Coveted assignments for presidential debate moderators were handed out last week, and guess who was left off the list ... again.
After suffering the bitter, and unprecedented, blow during the Democratic primary season of having candidates refuse -- twice -- to appear in Fox News-sponsored forums when bloggers raised hell about the news organization's lack of legitimacy, Rupert Murdoch's news channel was again left off the list of news anchors tapped to moderate the must-see TV events in the fall.
Instead, the questions during the three presidential forums and one vice presidential debate will be posed by PBS' Jim Lehrer and Gwen Ifill, as well as NBC's Tom Brokaw and CBS' Bob Schieffer.
Unlike the primaries, Fox News this time won't be locked out entirely; all the networks will be able to broadcast the debates. But the snub means that once again Fox News will be denied the chance to leave its imprint on the all-important debates. It won't be able to build its brand on the back of Democrats who have injected extraordinary passion and interest into the White House run.
That passion and interest has helped boost ratings for Fox News' cable competitors, while Fox's numbers have remained stagnant. Meaning, the unfolding presidential campaign has been a ratings dud so far for Fox News and its unofficial year of woe.
Just as the 9-11 terrorist attacks catapulted Fox News' ratings into the patriotic stratosphere, the 2008 campaign season may be viewed as the news event that marked the news channel's fall from ratings dominance.
In turn, Fox News' ratings woes have opened the door to a much more frank and honest discussion about the news outlet. Like when New York Times media columnist David Carr recently called out Fox News flacks as thugs. And the way MSNBC chief Phil Griffin declared that when it comes to Fox News, "you can't trust a word they say." Sure, Griffin's a competitor. But before this year, that kind of blunt talk was not heard in polite Beltway media circles, and it certainly was not heard on the record.
Fox News has been taken down several notches, and the demotions can be traced back to the blogger-led debate boycott from 2007 and the repercussions it set off.
The point of that media pushback was to begin chipping away, in a serious, consistent method, at Fox News' reputation. The goal was to portray Fox News as illegitimate, to spell out that Fox News was nothing more than a Republican mouthpiece and that Democrats need not engage with the News Corp. giant, let alone be afraid of it.
In other words, bloggers wanted to badly dent the Fox News brand.
I have no definitive proof that the blue-ribbon Commission on Presidential Debates, which organizes the televised forums, bypassed Fox News in terms of moderators because of the formal boycott that the netroots launched last year or the noisy questions it raised about Fox News' professionalism. But if there is one thing the staid debate commission seems to detest, it's controversy.
The commission has made it clear that it wants the forums to be all about the candidates and not about the moderators or, by extension, about the media. The last thing the commission would want this year by tapping a Fox News moderator is to spark a large, and raucous, debate over the nature of Fox News and whether it was appropriate to have one of Rupert Murdoch's personalities host a presidential debate.
And trust me, formal petitions and online protests would be flying around the Internet right now if the commission had tapped a Fox News anchor to pose the presidential hopeful questions in September or October. You can bet Robert Greenwald at Foxnewsattacks.com and the whole MoveOn.org crew, along with bloggers like Matt Stoller, would be raising holy hell at the prospect of Sen. Barack Obama having to be on stage for 90 minutes and answer questions posed by a Fox News anchor.
It's true that neither CNN nor MSNBC are represented this cycle in terms of moderators. But since 1988, CNN twice has had one of its anchor moderate a general-election presidential debate. No Fox News anchor has ever been tapped for that honor. For the Fox News family, which desperately wants to be seen as a legitimate news operation, that ongoing slight has got to hurt. (For years, MSNBC's ratings were so insignificant that it had no chance of being considered for the debates.)
And based on the ongoing pushback that bloggers have unleashed on Murdoch and Co. -- based on the questions the bloggers have raised about the brand of journalism being practiced there -- I doubt Fox News will ever be seen as fair or professional enough to have one of its big-name hosts help talk Americans through a presidential campaign in the high-profile role of moderator.
Obviously, Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity aren't ever going to be allowed with 500 yards of any commission debate's moderating table. But what about Brit Hume, Fox News' high-profile evening anchor who's been a Beltway news staple, and well-liked within elite circles, for several decades? If he worked for any other network, he would almost certainly be viewed by the commission as a viable choice.
According to The Wall Street Journal, the commission's 11-member executive board, which selects the moderators, employs an "informal" agreement not to use any of the nightly news anchors for moderators. (I assume that's to avoid any implication that it's playing favorites with the network or trying to boost the ratings of one of the nightly newscasts.) So that might explain why Hume hasn't been asked to host a debate.
