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Laura Ingraham: Right-Wing Radio's High Priestess of Hate

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The following is an excerpt from Shock Jocks: Hate Speech and Talk Radio by Rory O'Connor with Aaron Cutler (AlterNet Books, 2008).

Laura Ingraham is ... different. Not only is Ingraham younger than many other conservative radio personalities (at 45, she's more than a decade from Limbaugh's cohort), and the only female among them, but she also brings to the airwaves a snarky brand of aggressive humor fused with an attack-dog sensibility that she expresses with a chalk-on-gravel voice. Her goal is not to assert her own glory, but to rip apart her enemies, which include everyone from liberals and "elites" to, from time to time, even President George W. Bush and presidential hopeful John McCain. Her style of argumentation is bare-bones simple; in a 1997 piece for Salon.com, Eric Alterman wrote that Ingraham just laughed in response to a position he took on television during the 1996 election. How could he counter that?

Ingraham often uses laughter as a weapon. One of her show's most popular parodies, "But ... Monkey," interposes the sound of a screeching monkey over a sound bite from a political figure. Victims have included Democratic senators Harry Reid and Barbara Boxer as well as conservative gurus like columnist Charles Krauthammer. Other regular segments include "Deep Thought of the Day" and "Lie of the Day." Ingraham also makes great use of pop culture clips (she plays the theme song from the television show "Flipper" when discussing John Kerry), and her production values are generally superb. Like many other successful hosts, she is often very funny, and her rapid-fire pacing and easy banter with her younger male producers (all three are in their early 20s) has more in common with the liberal "Stephanie Miller Show" than the hard-line commentary sometimes heard on conservative talk shows. At a deeper level, however, despite the comedy, Ingraham takes what she does quite seriously.

The rabid nature of her assault against immigration reform is a good example. Ingraham has perhaps been more strongly anti-immigration than any other talk personality except Michael Savage. Her show even features a regular segment called "The Illegal Immigration Sob Story" alert, in which she reads news pieces she feels are biased toward illegal immigrants. When she had White House spokesman Tony Snow on her program, she began by asking him why the Bush administration was dragging its heels on immigration reform. After sarcastically apologizing for interrupting his talking points, she said, "69 percent of Americans, 85 percent of the GOP, 55 percent of the Democrats want the border enforced. Does that affect you guys, or do you guys just blow it off?"

In the two-for-one combination that all too often serves conservative radio well, Ingraham once claimed that the immigration bill was an attempt by the mainstream media to make more people liberals. Anyone who still wonders whether talk radio had an influence on the bill's defeat should look at Ingraham's numbers; with more than 5 million weekly listeners, she is tied with Glenn Beck as the fourth most listened to radio talk show host in America. Alterman wrote that Ingraham's popularity is due to her having "something more important than knowledge or experience. ... She has star quality." She is also fearless: She once confronted CNN host John Roberts for calling her "outspoken," saying, "Do you guys introduce liberal commentators that way?"

She's more aggressive than Limbaugh, more blatant than Hannity, and more rational than Beck or Savage, and although she often supports many of them (erroneously stating, for example, that Limbaugh never claimed the Clintons murdered Vince Foster), she is equally willing to call them out. She walked out of a "Hannity & Colmes" installment after the Don Imus "nappy-headed ho's" controversy was twisted into a discussion of Democratic vices, and once asked on her radio program after an appearance on "The O'Reilly Factor," "Why is Bill O'Reilly afraid of George Soros?" (In the same broadcast, Ingraham accused columnist Helen Thomas of working for Hezbollah, which has been identified by the U.S. government as a terrorist group.)

Ingraham was born and raised among the wealthy in Glastonbury, Conn., one of the state's richest suburbs, although her mother worked as a maid to support the family. She went to Dartmouth University and became the first female editor of the conservative Dartmouth Review, where conservative author Dinesh D'Souza, a former boyfriend, also worked. While there, she secretly sent a reporter with a tape recorder to a campus gay students association meeting; she then outed the students in print and sent tapes of the meetings to the students' parents. In the magazine she called association members "cheerleaders for latent campus sodomites." (In 1997, more than a decade later, she wrote an article in the Washington Post detailing how she had changed her views in light of her brother Curtis' coming out as gay.)

After graduating from Dartmouth, she went to work for the White House as a speechwriter; like her peers, conservative radio talkers Mark Levin and Hugh Hewitt, Ingraham began her professional career as a Reagan employee. She also obtained a law degree from the University of Virginia and clerked for Justice Clarence Thomas. In 1995 she appeared on the cover of the New York Times Magazine -- wearing a friend's hip, leopard-print miniskirt -- to illustrate an article about rising young conservatives. She then became both a regular MSNBC pundit and a commentator on the "CBS Evening News," where she once asked Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres if the United States should bomb Libya or Syria in retaliation for a TWA flight explosion whose cause was unknown. Ingraham argues politics the way lawyers argue cases, as if there can be no possible interpretation other than her own. She is a class-A schmoozer who understands and exploits her verbal gifts to the fullest. Her skill for networking, along with her willingness to go for the jugular, has allowed her to break into the boys' club of conservative radio.

