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Robert Greenwald's Modest Proposal

{mosimage}The successful bloggers’ campaign to dump Fox News from cablecasting the Nevada Democratic presidential debate on August 14 in Reno exposed serious problems on the left and the right. On the left, as interviews with campaing organizers Adam Green and Robert Greenwald reveal, there is a serious streak of hyperpartisan censorship. On the right, at Fox News, there’s a serious problem with poking Democrats in the eye — regardless of circumstance.

Next January 19, five days after things kick off in Iowa, Nevada holds the second-in-the-nation Democratic presidential contest. That, and California’s new February 5 primary, give a new Western cast to the presidential race.

Nevada, and much of the mountain West, once reliably Republican, are increasingly in play. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who is from Nevada, played the lead role in moving the Nevada caucuses to the front of the pack, and he strongly backed the August debate to be aired on Fox. Reid declared, when the debate was announced in February, that it was “about reaching out to new voters. I strongly believe that a Democrat will not win Nevada or the West unless we find new ways to talk to new people.”

Even so, MoveOn.org and other elements of the lefty “Net roots” — a nickname blending “grass roots” with “Internet” — quickly launched a campaign against the debate, and Daily Kos told his followers in typical style that they had to pressure “the Dim Wit Nevada Democrats.”

The Fox News TV network comes off as fairly anti–Democratic Party in general, but critics were particularly upset that Fox aired an untrue Internet report of Illinois Senator Barack Obama’s having attended a radical Islamist school. They were also miffed by a 2004 Democratic debate in which Fox talking heads referred to the Democratic Party as the “Democrat” party throughout — a sophomoric rhetorical ploy used by some Republicans to suggest that the Dems don’t have a special claim on being more “democrat-IC” than the GOP.

Now the bloggers have prevailed, defying state and national Democratic leaders in Nevada who wanted Fox to air the August debate. One of the principal organizers of the effort for the California-based MoveOn.org, Adam Green, and well-known Hollywood filmmaker Robert Greenwald, who produced a video attacking Fox for its presidential-campaign coverage as part of MoveOn’s effort, tell the L.A. Weekly they plan to pursue an ongoing campaign against Fox News.

MoveOn.org spokesman Adam Green is insistent: “The Democrats realize they made a mistake legitimizing Fox News. It’s not really a legitimate news outlet... This is not just bad journalism on their part some of the time. It is a constant pattern of intentional deceit and smearing.”

Green claims that when it comes to Obama, “Fox is constantly denigrating his name and race . . . This is not really a gray area,” he insists. “There is no journalism there. They are part of the Republican spin machine.”

He says there are “three places the Republicans go to get their dirt out. The Drudge Report, Rush Limbaugh and Fox News.”

Of course, there are places the Democrats go to get out their spin as well.

“The Democrats have realized their mistake,” Green claims at first. When it is pointed out to him that Democratic leaders did not in fact agree that they were wrong about the news legitimacy of Fox News, he says that MoveOn and its allies could ratchet up the pressure — especially on wayward Nevada Democratic officials. “They haven’t even begun to get phone calls.”

MoveOn had a fallback, compromise position, he says: “No Fox News [allowed in the broadcast of the August debate] unless it is balanced by a left-wing outlet.” The idea was to have the struggling Air America radio network co-host and air the debate on the radio.

When asked what he thinks of the view of his counterparts on the right that there are major legitimate news outlets that are liberal to left in their political bent, Green is having none of it.

What about The New York Times? “The New York Times is not a liberal newspaper,” he says, something that would surprise many Times readers. He reiterates that Fox News does no real journalism.

None at all?

“Its Anna Nicole Smith stories are on par with the rest of media,” he allows.

Isn’t it a matter of free speech for news organizations to also have points of view?

“It is not a matter of free speech,” Green insists. “It is a matter of fact, not opinion, that Fox does not do news.”

Although many of his counterparts on the right would say the same thing about at least some of the mainstream media, Green says, “It’s like global warming. Conservatives can claim that it isn’t happening, but when you have the vast majority of scientists, you know it is true.”

Green and his colleagues are not scientists, however, but avid and partisan political activists, in many cases with no credentials other than their opinions and their keyboards. Green makes light of the notion that Fox News is the nation’s No. 1 cable-news network — which it is, with viewership greater than CNN’s and MSNBC’s combined — by pointing out that the audience for cable news is relatively small.

But the calculation made by Democratic leaders who wanted Fox News to broadcast the debate was that it would be aired by Fox News Channel and also receive special coverage on Fox affiliates around the West, such as Los Angeles’ Channel 11. The Democratic leaders’ idea was to combine the cable network and the broadcast affiliates to reach important viewers in a region that could play a serious role in choosing the next president.

Greenwald — director of the camp classic Xanadu — produced a three-and-a-half-minute video to make the case for dumping Fox. “Fox Attacks Obama” garnered nearly 300,000 viewings on YouTube. It focused on the Obama madrasah canard and showed talking heads speaking in disparaging tones about him.

When asked about shutting out Fox News, Greenwald replies, “Didn’t you get the memo?” Then he lays out his own view of Fox and its pernicious coverage: “They mix them up, commentators and news anchors, very carefully. You can’t tell them apart.”

“You can watch for a week,” he claims, “and not be able to tell the difference between a commentator and a news host.”

Greenwald evidently does not watch Fox News much. As I point out, it’s not hard to tell the difference between openly partisan talk-show host Sean Hannity and anchor Brit Hume, the Emmy Award–winning 23-year veteran of ABC News before he was wooed away by Fox News in 1996.

