Fair, Balanced and ... Censored?

What to make of the campaign by lefty bloggers and online organizers such as MoveOn.org and Daily Kos to force the Nevada Democratic Party to dump Fox News as the cablecaster for the Democratic presidential debate set for August 14th in Reno? I talked with one of the principal organizers of the effort for MoveOn.org, as well as well-known left-wing filmmaker Robert Greenwald, who produced a new video attacking Fox for its presidential campaign coverage as part of MoveOn's campaign.

First, here's what MoveOn.org sent out last week to members:

Dear MoveOn member,

The Democratic Party of Nevada just announced plans to let Fox News host a presidential primary debate. But Fox isn't a legitimate news channel. It's a right-wing mouthpiece like Rush Limbaugh and the Drudge Report-repeating false Republican talking points to smear Democrats.

Fox has already tried to skew the '08 race by accusing Senator Barack Obama of attending a terrorist school. CNN immediately exposed the charge as false, and Obama hit back by refusing to appear on Fox-sending them scrambling. Democrats can force Fox to be fair and balanced by fighting back hard.

Can you sign this petition asking the Democratic Party of Nevada to drop Fox as its partner for the presidential primary debate?

The full text of the petition is: "Fox is a mouthpiece for the Republican Party, not a legitimate news channel. The Democratic Party of Nevada should drop Fox as its partner for the presidential primary debate."

The Daily Kos is pushing it, too, with Kos telling his followers they have to pressure "the Dim Wit Nevada Democrats," a classic example of style in the yaposphere of both Democratic and Republican hyperpartisan extremes. (Since the Democratic Parties of Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, and Montana have all signed on as co-sponsors of the Reno debate, perhaps Kos should be talking about Dim Wit Western Democrats. Or perhaps not.)

What's wrong with Fox News for these folks? The TV network comes off as fairly anti-Democratic. People are upset about a 2004 Democratic debate that aired with talking heads interjecting comments and the Democratic Party referred to as the "Democrat" Party throughout. That's a particularly sophomoric rhetorical ploy on the right. You can't change the name of a political party to suit your partisan fancy, and no other serious journalistic organization would do that. But the Democrats, as you might suppose, have established ground rules to prevent those sorts of interjections in the Nevada debate.

Not unlike their counterparts way over to starboard, these principal players in the lefty blogosphere are ideological warriors, hyperpartisans who offer little if any quarter in their political jihads. They want their chosen party, the Democratic Party, to do what they want it to do. But most professional Democrats regard the lefty blogosphere, which styles itself as the netroots, as distinguished from the traditional grassroots, as an angry constituency that doesn't necessarily see the bigger picture.

They put a particularly post-modern spin on their crusades, focusing on the need to change "the media narrative" about events in order to influence those events. To win reality, in this view, you must redefine reality.

Others in politics believe that in order to win in politics, you work in the reality that exists.

Which brings us to Fox News. Fox isn't exactly the favorite cable news channel of Democrats. Yet Democrats largely do business with it, because it exists. The netroots folk who stirred up this little crusade want to redefine it so that it does not exist. At least, not as a legitimate news channel.

MoveOn.org spokesman Adam Green is quite insistent. "The Democrats," he says, "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," he declares. "It is a constant pattern of intentional deceit and smearing."

The example brought up, front and center, was the erroneous report aired on Fox News that Barack Obama was schooled as a boy in a radical Islamist madrassa. Fox picked up that report from a right-wing web site and ran with it for awhile. Until CNN debunked the report. But it's not an isolated instance, say the MoveOn folk.

"Fox is constantly denigrating his name and race," claims Green. Some of the Fox folk do delight at times in referring to Obama's middle name, as in Barack Hussein Obama.

"This is not really a gray area," insists Green. "There is no journalism there. They are part of the Republican spin machine."

In a view not uncommon to quite a few observers of the political scene, including me, Green notes that 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 that Democrats go to get their spin out, as well.

"The Democrats have realized their mistake," Green claimed at first. When it was pointed out to him that they probably haven't, he said that MoveOn and its allies could ratchet up the pressure on Nevada Democratic officials and other politicians. "They haven't even begun to get phone calls."