In the late 1990s, she briefly hosted her own MSNBC cable television show, "Watch It!" (17 months and three time slots later, she joked that it should have been called "Watch It Get Canceled!"), and then, in 2001, launched "The Laura Ingraham Show" on radio. Ingraham's particular blend of humor and argument apparently translated more effectively on radio than on television, and the Talk Radio Network now syndicates her show on nearly 325 terrestrial stations (it's also available on Sirius and XM satellite radio). She has survived both a breast cancer scare and a broken wedding engagement, and continues to mock the establishment sardonically for three hours daily.

Ingraham has made more than her share of controversial comments, with frequent guest appearances on television affording her as much prominence as her radio work (for someone whose own television show was relatively short-lived, she spends a tremendous amount of time on other people's programs). She's no Neal Boortz, but she's certainly more outrageous than, say, Hugh Hewitt. In one of her most famous incidents, on Election Day 2006 Ingraham encouraged listeners to jam the phone line of a toll-free Democratic Party service for reporting voting problems. No tangible consequences came of it (the Democrats won anyway), but it did put Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy up in arms.

Perhaps the greatest controversy of Ingraham's career, however, came from comments she made about the Iraq War. In March of 2006, Ingraham went on a six-day tour of Iraq, visiting hospitals, orphanages and Iraqi villages. Upon returning to the United States, she appeared on NBC's "Today Show" to criticize the mainstream American media for its unwillingness to report "the truth" of the Iraq situation. She said that NBC had focused on programming "Where in the World is Matt Lauer?" and that "to do a show from Iraq means to talk to the Iraqi military, to go out with the Iraqi military, to actually have a conversation with the people instead of reporting from hotel balconies about the latest IEDs going off."

Washington Post writer Jonathan Finer later reported that Ingraham "rarely, if ever, spent a moment outside the protection of U.S. forces or a night outside a military base." Finer compared her experience with that of the Iraq-stationed journalists she criticized, "almost all of whom operate without military protection." While the National Review's Tim Graham applauded Ingraham for bringing out the "facts the media self-defense teams ignore," MSNBC host Keith Olbermann said on his show Countdown that Ingraham had dishonored the memory of the 80 American journalists killed and others kidnapped in Iraq, and that her comment "was not only unforgivable of her, it was desperate and it was stupid."

Ingraham's stance on women's issues is divided at best; around the time of Clarence Thomas' Supreme Court appointment, she joined with a conservative group called Independent Women's Forum that formed a committee to attack and discredit Anita Hill's sexual harassment testimony against Thomas. (Independent Women's Forum's other activities included testifying in Congress for defunding the Violence Against Women Act and against affirmative action.) While she has criticized Fox for gratuitous, sexually explicit programming and helped lead a media campaign against the misogynistic rapper Akon, she also co-hosted a three-part PBS special on "the gender wars," which explored "whether the advancement of women in virtually all areas of society can be achieved without a retreat, in some way, on the part of men." One need not guess where Ingraham, a convert to Roman Catholicism, stands on a woman's right to choose.

Among prominent female political figures, Hillary Clinton in particular provokes Ingraham's ire. Her first book, The Hillary Trap, tried hard to make the case that Clinton was actually setting women's rights back by arguing for special status for them. "The complaints of Western feminists look like petty self-absorption when you line them up against human rights abuses in Third World military dictatorships," Ingraham wrote.

Ingraham also argues that a vocal minority -- the "elites" -- is threatening American values, and they should pipe down for the majority's sake. Elites include anti-war demonstrators and university professors ("It's well known that in the 1960s, leftists conquered the academies"). There is also no love lost between Ingraham and Europeans, who she believes fail to understand and appreciate America's love for "God, guns and the death penalty."

Ingraham's third book, Power to the People, was released on Sept. 11, 2007. The patriotic timing was deliberate; the book is partly memoir but is mostly devoted to annihilating what she calls the "pornification" of America, an increasing cultural tendency toward flaunted sexuality and the loss of traditional values. She calls the book "a rallying cry for common sense and good old-fashioned American ideals of patriotism, family, faith and country," one that encourages people to take matters into their own hands. In its first week, the book ranked third on the Amazon.com best-seller list.

"We are the government," Ingraham said in an interview promoting the book. Controlling people by telling them how to think for themselves is a nice piece of demagogic trickery, though hardly original among the conservative bloc that crowds talk radio today. Ingraham has proved to be a master at such trickery -- and like her or not, she's every bit as funny, as appealing and as dangerous as each of her male peers and friends.