The cheese has really fallen off the cracker at Fox News over the Nevada Democratic Party's decision to break its presidential debate partnership with the cable news channel because the outlet is not seen as being fair. On Saturday night, Beltway Boys co-host Morton Kondracke completely lost it while discussing the snub and compared Nevada Democrats to communist propagandists. On Monday night, Fox News talker Bill O'Reilly went one better and likened the "radical" Nevada voters to Nazis.
The bizarre outbursts were just the latest in long line of wild-eyed Fox News denunciations that always come whenever there's a high-profile, albeit logical, observation that Fox News broadcasts a conservative-friendly version of the news and that the partisan news operation does not always employ the traditional checks and balances of mainstream journalism. In fact, Kondracke's own flare-up closely followed a name-calling press release in which Fox News itself denounced Nevada Democrats for being controlled by "radical fringe" special interest groups.
Of course, a real news organization wouldn't issue a nasty statement like that, nor would it give the statement exclusively to Matt Drudge, which Fox News did. And Kondracke's wild on-air denunciation of Democratic activists simply proved the activists' point about Fox News and its purposefully slanted programming. (See FoxAttacks for details.)
More importantly, the latest confrontation simply highlights the fact that Fox News can't take a punch. Then again, isn't that always the case with bullies?
Flash back to January. Bill O'Reilly launched a jihad against NBC News, insisting the corporate media giant had veered to the left and had "a vested interest in seeing the U.S. fail in Iraq'' because that would help elected a Democrat in 2008. When NBC News President Steve Capus called O'Reilly's incessant attacks "kind of sad and pathetic," a Fox News spokesperson fired back: "What is it that being exposed as a liberal news organization that he finds 'sad and pathetic'?'' That same week, a Fox News flack told The Washington Post, "We don't know why NBC finds the label 'liberal' so insulting."
All of which begs the questions, why do Fox News execs spin so furiously whenever they're the ones accused of having a bias? Why do they consider it "sad" and "pathetic" to be tagged as Republican? Why do Fox News employees find the label "conservative'" so insulting? Why does Fox News indignantly demand news outlets print corrections if they simply report that Fox News has a Republican tilt? In other words, why this elaborate charade about being "fair and balanced"?
It really has been one of the enduring questions about Fox News. Well, that and how, during the entire Bush administration an openly GOP-friendly news operation like Fox News, boasting a warm working relationships with the White House, has proven itself incapable of breaking major White House news stories or landing significant administration leaks.
Still, Fox News pros exert so much energy attacking anyone who makes the obvious observation about the channel's rightward tilt, despite the fact that citing supporting evidence truly has become a fish-in-a-barrel exercise. Consider:
- In the days following the terrorist attack of 9-11, Fox News CEO Roger Ailes sent political advice to President Bush. Ailes did so secretively because he knew that as the head of a major news organization, it would look bad if word got out about his partisan moonlighting.
- A 2003 University of Maryland study found that Fox News viewers were far more likely to be misinformed about whether Saddam Hussein was linked to Al Qaeda terrorists and whether weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq immediately following the invasion.
- A 2004 Center for Media and Public Affairs study found that during the height of the presidential campaign, just 13 percent of Fox News panelist comments about Democratic candidate Sen. John Kerry were positive, compared with 50 percent for Bush. (It was during the campaign that Fox News anchor Brit Hume called the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth's factually challenged book attacking Kerry a "remarkably well-done document.")
- Fox News pundits mocked Al Gore in 2004, following a speech he gave, joking the former vice president "had gone off his lithium again," and compared him to "a mental patient."
- At this year's World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, News Corp. owner Rupert Murdoch admitted that his company (which includes Fox News) had "tried" to shape the agenda for the Iraq war.
- Unaware that her microphone was on between interviews, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice this year announced, "My Fox News guys -- I love every one of them."
- This year, commenting on the troop withdrawal debate in Congress, Hume, Fox's evening news anchor, stated, "This is why the Democratic Party has had this reputation, going back decades, of really not being very serious about national defense. It's because they aren't."
- A new Media Matters for America study confirms that the lineup for Fox News Sunday remains the most imbalanced among all the Sunday morning talk shows in terms of Republican and Democratic guests.