To which he says, “Ultimately, it doesn’t matter, because the station is committed to a point of view.” Which is true, as well, of The New York Times.

While Greenwald insists, like Green, that Fox News doesn’t “do objective news,” he struggles to define what “objective” means. What mix of opinionated reporting and straight reporting rises above that which, in Greenwald’s opinion, should be judged illegitimate news? And who is to say?

Greenwald, rather than deny that The New York Times is a liberal paper, as Green did, maintains that what matters is that Fox is television, not print. He says that, as dictators in nondemocratic countries well know, television is important and print doesn’t really matter to the mass audience.

But today, the mass audience is fragmented. And print, when it is authoritative, as with The New York Times, frequently drives the direction of TV coverage. But Greenwald stays on message, saying that Fox News is unique television news, with the possible exception of the right-wing Sinclair Broadcasting, for its “totality of opinion in a broadcast organization.”

Despite these activists’ views, the truth is that their campaign to ban Fox had been falling short because Nevada Democrats, Nevada’s top labor leaders and Democratic national chairman Howard Dean were determined to use Fox News — until several decisions at Fox tipped things against them.

First, a frequent commenter on Fox, conservative columnist Ann Coulter, called John Edwards a “faggot” at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington on March 2. Two days later, Fox News aired the second showing of a comedy that skewers liberals and Democrats, The Half-Hour News Hour, featuring Coulter playing the vice president to Rush Limbaugh’s president. The show had been scheduled weeks earlier, but her appearance, just after her attack on Edwards, was galling to many Democrats.

The next night, Coulter appeared on Fox’s Hannity & Colmes talk show and was unrepentant about her remarks about Edwards, further upsetting Democrats who had backed the debate on Fox News and adding fuel to the flames in the lefty blogosphere. Then, Fox News ordered 13 more episodes of The Half-Hour News Hour.

Criticism of the Fox debate ratcheted up. But according to well-informed sources, Reid, who wasn’t available for comment to the Weekly, pushed to have the Nevada Democratic Party reiterate its strong support for the debate. Party chairman Tom Collins lined up the county Democratic chairs and all but one member of the state executive board to put out a statement of support for Fox.

Then Edwards announced that he would not participate in the debate. He was running a distant third in Nevada behind Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama — whose earlier attempt to curry favor with the lefty Net roots backfired when he hired and then fired a pair of bloggers who wrote scathingly and crudely about the Catholic Church.

In reaction, Democratic leaders altered the parameters of the debate, including, as requested earlier by Green and MoveOn.org, an Air America panelist and moving to air the debate on Air America, the bankrupt liberal radio network. Collins noted that the Fox broadcast affiliate in Las Vegas would air the debate live, reaching most Nevada voters in real time.

But MoveOn.org then said that having Air America heavily involved was no longer good enough. Instead, Fox must be banned — a point of view expressed in a March 8 bloggers’ phone conference call with Democratic leader Reid.

Nevertheless, as of March 8, the debate was still on. But that night, Fox News chief Roger Ailes delivered a speech to the Radio and TV News Directors Association, after receiving its First Amendment Leadership Award. During the speech, he joked only about Democratic presidential candidates, not Republican candidates, and seemed to many observers to implicitly threaten Edwards, who had pulled out of the debate that day.

To some, Ailes also seemed to say that Obama is a terrorist. “And it is true that Barack Obama is on the move,” quipped Ailes. “I don’t know if it’s true that President Bush called Musharraf and said, ‘Why can’t we catch this guy?’ ”

Reid reportedly was angry. He has not commented, but a high-ranking Western Democrat says he called New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, a presidential candidate and former Clinton Cabinet member who planned to participate in the debate, and asked him to pull out. Richardson, the first Latino presidential candidate, did so.

At that point, preparations were made to scuttle the debate. But then, Democratic Party leaders in Las Vegas, notably chairman Tom Collins, dug in their heels. Ailes’ joke, after all, seemed to be more about Bush than Obama. So Collins refused to pull the plug. “I’m not dropping the debate,” he said. “I’m not dropping Fox. The majority of the elected state party supports keeping this debate. That’s the executive board and elected officials.”

But activists offered up screaming headlines on their blogs about the Obama joke. And Ailes had uttered an arguably menacing reference to Edwards, saying, “Any candidate for high office of either party who believes he can blacklist any news organization is making a terrible mistake about journalists. And any candidate of either party who cannot answer direct, simple, even tough questions from any journalist runs a real risk of losing the voters.”

By themselves, Ailes’ comments were defensible. But taken as a package after Coulter’s vile attack on Edwards a week earlier, Fox News had become radioactive. Finally, Collins agreed to sign a letter, with Reid pulling the plug, saying, “Comments made last night by Fox News president Roger Ailes in reference to one of our presidential candidates went too far. We cannot, as good Democrats, put our party in a position to defend such comments.”

In the aftermath, Obama said he didn’t take real offense at Ailes’ joke. “I’ve been called far worse.”

Tellingly, the most antiwar candidate, Congressman Dennis Kucinich, took great exception to the decision to drop the debate.

“If you want to be the president of the United States, you can’t be afraid to deal with people with whom you disagree politically,” Kucinich said. “No one is further removed from Fox’s political philosophy than I am. But fear should not dictate decisions that affect hundreds of millions of Americans and billions of others around the world who are starving for real leadership.”

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