugs. And while Colmes doesn't go as far as, say, Ann Coulter in accusing the other side of treason, he does devote a chapter to a theme more appropriate for a nice-guy liberal: "Conservatives are Downright Mean."
That chapter is supported in part by a sampling of the nasty e-mail poor Alan Colmes seems to be subjected to on a daily basis. Hannity & Colmes viewers write in to say they wish he had been on the late Sen. Paul Wellstone's (D-Minn.) plane and to call him "the most hated man in America," "a yellow bellied communist" and, quite frequently, "gay."
Despite all that, Colmes says he retains an open mind about politics. He often goes out of his way to demonstrate respect for conservative guests on his show, and one of his book's chapters is titled "Where Right is Right," a nod to the other side of the political spectrum that it's hard to picture, say, Laura Ingraham or Michael Moore making. Some of the chapter is simply an attack on members of the far left, such as those who favor slavery reparations or maintain that Bush is not really president. In other parts of the chapter, though, Colmes strays toward the center, supporting free trade and tougher control of borders -- even going so far as to cite conservative pundit Michelle Malkin as someone who has done "good work" on the borders issue.
"I want to give liberals hope and conservatives understanding," he told me about the chapter designed to reach out to the right. "Conservatives need to know how someone on the other side thinks."
Of course, some take this approach of talking to conservatives -- rather than just shouting at them -- as proof that Colmes isn't much of a liberal. FAIR pointed out that in a 1995 interview with USA Today, Colmes described himself as "quite moderate" -- a quote he now says was meant to convey that he thinks his views would be considered moderate if not for the nation's rightward shift in recent years. "I'm proud to be a liberal," he insists. "I'm firmly on the left."
Red, White and Liberal largely bears that contention out, right down to an attack on "the myth of the liberal media." Colmes takes the standard left line, pointing out that those who run news companies are much more conservative than reporters. He also cites examples of media bias against Democrats, from Whitewater to the treatment of Al Gore in 2000. But here is where Colmes makes a mistake far more pedestrian than the insufficient ideological zealotry of which he is often accused. And that is the sin of failing to stand up to the folks who write his paychecks.
In his analysis of media concentration, Colmes lists a number of conglomerates -- Disney, Time Warner, General Electric -- but neglects to mention the substantial reach of a certain Rupert Murdoch-owned company called News Corp. He points out that "it's usually a newspaper's executives who decide what editorial positions to take on key issues," but doesn't extend that analysis to the power a former Republican operative (Roger Ailes) has in running a purportedly "fair and balanced" news network.
Indeed, Colmes never mentions Ailes by name, though he dismisses his influence in one paragraph, asking rhetorically, "So what if my boss is a Republican?" He then points out that other media titans, such as Michael Eisner and Richard Parsons, give money to the GOP. But Colmes is comparing the head of a news network who used to work as a party consultant to CEOs with dozens of properties who have simply given money to a political party. It's not a strong analogy.
Colmes' defense of FOX against charges of right-wing bias, which takes up several pages in his chapter on the media, isn't much better. He points to a poll that found that the network's viewers aren't particularly more conservative than those of CNN; he also argues that a truly one-sided network simply wouldn't be successful. It's specious reasoning, though, to claim that audience makeup necessarily implies anything about content. And success on cable is all about targeting a specific audience -- which FOX does with great skill.
Colmes' attempts to rationalize his employment at FOX may leave readers asking whether he is a faux liberal who only looks progressive on a network of right-wingers. I would argue that's not the case. In fact, while co-host Hannity's book, Let Freedom Ring, is full of arguments that could have come directly from Republican National Committee talking points, Colmes stakes out positions well to the left of many of the Democratic Party's leaders on issues from the Iraq War to drugs to welfare.
But even if Colmes is an authentic progressive, is he a fair match for Hannity and the other bullying loudmouths of the right? That depends on whether you think a good liberal commentator is "someone who considers both sides."
Ben Fritz writes for Daily Variety and edits the political rhetoric Web site Spinsanity and the satirical Web site Dateline Hollywood.