As it happens, MoveOn has a fallback, compromise position. "No Fox News (in the broadcast picture on the debate) "unless it is balanced by a left wing outlet." Their idea is to have the struggling Air America radio network co-host and air the debate on the radio.

Democratic officials don't seem enamored of that idea.

I asked Green what he thinks of his counterparts on the right's view that there are major legitimate news outlets that are liberal to left in their political bent. But he was having none of it. What about the New York Times?

"The New York Times is not a liberal newspaper," he said, repeating that Fox News doesn't do any real journalism.

None at all?

"Its Anna Nicole Smith stories are on par with the rest of media," he allowed.

Isn't this a matter of free speech for a news organization to also have a point of view?

"It is not a matter of free speech," Green insisted. "It is a matter of fact not opinion that Fox does not do news."

I pointed out to him that many of his counterparts on the right wing would say the same thing about at least some of the so-called mainstream media.

To that he said: "It's like global warming. Conservatives can claim that it is isn't happening but when you have the vast majority of scientists you know it is true."

Actually, of course, it is not at all like the greenhouse effect. Because Green and his colleagues are not scientists, they are political activists, in many cases with no more credentials than their opinions and their keyboards.

Politics is not a science, it is a rough art. And some smart Democratic practitioners of that art made the judgment that Fox News exists in the real world as a news organization whether they like it or not, so they may as well use it as best they can.

Green made light of the notion that Fox News is the number one cable news network, which it is, by pointing out that the audience for cable news is relatively small. But the calculation made by Democrats is that they will get not only Fox News Channel, but also special coverage on Fox affiliates around the West, which are part of the Fox TV broadcast network. Combine the cable network and the broadcast affiliates and you are reaching important viewers in a region of the country that is now very much in play in national politics.

Hollywood filmmaker Robert Greenwald produced a three-and-a-half minute video to make the case for dumping Fox. The video, called "Fox Attacks Obama," has garnered over 250,000 viewings on YouTube over the past week on the site's Brave New Films channel. It focuses on the Obama madrassa canard and shows various talking heads talking in disparaging tones about the freshman senator from Illinois.

When I expressed skepticism about the idea that Fox should definitely be dumped, Greenwald asked: "Didn't you get the memo?"

Assured that I don't "get memos," Greenwald laid out his 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 claimed, "and not be able to tell the difference between a commentator and a news host."

Greenwald evidently does not watch Fox News much, because it is not hard to tell the difference between Sean Hannity and Brit Hume, as I pointed out.To which he said: "Ultimately it doesn't matter because the station is committed to a point of view."

Which is true as well of, say, the New York Times.

"They don't do objective news," Greenwald insisted about Fox. But he struggled to define what "objective" means. What mix of opinionated reporting and straight reporting rises above that which, in his opinion, should be banned from the ranks of legitimate news organizations? And who is to say?

Greenwald, rather than deny as his colleague Green did that the New York Times is a liberal paper, maintained that what matters here is that Fox does TV. Television, he said, as dictators know, is what is important. Print doesn't really matter to the mass audience.

But today, the mass audience has become a fragmented audience. And print, when it is authoritative, frequently drives the direction of TV coverage. The New York Times, which in my opinion is a very fine newspaper, has long been the principal front page for national news broadcasters.

Greenwald stayed focused on his television orientation, saying that Fox News is unique in the medium of television news, with the possible exception of the right-wing Sinclair Broadcasting, for its "totality of opinion in a broadcast organization."

He says people can't tell the difference between talk radio-like commentary and news reporting on Fox. Although it is actually pretty obvious.

I think he sells people short. It's not as though Fox is one of three monolithic broadcast networks in a media universe without cable TV and the Internet. People are free to do as I do, which is watch CNN, watch Fox, watch MSNBC, switching over and off as I choose.

In any event, Fox News is reality. It is accepted as a legitimate news outlet by professional journalists and politicians alike. It is a fact of life. It is also a fact of life that it is nowhere near as large or powerful as the Democratic Party. In politics, you generally work with what is real. And, not incidentally, it's by no means clear that the owner of Fox, Rupert Murdoch, is all that convinced that the Republicans are a good bet in 2008.