Tuesday, March 13, 2007


Fox Debate Fallout

The Politico published another commentary of mine on Tuesday, this one looking at the Democratic family fight over the proposed Fox-sponsored presidential debate in Nevada and the folly of the Netroots' campaign to kill it.

To offer a different perspective, The Politico editors paired my piece with a counterpoint from Matt Stoller of MyDD. Stoller makes a strong case for the Netroots' vendetta against Fox, probably the most thorough I have seen yet. In the end, though, Stoller's piece suffers from the same fundamentally-flawed logic and as a result is utterly unpersuasive

To see why, let's take a look at his two primary arguments:

. . . Fox News is not a news channel, but a propaganda outlet that regularly distorts, spins, and falsifies information. Second, Fox News is heavily influenced or even controlled by the Republican Party itself. As such, we believe that Fox News on the whole functions as a surrogate operation for the GOP. Treating Fox as a legitimate news channel extends the Republican Party’s ability to swift-boat and discredit our candidates. In other words, Fox News is a direct pipeline of misinformation from the GOP leadership into the traditional press.

Right away, you can see that Stoller's case rests on a shaky foundation of questionable premises. Look at the bill of particulars that Stoller uses to indict Fox's standing as a "legitimate news channel," and they don't come close to supporting the contention that Fox is "controlled" by the Republican Party and functions as a "surrogate operation" for the GOP.

In fact, most of Stoller's outrages do not flow from Fox's news reporting at all, but from the primetime talk shows that everyone knows are opinion forums. By that twisted logic, the New York Times should be judged to be an "illegitimate newspaper" because its editorial page and most of its columnists skew just as far to the left. I'm not saying Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly are the equivalent of Paul Krugman and Bob Herbert, but they effectively serve the same function. And please don't tell me that the Democrats and liberal support groups don't peddle their talking points to the Times opinion shapers the same way that the conservatives do to Fox's.

The few examples of actual news reporting bias that Stoller cites -- "the Obama Madrassa smear, Carl Cameron's false claims that John Kerry referred to himself as a 'metrosexual' and 'news anchor' Brit Hume repeating the false canard that the public does not trust the Democratic Party on national defense -- hardly constitute clear and convincing evidence that Fox is a propaganda outlet or controlled by the Republicans.

In fact, if you scrub other major news outlets, you can find plenty of evidence to support conspiracy theories on either side. CNN ran a giant X over Dick Cheney's picture on the air (sending conservatives into paroxysms of bias claims) and featured Christine Amannpour's slanted reporting on the Israel-Palestinian conflict (which Likudniks complained about for years). Does that make CNN illegitimate? The Washington Post famously referred to evangelicals as "poor, uneducated, and easy to command." Does that make the Post a propaganda outlet for the secular left?

I raise these points not to defend Fox or to suggest that Fox's programming isn't tilted -- the network is clearly catering to an audience, particularly with its talk shows, and I often find the primetime hosts crossing lots of lines. I am simply pointing out the double standard inherent in Stoller's argument. He doesn't even acknowledge any of the questions that conservatives have raised about liberal bias in other major outlets -- NPR as a prime example -- because these organizations report the news in a way that comports with Stoller's worldview. Fox occasionally challenges that worldview, so it must automatically be suspect.

Again, I am not suggesting that Fox's news reporting is totally objective, just that its transgressions differ from other news organizations in degree, not in kind. The proof of that can be found across the liberal blogosphere, which is constantly holding up examples of the prejudices they perceive from prominent reporters and news outlets. Just in the last two days the Netroots were atwitter about a Media Matters report showing the big Sunday morning chat shows favor conservatives (I guess even Stephanopolous has gone over to the dark side).

So once you separate fact from impressions and insinuations, and differentiate Fox's news reporting from its opinion-based programming, you see that the core of Stoller's argument loses most of its credibility. What's left is a perfectly transparent, albeit perfectly valid, political agenda. Stoller and friends believe Fox's talk shows and their anti-NPR style of news reporting is hurtful to their cause, and they want to discredit it, just as the right did for much of the past two decades in trying to counteract what it saw as the liberal media.

So let's set aside Stoller's vigorous efforts to cloak his true intentions, stipulate for the sake of argument that Fox has a point of view, and accept his basic pitch at face value. He and his allies believe that by killing the Fox-sponsored debate in Nevada and spurring a mass Democratic boycott of Fox, they will unmask Fox for the fraud they contend it to be, stop it from hurting Democrats, and ultimately force it to play fair.

That raises two obvious questions. First, what evidence does he have to support his theory that a boycott will effect change? And second, does the supposed benefits of this boycott outweigh the demonstrable cost -- sacrificing the platform Fox provides to reach a different audience. The fact that Stoller totally glosses over these questions is quite telling. It indicates he is not making an argument to persuade anyone, but merely stating his convictions and aspirations. It also shows why the Netroots have largely failed to extend their influence beyond the choir to which they typically preach.

Among other things, Stoller simply presumes the boycott will work, when there is plenty of evidence to suggest otherwise. As I noted in my piece, Democrats have been largely avoiding Fox like the plague for most of the Bush era, with some notable exceptions after the 2004 election debacle, and Fox remains the most watched cable news network by far, beating CNN and MSNBC combined. What about the death of the Nevada debate is going to suddenly force Fox to change its ways? Stoller doesn't come close to saying what will be different going forward.

And nowhere does Stoller even address the primary counterargument that Dean and other progressive leaders made in arguing for the debate partnership, which centers around the size and composition of Fox's audience. If Stoller were serious about convincing skeptics in our party to see his way, he presumably would at least try to explain why reaching the biggest audience of any cable news network by far is of minimal value to Democrats' electoral prospects and certainly not worth the cost (i.e., legitimizing Fox).

I could be wrong about this, but I suspect the reason for that is that deep down that Stoller and many other Netrooters not only have contempt for Fox, but for its viewers, for anyone who would willingly listen to those ogres Hannity and O'Reilly and actually vote for George Bush. They would rather lose elections than try to make room for these voters in the Democratic Party.

This to me is the overriding problem with the Netroots' approach to politics. It is driven by emotion, not logic, and that primary emotion is a hatred of all things Republican and conservative, whom they view not as the competition but the enemy. That shows a fundamental misunderstanding of politics itself, but also a misreading of the electorate's mood right now. We can inflamme our base all we want, but unless we engage a broader audience and increase our market share, it will all be an exercise in furious futility.

I am hereby inviting all Democratic Presidential candidates who were muzzled by the blogosphere to enter their favorite sound bites as comments to this post.
Some food for thought:

I would like to know why Republicans are not boycotting the MSNBC debate. MSNBC is now home to the very anti-Bush commentator Keith Olbermann, the very anti-war Chris Matthews, and the fairly anti-Bush faux conservative Joe Scarborough.

Instead, the Republicans are agreeing to a debate moderate by Democrat Chris Matthews, who notwithstanding his Democratic and anti-war bias has a stated favorite within the Republican field such as John McCain.

Republicans have a good reason to ask for another moderator, but have chosen not to. Democrats have chosen to do so without a good reason.

The Democratic party appears to now be run by a McCarthyite in Berkeley, while the Republicans have little to no leadership.
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