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Media Chaos and the Conservative Cause | The Nation

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The Notion

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Media Chaos and the Conservative Cause

Over the past week or so, stories about conservative hypocrisies have been popping up in mainstream media like cute kitten videos on the internets. There was the Vatican blaming the news media for the pedophilia practiced by priests; the Republicans blaming the violence against Democrats on the Democrats themselves; Sarah Palin, intoning that "violence isn't the answer," studding a map with gunsights to target the Dems who should be gotten rid of come November; and, of course, fundraisers for the family values party trying to expense-account their visit to that faux-lesbian, bondage-themed nightclub in West Hollywood. It almost made you think the conservative movement was about to collapse under the weight of its own delusions.

But then the cable ratings came out and showed that Fox News had had its best quarter ever, and that it's the second most-watched cable channel in prime time, right after USA Network.

And that made me think of another recent story, the purge of former Bush speechwriter David Frum from the American Enterprise Institute, largely for delivering quotes like this: "The Republicans originally thought that Fox works for us, and now we're discovering we work for Fox. The balance here has been completely reversed, and the thing that sustains a strong Fox network is the thing that undermines a strong Republican Party."

How is it that conservatives keep getting caught violating their supposed bedrock values, weakening and ultimately discrediting the party that carries their political hopes, yet the network that promotes their cause continues to soar above its competition?

What neocons obsessed with Israel and American foreign policy (like Frum, who coined the term "axis of evil") can't seem to grasp is the domestic failure of the Bush administration at just about every level. Frum believes his own hype, and thinks the battle can still be joined for a "muscular" foreign policy. But Roger Ailes and Fox News realize that the worm has turned. They recognize the need to wage a rear-guard fight in defense of fragile right-wing victories (from tax cuts to a packed courts system) won over the past quarter century. They also need to keep their people out of jail for war crimes. And the best way to do that is to keep American politics in a state of chaos, with tea parties and fresh social outrages at every turn.

And that's Fox's storyline, which happens to be pretty good TV. It's like an episode of Lost--it doesn't have to make sense, it just has to keep the feeling of claustrophobic, terror-induced suspense bubbling away.

So, in Fox's Sim Nation, white America feels victimized, spat upon, and ultimately vindicated by the outcome of every story. Fox allows viewers to complete each arc of moral judgment in their minds, if they keep watching long enough. For example, Republican whip Eric Cantor started last week as the hamhanded apparatchik who tried to say the Dems were attracting violence by whining about it. Someone had shot a bullet through his office window after the health care bill passed, too, he said, but you didn't hear him complaining about it--that is, until he mentioned it in a press conference, provoking local cops to announce it was only random gunfire and not a deliberate attack.

Embarrassing, isn't it, when reality mocks your spin? Fortunately, Fox viewers didn't hear all that much about the Virginia police report, but they got an earful about Philly resident Norman Leboon, who was arrested a few days later for threatening Cantor and his family in a weird YouTube rant. That Leboon had threatened people of just about every political persuasion--he was arrested last June for threatening to have the angel Gabriel kill his roommate--wasn't nearly as important to Fox as the fact that his threats, circulated when they did, seemed to vindicate Cantor's original thesis.

Today's left doesn't have a dream machine that makes whatever they do seem to come out all right in the end. Quite the opposite, in fact. Always open to self-doubt and willing to acknowledge that the truth might yet be hidden from view, science-friendly liberals gravitate toward complexity and even ambiguity, themes difficult to squeeze into a bumper sticker. The left has its own spin, of course, and I'm all for it (luv ya, Ed Schultz), but it's not the spin that eludes us, it's the big-picture arc that we miss.

And the big picture is an art form, not a term paper. The left was once the master of such forms, couched in popular traditions and served up with brio, like the "Four Freedoms" FDR preached in 1941 (freedom of speech and worship and freedom from want and fear). Two years later, at the height of World War II, Norman Rockwell did four patriotic paintings that have gone on to become his most memorable images ("Freedom from Want" is the Rockwell used every year as an illustration for a family Thanksgiving).

Those schmaltzy pictures are as phony as John Boehner's tan (absent as they are of blacks, Asians, gays, etc.), but they capture the promise of a democratic America that cares for all its people. The elisions in their cast of characters are a little like the details Fox de-emphasizes in its presentations--like, for example, the pre-recorded celebrity interviews that Sarah Palin never conducted but was able to commandeer for her Fox special last night, Real American Stories. Fox knows never to let the details get in the way of its message, which in this case is that Palin is a caring television professional, not to mention a "real" American. The show strings together inspirational people profiles like those that end each nightly network newscast (ABC's "The American Heart" is the most treacly titled). Palin, of course, benefits by the association with courageous citizens, and Fox is able to use Oprahanian TV techniques to domesticate her virulent rightwing politics.

And that's why even when the Dems win, they don't always gain traction (post-health care vote poll numbers are all over the place). They have to reconquer the same territory over and over again, in no small part because Fox is maniacally faithful to its big picture.

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