Additionally, the Journal reported that the commission uses three criteria for the moderators:
- Knowledge of the candidates and relevant issues.
- Experience in live broadcasting.
- Understanding that a moderator's role is to facilitate conversation between the candidates, not to participate in it.
Doesn't Chris Wallace, the host of Fox News Sunday and perhaps its least partisan personality, pretty much meet those criteria? But again, my guess is that as long as Wallace is cashing a Fox News paycheck, he will never moderate a presidential debate, which is seen as a pinnacle achievement in the broadcast news business.
Why? Because bloggers and the entire netroots movement have damaged the Fox News brand and sent a clear signal to Beltway institutions such as the Commission on Presidential Debates that any attempt to bring Fox News into the mainstream, to bestow it with unearned legitimacy, will be met with active protests. (Wallace's chances for a moderator slot were probably not helped by the fact that Fox News has been busy airing doctored, cartoonish images of New York Times journalists, dubbing Obama hand gestures as "terrorist fist jab[s]," and reportedly leaking gossip about reporters to industry blogs.)
Bloggers deserve the credit because the pushback they initiated was something that members of the Democratic Party had, for years, refused to do. Instead, they adopted a go-along/get-along strategy with Fox News, hoping that if they were nice (and cooperative) with Fox News, then Fox News would be nice (and cooperative) in response.
Indeed, without the online campaign, do you think the head of the Democratic National Committee would have appeared on Fox News and publicly denounced its coverage as being "shockingly biased" the way Howard Dean did in May? I doubt it, since for years Democrats, and particularly the inside-the-Beltway party leaders, acquiesced.
Hell, in 2007 leaders of the Nevada Democratic Party wanted to partner with Fox News to sponsor a debate among the party's presidential hopefuls.
For online activists, the idea of the Democratic Party itself anointing Fox News as some sort of standard-bearer for election coverage was too much.
The debate itself was actually rather meaningless. Bloggers didn't really care about the actual forum and certainly were not scared about what kinds of questions the Fox News moderators would pose to the Democrats during the primary. Activists were more concerned about the other 364 days of the year and how Fox News would benefit from the legitimacy attached to moderating a presidential debate and the unspoken seal of approval it implies.
"The lies of FOX News and Roger Ailes have no place in public discourse, journalism, or the Democratic Party presidential debates," blogger Matt Stoller wrote in 2007, further stressing it was important "to not ratify Fox News as a legitimate news source."
One year later, the initiative is still paying dividends for Fox's foes. Not just in terms of watching the news channel being snubbed by the debate commission, but also in watching Fox News' continued slide in the campaign ratings race.
It's true that after losing the first quarter prime-time ratings battle this year to CNN (marking CNN's first quarterly win in nearly seven years), Fox News rebounded and came out on top, barely, for the second quarter. But that doesn't mean its troubles are over because now the cable news ratings battle has been transformed into a month-to-month dogfight. Fox News no longer posts wins with ease the way it did for nearly a decade.
The simple explanation for the viewership lull is that the current campaign has produced enormous interest among Democratic news consumers, and Democrats don't watch Fox News. It's just that simple. Time and again on the nights of primary returns this winter and spring, Fox News floundered.
And by getting shut out of the Democratic debates, the Fox News team was denied the ratings gold the prime-time events generated. The snub also effectively turned Fox News into a bystander in the race.
Fact: Through mid-June this year, CNN added 170,000 viewers a night, on average, when compared the first five-and-a-half months of 2004, or the last time the cablers covered a presidential run. During that same period through June this year, Fox News lost about 90,000 viewers each night vs. 2004, according to The New York Times.
Back when the bloggers rolled out their successful debate boycott strategy in Nevada, Fox News executives reacted with pure venom, denouncing the netroots as "radical fringe out-of-state interest groups." At the time, the response struck me as being wildly out of proportion. But it seems the Fox News team could see the looming trouble. They could see that a Democratic-friendly election year was going to mean ratings woes for them, and that by refusing to debate on Fox News, the Democratic candidates would be sending a damaging (irreparable?) message about the news organization's lack of legitimacy.
One year later, the ratings surge for Fox News' competitors remains in full view, while the selection of the presidential debate moderators confirms that Fox News' quest for respect has suffered another setback.
Bloggers, take a bow.