Hannity v. Garofalo. (Thomas Lang)

BOSTON — A crowd of reporters, fans, and enemies gather around the table. A loose chain of Boston cops form a fence separating the excited from the celebrity. On the bottom floor of the FleetCenter at the Democratic National Convention sits Sean Hannity of Fox News and ABC Radio — a mortal enemy of the 5,000 Democrats around him. Earlier, Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie, sporting a lowly limited-access purple credential, joined Hannity, and the two, fully aware that they had crossed into hostile territory, happily exchanged Republican talking points.

On Tuesday, Hannity took a walk 40 feet across the hall and exchanged shots with Air America’s Al Franken. Then yesterday, after some persistent persuasion from Hannity (in which he promised he would be fair) fiery liberal Janeane Garofalo agreed to come on his radio show for a lengthy conversation.

It didn’t take much time for everyone watching the spectacle to realize that neither the Air America host who once criticized the airbrushed photo on the cover of one of Hannity’s books nor the author himself had any intention of ceding any ground to the other. Hannity took the time to argue that it was hypocritical for Democrats to support Kerry for president while simultaneously condemning the soldiers at Abu Ghraib because both had “committed war crimes” in violation of the Geneva Conventions. (Huh? Yeah, that’s how we reacted too.)

Regardless of one’s political affiliation, this was a fascinating scene. On display were the unique parts of radio that can be seen but not heard. This was not like watching Howard Stern cracking wise in an enclosed booth while his guests remove their clothes. This was two people sitting eye-to-eye engaging in a frank discussion. Talk radio may not always be like this, but yesterday, with these two foes seated no more than three feet apart, eyes locked, it was.

With neither debater lost for words on air, a strange silence settled in during the commercial break. Garofalo turned her head away, while Hannity sipped on a McDonald’s drink and leaned back in his chair. There were only muted comments from the crowd until a middle-aged woman with auburn hair and a Kerry-Edwards sticker on her blouse screamed irately, “John Kerry served in Vietnam in ‘67 and ‘68 while George W. Bush went AWOL. Then he sent my nephew to Iraq.” I half expected her to end her rant in a made-for-Michael Moore moment telling us of her nephew’s death — but a group of cops removed her from the area before she could finish. The interruption was enough to jolt Hannity into off-the-air banter with his immediate audience, who learned that he was getting an overload of e-mails from conservative listeners “telling me to stop” being so nice to Garofalo. At which point Hannity, noticing the pained look on Garofalo’s face, tensely asked her, “Can I get you an aspirin?” She shook her head no and before she could get a word out, Hannity took another shot, suggesting that she looked like she needed to go chain smoke. Garofalo snapped, “I might, but it has nothing to do with you.”

As the show wore on, the two came no closer to reaching a consensus, but they did engage in a surprisingly honest discussion of the issues, and more often, a debate over Kerry’s character. On talk radio there is no veil of objectivity. Everything is out in the open. It was in stark contrast to the segments where CNN, for example, rounds up a representative from each campaign who then spouts the day’s talking points, as if the other person wasn’t on air. Garofalo and Hannity talked to each other. Sure, there were rough spots — at one point, Garofalo grabbed Hannity’s hands and squeezed them to get him to stop spouting off long enough for her to get a word in — but that is what made this real.

At an event where speaker schedules are handed out each morning and speeches have been polished for weeks, Hannity v. Garofolo offered a dose of spontaneity. As Hannity told me after the show, “This is probably the only unscripted part of the DNC.” In his words, there is “no suspense” to the convention, as everyone does his or her best to “stay on message.” Still, he said, he’s there to cover the record of the candidate hoping to be president. As to the benefit of having Garofalo on the show, Hannity predictably answered that he thought it was important for his viewers to hear both of sides of the issues.

Garofalo said she bit the bullet and sat down with the enemy because she “thinks it’s important that someone go on his show and says that he’s wrong.” However, she remains pessimistic about converting any Hannity followers.

Perhaps Garofalo underestimates the power of debate. Hannity’s listeners, if not necessarily questioning their convictions, are now aware that there is a reasoned argument for the other side. As Hannity said, “We’re lucky to live in a great country where we can say what we want.”

For her part, Garofalo told Hannity that, while fair to her, had been unfair to Kerry. And sitting in the arena where tonight Kerry will be nominated as the Democratic candidate for president, Garofalo was there to tell Hannity’s audience why she thought so.

Thomas Lang

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Thomas Lang was a writer at CJR Daily.