Leslie Savan | The Nation


Leslie Savan

Politics, media and the politics of media.

The French Fry Fox

France's Le Petit Journal parodies Fox News

France’s Le Petit Journal parodies Fox News. (Screenshot/Le Petit Journal)

It’s a true clash of civilizations: France vs. Fox. Fox and the right have been deriding France as a left-banky, “old Europe,” weak-sister nation ever since it refused to support George W. Bush’s Iraq war. But now, in a turnaround, the French are pummeling Fox—with savage satire and threats of lawsuits, and gleefully transforming Roger Ailes’s bully boys into a bunch of Bianca-spraying surrender monkeys.

It’s Fox’s penchant for no-facts zones, not to mention its Islamophobia, that led to this fix. Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo said this week that she may sue Fox News over its false portrayal of her city as full of frightening “no-go zones,” where only Muslims are allowed and police dare not tread. “The image of Paris has been prejudiced, and the honor of Paris has been prejudiced,” she said. And in the sort of dig you might expect from Russell Brand, she tweeted something about the “stigmatizing stupidity of Fox News.”

Bill O’Reilly, whose own “no-spin zone” may have inspired the equally fallacious “no-go zones,” dismissed Hidalgo’s complaints because—zut alors!—she’s a socialist.

The lawsuit, if Hidalgo goes through with it, would seem to have almost no chance of succeeding in the United States, given that libel law here requires proof of “actual malice” and Fox’s actual stupidity could fall short of that. Plus, there’s no real precedent for a city suing for libel. If, however, a suit were filed in France, where standards for proving libel are different, it could, Gawker speculates, make life a little tougher for Fox.

Whether or not Hidalgo sues, she was probably emboldened by the truly breaking news! that Fox had apologized not once but four times recently for its repeated claims that France and much of Europe are pockmarked with areas where Sharia, not local law, rules—“like a caliphate within a particular country,” as Fox’s Judge Jeanine Pirro eagerly pointed out.

Pirro was one of the apologizers, which she did almost with a smirk. She previously had “terrorism expert” Steve Emerson on her show, where he claimed that Birmingham, England, was a city-sized no-go zone and was “totally Muslim.” (In fact, the population is closer to 22 percent Muslim.) British Prime Minister David Cameron called Emerson “a complete idiot,” and Fox soon released a statement saying he was unlikely to appear on air again. (Emerson apologized, profusely, on his website.)

Maybe even more embarrassing was journalist Nolan Peterson telling Fox & Friends’s Elisabeth Hasselbeck that there are “741 no-go zones throughout France.” He said his own past trips to Paris were “pretty scary. I’ve been to Afghanistan and Iraq and Kashmir, India, and at times, it felt like that, those places in these no-go zones.”

Turns out, as Snopes found, the “no-go zones” are an international urban myth based on a bad translation for “zones urbaines sensibles” (ZUS) or “sensitive urban zones,” areas that “are not exempted from policing or French law, and are simply targeted for renewal initiatives.”

Fox left it to host Julie Banderas to give a surprisingly detailed mea culpa:

Over the course of this last week, we have made some regrettable errors on air regarding the Muslim population in Europe, particularly with regard to England and France.

Now this applies especially to discussions of so-called no-go zones, areas where non-Muslims allegedly aren’t allowed in and police supposedly won’t go. To be clear, there is no formal designation of these zones in either country and no credible information to support the assertion that there are specific areas in these countries that exclude individuals based solely on their religion.

Meanwhile, Sean Hannity has been one of the more vociferous zone-truthers, squawking, “Why would France or any other country allow Muslims that have come into the country to basically take over portions of the country? That is madness to me!” I pre-apologize if I’m wrong, but I don’t recall seeing an apology from him, or, for that matter, from any of Fox’s name-brand males. (Several guests and hosts on CNN had also mentioned no-go zones, though far less egregiously than Fox, and yesterday Anderson Cooper apologized for that.)

