Media Circus

Right-wing political commentator Laura Ingraham has parlayed good looks, facile commentary and star quality into media power.

Published October 21, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

I first met Laura Ingraham on the set of MSNBC on the network's first day on the air. If memory serves, she asked former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres a question displaying both amazing audacity and embarrassing ignorance. Coming just days after the explosion aboard TWA flight 800 over Long Island, Laura wanted to know if Peres thought it was a good idea for the U.S. to bomb Syria or Libya in response. Peres clearly thought she was nuts and did his best to explain that no one even knew if foul play had been involved yet. In between interview segments, Laura and I gossiped about Joe Klein, who had just been unmasked as "Anonymous." She told me that a day earlier she had seen Klein coming out of a meeting at CBS all smiles, chuckling over something with his bosses there and so, as far as she could tell, his future was assured.

What could I conclude but that this woman was more full of shit than just about anyone I had ever met? She was clearly off her rocker when it came to international politics. Worse, the comments about CBS seemed to indicate she was desperate to impress. I had heard rumors that she was being considered to replace Klein there, but frankly, I dismissed them out of hand. Klein was obnoxious, but at least he had a track record. Who the hell did this ignorant pixie think she was? Well, Laura Ingraham understands the media better than I do. She has something more important than knowledge or experience -- and she knows it. She has star quality.

Laura was hired by CBS to replace Klein, and together with Bill Bradley offers regular commentary on the Evening News. She also worked as a regular pundit on MSNBC, thereby becoming the only person in history, as far as I know, to negotiate simultaneous contracts with both NBC and CBS news. Neither one could live without her. She also turns up regularly on Imus, "The McLaughlin Group," "Politically Incorrect," in Vanity Fair and on the New York Post's Page Six. One day she is flying on Robert DeNiro's plane, the next she is dining with Dustin Hoffman. Laura look-alikes have begun sprouting up all over the media, spouting right-wing anti-feminist politics as they brush their peroxide blond locks back and straighten out their leopard miniskirts on camera. Who cares that, to most women, Laura and her acolytes' right-wing Republican politics have about as much appeal as a stag party in a strip joint.

Laura recently left MSNBC, presumably for greener pastures, and so I can write about her without any professional conflicts of interest. I admit to liking her and missing her around the station. Unless the subject was law or a Clinton-related scandal, Laura rarely seemed to know much about the subject at hand, but she never evinced any ambivalence about where the real issue lay. She once destroyed me in a debate about the upcoming election when I tried to argue that the great unaddressed issue between Clinton and Bob Dole was the ravaging effect global capitalism has had on peoples' lives and communities. She just laughed. We were, after all, on television. Just how did I expect to explain to soccer moms that their problems lay not with taxes or family values but with highly mobile capital markets? Laura looked and sounded great and responded with some snappy Republican campaign slogan. I was toast.

More than anyone else alive, I fear, Laura Ingraham speaks to the Zeitgeist of the contemporary American media. She is young, sexy and ambitious. She argues politics the way lawyers argue cases, as if there can be no possible interpretation other than her own, and what can possibly be the matter with her pathetically out-to-lunch opponent? She is a class-A schmoozer who understands her considerable gifts and exploits them to the fullest. If there's someone at a party or a lunch or even in a TV studio Laura wants to talk to, she's there, and suddenly the guy is an old friend.

What Laura is not, however, is a careful thinker or knowledgeable analyst. Her professional training is pretty much limited to a bomb-throwing stint at the Dartmouth Review, three years of law school, a clerkship for Clarence Thomas and a sexy appearance on the cover of the New York Times Magazine. I understand why she was hired by MSNBC, which puts a premium on youth and hence is willing to cut workers slack in the experience and reasoned thought department; and a beautiful right-wing blond on "The McLaughlin Group" requires no explanation whatever. But CBS News? Opposite Bill Bradley? This is not a morning show, where Molinari-esque perkiness comes with the coffee. This is the flagship news program of what once was "the Tiffany network." Are great looks and superficial debating abilities so valuable on television that a Laura Ingraham is equivalent to a former senator who rewrote the tax code and has provided the country with some of its toughest political speeches on race for the past two decades?

Well, yes. CBS's ratings may be in the toilet, but no one is blaming Laura. The network is most often criticized for sticking to stodgy old formulas that emphasize "real news" at the expense of the feel-good, tabloidy stuff that is eating up the business the way Godzilla swallowed Tokyo. We have reached the point, it seems, where exactly the same qualities that make someone a likable sitcom star can also land them a job where Bill Moyers and Eric Severeid once sat. What I don't understand is why Laura is satisfied with just politics. Diane Sawyer once worked for Nixon but, as glamorous agent for our celebrity yearnings, she can now buy and sell small countries. Ditto for the apolitical non-journalist Barbara Walters. Laura Ingraham has catapulted herself atop the greasy pole of political commentary in a period when most aspiring TV personalities are still peddling their wares in Peoria. Can it be long before she's showing Queens Diane and Barbara the door as well? They are showing a few wrinkles, after all.

By Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman last piece for Salon was "Confessions of a box-set sucker."

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