Here's the crucial takeaway: Fox News is still fighting the last war. Busy arguing that it truly is fair and balanced, Fox News execs haven't noticed that, thanks to the Nevada showdown, the real question now on the table is not about Fox News' fairness. It's about whether or not Fox News is a legitimate news organization. That's precisely where Ailes does not want this media branding debate to go. And that's why the Fox News team has exerted so much energy in recent years trying to bully any doubters.
It's the reason a Fox News flack swung back wildly in October 2003, when a former producer there, Charlie Reina, wrote publicly about the daily internal Fox News memo that instructs staffers how to spin new stories, often in a partisan manner. Rather than address Reina's factual points, in what must have been a corporate media first, Fox News VP-news operations Sharri Berg issued a public statement in which she quoted an anonymous Fox News employee who belittled Reina as being a nobody and worse, he "NEVER had a job in the newsroom," which was supposed to raise doubts about Reina's credibility. (Reina tells me Berg had to resort to using an anonymous quote because Berg herself knew the statement about Reina never working in the newsroom was false.)
It's why when Ben Smith, blogging for the New York Daily News, observed that Fox News projects an "unmissable, insistent slant," Fox News responded with an oddly personal, schoolyard-quality taunt: "Ben has struggled to regain relevance since leaving the New York Observer, which is why you need a blood hound to find his column. We're happy he's making more than the $29,000 he made at the Observer ... then again, you get what you pay for."
It's why Ailes still publicly clings to the myth that, forever being fair and balanced, it was Fox News that broke the blockbuster 2000 campaign story about candidate Bush's hidden DUI arrest. The truth is that it was a resourceful 27-year-old reporter at a local Fox broadcast affiliate, WPXT-TV in Portland, Maine, who uncovered the DUI story, not the Fox News Channel in New York or Washington. Once the local affiliate had the scoop, Fox News itself could not ignore the story, although its reporters, anchors, and guests spent the next two days spinning furiously on Bush's behalf in an attempt to downplay the development.
It's why during the 2004 campaign The Wall Street Journal, confronted by Fox News, had to print a correction that read: "News Corp.'s Fox News was incorrectly described in a page-one article Monday as being sympathetic to the Bush cause." The Journal's sin? Days earlier it had reported that Bush "gave a rare interview over the weekend to Fox News, a network sympathetic to the Bush cause and popular with Republicans." As Slate's Timothy Noah noted at the time, "Oh, please. I don't even know any conservatives who dispute that Fox News is sympathetic to Bush."
It's why Ailes went ballistic in 2004 when former Los Angeles Times editor John Carroll, in a speech he gave at the University of Oregon, labeled Fox News "pseudojournalism." Penning a name-calling response for The Wall Street Journal editorial page, Ailes fired back: "He treated Fox News Channel worse in his newspaper than he treated the terrorists who recently beheaded an American. But of course, he sees Fox News as more dangerous."
And it's why Fox News resorted to more name-calling this year when CNN's Anderson Cooper this year helped highlight the sloppy smear Fox News tried to spread about Sen. Barack Obama's allegedly attending a radical Muslim school as a child. After a CNN online advertisement announced, "When Fox News Channel 'reported' false rumors about Barack Obama's past: He called them on it. IT'S CALLED JOURNALISM," Fox News answered it by calling Cooper the "Paris Hilton of television news."
During the Bush glory years, that kind of hardball worked. Now, though, with the Republican White House in political shambles, just this week trying to clean up the Walter Reed scandal, the FBI Patriot Act abuse scandal, and the wholesale-firings-of-federal-prosecutors-for-partisan-reasons scandal, Fox News' predictable brand of bullying no longer packs the same punch.
And now Nevada Democrats, pressed into action by online activists, have moved the ball forward. "The lies of FOX News and Roger Ailes have no place in public discourse, journalism, or the Democratic Party presidential debates," insisted blogger Matt Stoller, who helped launch the Nevada pushback on his blog MyDD and who stresses that it's important "to not ratify Fox News as a legitimate news source."
That's why the Nevada defection stung so badly, and that's why Kondracke and others lashed out in such outlandish fashion. Fox News does not want to be in a fight about whether it's a legitimate news organization. Why? Because Fox News can't take a punch.