The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

The Fox Factor: Newt, Sarah, Mitt, Rick, Bias and ‘The Mother of All Spin-Jobs’

Posted on | April 12, 2012 | 61 Comments

Newt Gingrich tells the truth:

During a meeting with 18 Delaware Tea Party leaders here on Wednesday, Newt Gingrich lambasted FOX News Channel, accusing the cable network of having been in the tank for Mitt Romney from the beginning of the Republican presidential fight. An employee himself of the news outlet as recently as last year, he also cited former colleagues for attacking him out of what he characterized as personal jealousy.
“I think FOX has been for Romney all the way through,” Gingrich said during the private meeting — to which RealClearPolitics was granted access — at Wesley College. “In our experience, Callista and I both believe CNN is less biased than FOX this year. We are more likely to get neutral coverage out of CNN than we are of FOX, and we’re more likely to get distortion out of FOX. That’s just a fact.” . . .
“I assume it’s because Murdoch at some point [who] said, ‘I want Romney,’ and so ‘fair and balanced’ became ‘Romney,’ ” Gingrich said. “And there’s no question that Fox had a lot to do with stopping my campaign because such a high percentage of our base watches FOX.”

Four quick points:

  1. Newt can say this, now that his campaign is $4 million in debt and he’s got zero chance of winning the nomination.
  2. Newt used to work for Fox. I suspect he’s been talking to CNN executives about a future gig.
  3. It’s not Murdoch who makes the calls, but Roger Ailes and top executives and producers who are the shot-callers at Fox News.
  4. Scott Conroy does something here that annoys my inner copy editor, namely writing FOX in all caps, as if it were an acronym, which it’s not. The name originated as 20th Century Fox, a company that was purchased by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. and re-branded, first as the Fox broadcast TV network and then in such cable spinoffs as Fox News Channel (FNC). But the word “Fox” is not an acronym, and people who want to write it “FOX” — evidently trying to match the acronyms by which other networks (ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, etc.) are known — are simply wrong, and must be corrected, lest the erroneous example be imitated.

Scott Conroy has done excellent work in his career — scooped me on my own beat more than once — but that one little thing gets on my nerves so bad I could scream. However, I digress . . .

Having closely scrutinized coverage of this year’s campaign, I know what Newt’s talking about, and certain stipulations must be made: Sean Hannity and Greta Van Susteren were quite even-handed in their treatment of the GOP candidates. Sean and Greta both gave time to underdog candidates, including Rick Santorum and Herman Cain during the months when they seemed permanently stuck in the campaign purgatory of “second-tier” status.

Coverage of the campaign by the dayside programs on Fox News, however, seemed to be dictated by behind-the-scenes producers who exhibited a clear bias toward front-runners and even — as during the ludicrous Donald Trump faux-candidacy — toward certain Big Names that were merely the objects of ill-informed presidential speculation.

Let’s just say it, OK?

I love Sarah Palin, and would have loved to cover her campaign if she had run, but once Rick Perry jumped in (and remember, Palin had endorsed Perry in his 2010 primary against Kay Bailey Hutchison) it seemed blindingly obvious that Palin wasn’t running. The subsequent six-week will-she-or-won’t-she game struck me as a made-for-TV drama cleverly scripted by Roger Ailes for the specific purpose of boosting his own network’s ratings.

There: Now, I’ve said it.

In terms of political judgment, Bill O’Reilly is a nincompoop, his entire worldview shaped by his New York D’Amato/Giuliani Republican Party machine frame of reference. The commentators who appear most frequently on Fox’s D.C.-based programs — Chris Stirewalt, Stephen Hayes, etc. — all bring to the table their own prejudices. And the network’s reverential touch-the-hem-of-his-garment attitude toward Karl Rove makes me want to puke.

Whatever else you want to say about Fox News’ coverage of the 2012 GOP campaign (and Newt’s complaints must be taken with a grain of salt) there was a noticeable shift after “Super Tuesday.”

On the morning of Wednesday, March 7, I was in a hotel in Washington, Pa., having just covered Santorum’s primary-night event in nearby Steubenville, Ohio. That morning in Boston, reporters who were covering Mitt Romney’s campaign got a brilliant spin-job about delegate math calculations. This was what became known as the “Act of God” briefing:

“The nomination is an impossibility for Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich,” a Romney campaign strategist told reporters who gathered at the campaign’s headquarters in Boston on Wednesday. . . .
“We’ve won 53 percent of them so far. For Rick Santorum to get to the nomination he’d have to win 65 percent of the remaining delegates and he’s only won 22 percent of them so far. Newt Gingrich to win the nomination would have to get 70 percent of the remaining delegates and he’s only won 13 percent so far.” . . .
“As you can tell all we have to do is keep doing what we’re doing and we can get to the nomination,” the Romney official said, “For those guys it’s going to take some sort of act of God to get to where they need to be on the nomination front.”
And in a memo circulated by the campaign on Wednesday, members of Romney’s team declared their opponents’ bids dead.
The memo titled, “Our Opponents’ Last Stand: A Postmortem,” noted that the former Massachusetts governor has won “more than 50% of all delegates awarded and now holds nearly 40% of the 1,144 delegates needed to win the nomination.”

