Thom Hartmann's Unusual Approach to Progressive Media Nets Big Audience Without Big Names
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Slick as it may look, Hartmann's show is different from the other cable programs in one immediately obvious way: the guest list. On the night I visited the studio, his guests included a pair of Occupy Wall Street participants (one of whom donned a Union soldier's cap for the occasion) and two women representing the new nation of South Sudan, whose imperfect command of English and quiet voices made for something less than the kind of "hot" discussion between partisans one might find over at Fox or CNN. Hartmann acknowledged that the topic might not be a ratings-grabber, but he didn't seem to mind (Sudan is a particular interest of his, since he has visited the county multiple times doing aid work). Though Hartmann covers the pressing political issues of the moment, the journalists he brings on are more likely to hail from Alternet than from The New York Times. Perhaps most important, he has almost no interest in hosting politicians on his radio or television shows.
"There are a couple of progressive shows that do a lot of suck-up interviews with Democratic politicians, but they're in the minority. And we've never been one of them," Hartmann says. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders comes on Hartmann's radio program once a week to field questions from listeners, but "he's the only politician that we have on the program with any regularity at all." Asked whether he'd like to have more politicians on, Hartmann says, "I don't want them on the show, frankly, and here's why… if you get a politician on who voted in a crappy way on one piece of legislation but is pushing another piece of legislation right now, they don't like it if you try and challenge them on the crappy legislation they did last week. But your listeners get really upset if you don't. And frankly, there's a certain lack of integrity if you don't. Early on in the show, I would try to get big-name politicians when we could, and I got a couple of senators on and managed to piss them off pretty thoroughly."
In Washington, where Meet the Press is the most prestigious show in town, a radio and television host who doesn't care about the "get" is an unusual creature. But Hartmann insists that radio is driven by the host's personality, and his listeners tune in primarily because he has built a relationship with them and they want his perspective on the issues of the day. He acknowledges that he's still learning how to produce effective television, quoting the writer's adage that the first million words you write are just practice (Hartmann has written more than 20 books, on topics from attention-deficit disorder to the Kennedy assassination to global warming to corporate "personhood"). One thing he has brought with him from his radio show—and that distinguishes him from many other partisan hosts on both sides—is his eagerness to bring on people who disagree with him for spirited yet respectful debates.
Hartmann explains that when he was young, his father was an activist with the local Republican Party in Lansing, Michigan. "I went door to door with him in 1964—I was 13 years old—for Barry Goldwater." Hartman watched William F. Buckley on television with his father every week, and he thought Buckley's Firing Line "was the smartest show I had ever seen. It totally blew me away." His admiration for Buckley remains to this day, but by the time he was a teenager, "I had come to agree more with my grandfather, who was an old-fashioned 1930s socialist," and arguments in his house grew more intense. "The thing that I learned over the years was how to have those debates with my father and not get thrown out of the house, not have any blood on the floor." That experience carries over to his shows. "My goal in my conversations with conservatives is not to create a spectacle, and not to win the argument, not to prove that I'm the smartest guy in the room or that I'm the tough warrior and I can smack down people." The result is a rarity—discussions between people who disagree strongly but manage to avoid anger and shrillness. This may be why Hartmann has more good things to say about the Tea Party movement (its grassroots elements, at least) than most liberals. In fact, he sees the potential for a genuine alliance between the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. The activist flavor of his show comes from both the guests and the host; he ends his program by telling viewers, "Don't forget, democracy begins with you. Get out there, get active. Tag, you're it."