#Alan Colmes, the longtime cohost of #Fox News’ "#Hannity And Colmes" primetime debate show, passed away last week at the age of 66 following a bout with cancer.
About 24 hours later, Slate magazine and author Isaac Chotiner published an obituary titled “Alan Colmes, Buffoon, and Patsy, Was Fox News’ Original Liberal Weakling.”
Chotiner and Slate have been greatly vilified for this, and while the headline is perhaps needlessly inflammatory, especially for something published a day after the man died — the headline was much more vicious than the piece itself, which holds up as more or less factually accurate..
The true story of Alan Colmes and his career at Fox News, though is both instructive and very instructive about how the present-day media landscape got the way it is.
The Colmes legacy
By all accounts, Alan Colmes was a wonderful man, a fine husband, friend, and colleague, who was a joy to know and work with. I once met him briefly, in a New York City deli, and got that impression too. A charitable reading of his career may be that he was too nice a guy, and not nearly enough of a sociopath, to find success as a cable news host.
That said, what Hannity and Colmes did, and what it was, was unique and groundbreaking- a cable news show in which the fix was in. On its face, it was a debate show in the tradition of CNN's Crossfire- a liberal and conservative host, who would argue and cross-examine guests.
But in "Hannity and Colmes’" case, the game was rigged, and not only because the debate was always on Hannity/conservative terms.
Hannity had a strong personality for television; Colmes did not.
Hannity interrupted and debated aggressively; Colmes did not. Hannity played to win every time; Colmes spent most debates on a futile quest for conciliation and common ground.
Colmes has been compared many times over the years to the Washington Generals, the team that loses, every time, to the Harlem Globetrotters. He was, in pro wrestling parlance, a “jobber,” the guy whose job it was to go out there and lose while making his opponent look good.
As Fox News obtained a foothold throughout the early aughts, people started to catch on to what was going on with the show. Al Franken, in one of his books, spelled Colmes’ name in a smaller typeface than all of the other words. There was a pair of brilliant Onion headlines in the mid-aughts- “Alan Colmes Loses Argument to Nephew” and “Alan Colmes’ Death Goes Unreported on Hannity and Colmes,” although Hannity, to his credit, did, in fact, acknowledge Colmes’ death when it actually happened.
Hannity and Colmes’ heyday coincided with the presidency of George W. Bush, the post-9/11 period and the run-up and execution of the war in Iraq. The ethos on Fox News at the time was simple: Bush is a great leader, Iraq is going great, and anyone who challenges either of those notions is a disgusting subversive who hates America. Colmes never did a whole lot to challenge any of that.
Fox could have replaced Colmes with a different, more strident liberal and made the show more of a fair fight. But clearly, Colmes’ passivity wasn’t a bug; it was a feature. And when Colmes did leave the show, in 2008, Hannity merely took the whole hour for himself.
The Colmes dilemma
On the one hand, Colmes was universally considered a good man and his death at too young an age an unquestionable tragedy. On the other, Chotiner’s article… was a 100 percent accurate description of what Colmes did and what his career amounted to. Anyone who ever watched five or more minutes of "Hannity and Colmes" knew exactly what was going on.
In the days following Colmes’ death, a lot of conservatives offered remembrances and tributes to Colmes. Most of them, I’m sure, were sincere. But others betrayed something else. They were implying that he was “one of the good ones.” Others came right out and said it:
In other words, conservatives prefer Alan Colmes to the sort of liberals who interrupt, challenge and argue back. Wasn’t that the point all along?