This was, as I say, a spin-job, but as I also say, it was brilliant.

Let me explain something you may not understand: If a news organization has the resources to cover multiple candidates in a presidential primary, the senior correspondents — the “A Team,” as it were — always follow the front-runner, or whichever candidate is considered “hot” at the moment. You could see this throughout the 2012 campaign: The top guy on the Fox team, Carl Cameron, was always where the action was, while the other candidates got the “B Team.”

The senior correspondents are “senior” for a reason, and wield enormous influence in how a news organization covers the campaign. This is just a fact of journalistic life, not a matter of ideology. If Carl Cameron is going to have friendly access to Team Mitt — if he doesn’t want to get scooped by ABC or CNN — he damned well better be giving Romney the kind of coverage Romney wants.

So there was no way in hell Carl Cameron was going to be covering Mitt and going on Fox News that Wednesday to say stuff like this:

Top strategists for so-called “front-runner” Mitt Romney, the worthless RINO flip-flopper who is trying to buy the Republican nomination, today gave reporters in Boston what I can only describe as The Mother of All Spin Jobs. Presenting the gullible national press corps with a transparent flim-flam about the delegate count, a top Romney adviser laid down such a thick layer of putrid dishonest bullshit I nearly vomited. . .

See what I mean? I love Carl Cameron like a brother, but the very nature of his job covering the Romney campaign requires him to regurgitate Team Mitt’s spin as if it were written on Golden Tablets.

And of course, as was true from the very outset of this long campaign — back in the misty dawn days of early 2011 — every tangible advantage favored Romney. With few exceptions, the Flavor of the Month surges of various Not-Mitt candidates never really challenged that narrative, which meant that the one thing no “senior correspondent” could ever afford to do was to piss off the campaign which, when all was said and done, was always the odds-on favorite to be the Big Dog at Tampa, then go on into the fall campaign against Obama.

No more exclusive interviews.

No more “deep background” tips from the campaign advisers.

Once the votes were counted in the Michigan primary on Feb. 28 — which I said at the time looked like a turning point of the campaign — Carl Cameron and the other folks at Fox News had to start making some calculations of their own: Santorum and Gingrich weren’t on the ballot in Virginia and Santorum hadn’t filed full delegate slates in Ohio. Unless Santorum could score a momentum-building comeback win in Ohio on “Super Tuesday,” it would be time to begin ringing down the curtain on the primary campaign carnival.

Yes, there was the hope-against-hope factor, and a clear chance that Romney could be kept below the “magic number” of 1,144 delegates but — and here, you could say partisanship became a factor among GOP-leaning folks who call the shots at Fox — did they really want to have a knock-down, drag-out fight all the way to Tampa?

No, they did not.

Once Mitt squeaked by in Ohio (winning by a margin of 0.7%), after March 6 it therefore seemingly became incumbent on Serious Responsible Adults to say that Santorum and Newt were equally doomed, and that the continuation of their campaigns was harmful to the Republican Party and well-nigh unpatriotic.

Unfortunately, lumping Santorum and Gingrich into the same category — Doomed Spoiler — was never anything but a flat-out lie.

Ever since the publication of the Feb. 20 FEC reports, showing that Newt’s burn rate got out of control in January so that he  finished the Florida campaign nearly broke, while Santorum’s campaign had somehow managed to hang onto enough cash to mount a comeback on Feb. 7, only Santorum had any hope at all. Once the votes were counted on “Super Tuesday,” showing that Santorum had beaten Newt in Tennessee and Oklahoma (Southern states that had once been seen as linchpins in the Gingrich campaign’s strategy), Newt was clearly doomed. Santorum was still a long shot, but he didn’t deserve to be lumped into the Doomed Spoiler category with Newt.

Anyway, some graduate student of political communication could get a doctoral dissertation for a thorough analysis of Fox News coverage of the 2012 campaign. And if that young scholar should decide to entitle his analysis “A Thick Layer of Putrid Dishonest Bullshit,” I’d appreciate a little credit in the footnotes.

Also, please hit the freaking tip jar.