NEW YORK--A pleasant-sounding producer from Fox News called to invite me onto Hannity & Colmes to discuss a few controversial political cartoons by Garry Trudeau and Jeff Danziger. "You'll be on with Michael Reagan," the fellow explained, "as an expert. You'll explain how political cartoons work and whether or not there's a line that shouldn't be crossed."
"Let me make sure we're clear on this," I replied, recalling a prior appearance in which right-wing rottweiler Sean Hannity had gone red in the face because I'd remarked that Reagan had been a terrible president.
"You are mean! You are cruel! You are thoughtless, and you are a hateful human being! You don't have a soul! And you don't care about anybody but yourself! And you do this for shock value so that your name could be noticed. You're a slob. You're an absolutely--you're a hateful human being!" he'd yelled. Slob? Hateful--from the biggest hatemonger on television? This hamhock's hypocritical rhetoric and his weird vocabulary made it nearly impossible to keep myself from bursting into hysterical laughter. It'd been hilarious, but I prefer to maintain my composure when speaking on national television.
"You only want me to appear as an expert on editorial cartoons?" I asked Hannity's producer.
"So the show won't be about me."
"I'm not the subject."
"Are editorial cartoons targeting Condoleezza Rice crossing a line?"
Fox promoted my appearance all afternoon. "We'll show you some the most recent cartoons and let you decide with cartoonist Ted Rall and talk radio host Michael Reagan. Join us!" Images of the Trudeau and Danziger cartoons flashed onscreen.
So I was naturally surprised when I walked onto the set of Hannity & Colmes, ostensibly to talk about the Danziger and "Doonesbury" pieces mocking Condi Rice. "Aw, Jesus," Hannity snorted when he looked up from his stack of Internet printouts. The way he was trash-talking, I felt like a pitcher at minor-league baseball game. "Who booked this guy? What's the matter with you--how much publicity do you need? God, you're a sick, sick person. You need help."
"Save it for the show, Sean," said I.
"Nice to see you again," interrupted Alan Colmes, standing to shake hands. Colmes, the producer and the camera guys shifted nervously, embarrassed by and perhaps scared of their mercurial chief host. All the faces were new, as usual. Unlike other Fox shoutshows, you never see the same staffer twice on Hannity & Colmes. Working for this dude would be worse than the Gitmo torture he so admires.
"Fifteen seconds," the camera guy announced. "Five. Go." The monitor flickered on. Hannity introduced me, reading from a TelePrompter. No mention of my book, despite my agreement--oh no! Another neo-con job!
"Let me go to Ted Rall here. Not only did you mock the handicapped, you have mocked conservative minorities, you mocked Pat Tillman, former NFL player who was killed in Iraq. And after he was killed you called him basically an idiot for serving his country and giving up an NFL contract. You mocked 9/11 widows in one cartoon ...You are about as sick a human being as I have ever met ...You are a thoughtless, mean, hateful liberal!"
I reminded him that we'd discussed all this stuff before. "I answer this question every time I come on this show, Sean. That cartoon came out in March of 2002."
He was screaming now. "Apologize! Apologize!" Spittle flew. I wondered whether he was going to punch me, and whether it would be better to punch back or run away. He never mentioned Condi Rice, Doonesbury or Danziger.
Unlike rivals CNN and MSNBC, Fox wages ergonomic warfare on its guests. O'Reilly sits on a large chair, perhaps an Aeron in front of a glass desk where he can lean forward into the camera. (Media trainers tell you to lean to make your chin look smaller and sharper.) His guests, on the other hand, make do with a rickety, armless secretary's chair set away from O'Reilly's table. So while the host is cozy and comfy, you're fending off his questions with your hands hanging in front and half your ass hanging off the tiny chair.
Moreover, few viewers are aware that The O'Reilly Factor is taped hours in advance. Segments a guest remembers as long and flattering--maybe you scored a few zingers against Bill--air shorter and zinger-free after they've been edited.
So why do progressives bother with Fox?
Few do. Hannity and even the relatively civilized O'Reilly hardly ever score top-end liberal politicians or pundits anymore. Ralph Nader, Michael Moore, Hillary Clinton and Noam Chomsky all stay away. "Never again," a famous liberal senator who used to come on Fox told me when I asked why. "They lie. They break their agreements." Ayup.
For other guests, the chance to access Americans who might not be exposed to their thoughts through other media (such as, in my case, cartoons and this column) is hard to resist. Bill O'Reilly doesn't have anything close to the five million viewers he once claimed for the Factor, but tens if not hundreds of thousands of households tune in nightly. If I get a kid to reconsider a decision to enlist in the military or a woman to look into organizing a union because they saw me one night, it's worth putting up with Hannity's harangues.
Moreover, right-wingers are the gatekeepers of the talk TV medium. With no liberal hosting his or her own national show on either broadcast or cable television, silence is the only--and unattractive--alternative to Fox's humiliation.