Wednesday, July 14, 2004

MARA LIASSON SHOULD QUIT I often wind up cringing when watching liberal pols on conservative talk shows.

Whether it's a poor state legislator squaring off against Bill O'Reilly, or Juan Williams taking on the entire gang of Fox talking heads, there's something distasteful about looking on as a pundit from 'our' side faces a stacked deck.

But something else also happens when I watch: It's hard to resist turning on the very progressives fighting these unwinnable battles. There's something inescapably demeaning--and almost tainting--about their role, and their willingness to lend tacit approval to the charade that is right wing TV news.

Still, in my more reflective moments, I've always wound up concluding that people like Juan Williams do a service to the progressive cause by taking part in these pseudo-debates. If Williams doesn't show up to battle the Beltway Boys, my thinking's been, Fox won't hesitate to book a replacement who is less talented, less telegenic and more easily slapped around. (Witness Susan Estrich and Alan Colmes.) At least with Williams on the air, there's a chance that someone in Fox's (large) audience will be persuaded, or at least forced to think.

AND YET, after catching the second half of Tuesday's Special Report With Brit Hume, I'm no longer so sure.

Helmed by substitute host Brian Wilson, the show consisted of commentary from three Fox regulars: conservatives Mort Kondracke and Fred Barnes, and lefty Mara Liasson--of Roll Call, The Weekly Standard and National Public Radio, respectively.

To say that the usually-palatable Liasson (a former Republican, incidentally, who isn't exactly a liberal hard-liner) got pummeled doesn't convey the magnitude of the shellacking she took.

An excerpt (from discussion of the Iraq-Niger uranium story):

LIASSON: Why it matters is kind of -- it's a little complicated, but it's very important. Why it matters is that someone at the White House -- someone in the administration told Robert Novak, a columnist, that his wife -- named her. She's an undercover operative who has a secret identity. So he, in effect, outed her. Which Wilson claims was done to get revenge on him because he had written an article critical of the administration. Now, this...


BARNES: That's not why this matters at all! No. No. It matters whether...

LIASSON: It matters because this cast a different light on the motivation of why they might have said that.

BARNES: What matters is whether this is true or not. The president in his 2003 State of the Union Address said the British government has discovered that Iraq was seeking to buy uranium in Africa. Didn't even say Niger. Joe Wilson says -- comes along and says that one, he went over there on a mission and found that that wasn't true. And secondly, the White House got this information and then chose to ignore it. The president went on and said that.

Well, the CIA report says just the opposite. It says indeed he went over there and came back with information that bolstered the case for Iraq actually trying to buy uranium there, in both 1998 and 1999. And so, they didn't even send the information on to the White House. So the White House didn't have anything to ignore because they just dismissed Joe Wilson's report. Now, it's true they didn't follow-up, but they dismissed his report is not really changing anything.

And then on the question of whether his -- I mean it's a question of who are you going to believe? Are you going to believe this report and the people at the CIA? Or are you going to belief Joe Wilson? In this case, I happen to belief the report. And last thing...

LIASSON: But wait a minute, Fred. Why does the...


BARNES: Last thing -- wait a minute. One more -- as Mort would say, furthermore, on this question of whether -- of whether his wife was involved or not. All the people at the CIA said it was her idea. And then there was a memo, in which she promotes him for the job of going to Niger. That's pretty telling.

KONDRACKE: Yes. I got to say that everything that Fred said is -- looks to be absolutely right. And that Joe Wilson manufactured this story and made himself an object of...

WILSON: It's a blow to his credibility is what you're saying.

It may not come through as clearly in the transcript as it did on the tube, but Liasson was essentially cut off and then shouted down.

More to the point, a CONTRAPOSITIVE analysis of the transcript reveals that Liasson spoke fewer words on the show than any of the other panelist including the host.

Barnes: 738 words.
Kondracke: 478 words.
Liasson: 390 words.
Wilson: 437 words.

Now. Maybe Liasson just used really really long words. But I doubt it.

Just as revealing as Liasson's failure to get anything like equal time is the fact that her average comment--defined as the period between interruptions (commercial or otherwise)--was by far the shortest of the panelists. Her comments averaged about two-thirds the length of Barnes' and just a shade over half as long as Kondracke's.

In sum, Liasson got significantly less air time than the other panelists, and she had to fight far harder for it.

NOW. There may not be a bright line between window-dressing and an honest exchange of opinions--between appearing as a member of the "loyal opposition" and getting used a doormat--but that line certainly got crossed on Special Report With Brit Hume during Tuesday afternoon's "debate."

There comes a time when even a well-meaning attempt to influence the discussion isn't worth the credibility one lends to the platform on which that discussion is occurring.

If Liasson wasn't embarrassed by the way she was manhandled on Tuesday, she certainly ought to be.

If she cares about her credibility, she ought to resign from Fox.

CONTRAPOSITIVE is edited by Dan Aibel. Dan's a playwright. He lives in New York City.