But why would Fox News apologize at all? Other than the rare “we regret if anyone was offended” non-apology, substantial sorries aren’t in their DNA. CNN media reporter Brian Stelter figured maybe it’s that Fox owner Rupert Murdoch has such “big interests in England.” Then, of course, Murdoch is still trying to live down his massive hacking scandal, as well as his tweet that even if most Muslims are peaceful, “they must be held responsible” for “their growing jihadist cancer.” (This led J.K. Rowling to Voldemort him, tweeting: “I was born Christian. If that makes Rupert Murdoch my responsibility, I’ll auto-excommunicate.”)

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But it’s also nice to think that, coming full circle after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, Fox is apologizing because it’s been the target of merciless satire. Not necessarily from US satirists like Jon Stewart, but from France’s version of The Daily Show, Le Petit Journal. Its host, Yann Barthès, has been making Fox, heretofore barely known in France, into a laughingstock. “The credibility of the Fox News clowns disappeared,” he said, “when they show a map of Paris with some ‘no-go zones’.”

Barthès followed up with the hilarious gag of sending “Fox reporters” “Mike” and “John,” armed only with American flag pins, into the wilds of Paris, where they freak out over couscous signs and bearded men (blatantly ignoring their own beards). It’s a little Jerry-Lewis-with-an-anvil, but they nail Fox hysteria with “massive alerts!” and animated fires in the corner of the screen. And whenever Mike and John get scared, they nervously spray their mouths with breath freshener.

Which itself says something about how Fox operates.


Read Next: Leslie Savan on why it's okay for the New York Times to not be Charlie

Why It’s OK for ‘The New York Times’ to Not Be Charlie

Charlie Hebdo's January 14 cover, titled “Tout Est Pardonné” (All Is Forgiven)

Charlie Hebdo’s first cover since the attack, titled “Tout Est Pardonne” (All Is Forgiven), released January 14, 2014

The new, defiant issue of Charlie Hebdo was published yesterday and sold out around Paris before dawn. The press run of 3 million copies is expected to jump to 5 million today—about fifty times the usual for the satirical magazine, which hovers close to bankruptcy—and CNN reported that single copies are selling for up to $1,700 on eBay.

With that kind of massive popularity you might think that The New York Times and other media outlets that last week, in the wake of the terrorist attacks, refused to publish Hebdo covers featuring the prophet Muhammad might now reverse course and print the new cover: Muhammad shedding a tear, holding a “Je Suis Charlie” sign, under the words “All is forgiven.”

At first glance, the image seems sweet, Muslim-friendly and poetically ambiguous: Is the prophet sorrowfully forgiving the terrorists for defying Islam’s peaceful tenets or Charlie Hebdo for mocking him all these years? Or both? If anything, the cover seems to portray him as a wise granter of forgiveness, like Jesus, and more caring than, say, an earlier Hebdo cover Muhammad who cracked, “A hundred lashes if you don’t die of laughter.”

But of course any image of Muhammad is offensive to many of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, and so the Times—the media outlet most critics are thinking about when they charge the MSM with cowardice for not running the toons—is holding to its standards and will not run what executive editor Dean Baquet calls a “gratuitous insult” to Muslim readers.

“At what point does news value override our standards?” public editor Margaret Sullivan quoted Baquet last week. “‘You would have to show the most incendiary images’ from the newspaper; and that was something he deemed unacceptable.” In her column yesterday, Sullivan adds:

Mr. Banquet made a tough call, which also includes safety concerns for Times staff, especially those in international posts. (Those concerns are far from frivolous; just days ago, a German newspaper’s office was firebombed after it published the cartoons following the attack, and now new concerns have arisen about reprisals.)

But after previously withholding judgment, Sullivan broke with Baquet and said, reflecting the verdict of many readers, staff and outside critics, that the Times should go ahead and publish the new cartoon:

The new cover image of Charlie Hebdo is an important part of a story that has gripped the world’s attention over the past week.

The cartoon itself, while it may disturb the sensibilities of a small percentage of Times readers, is neither shocking nor gratuitously offensive. And it has, undoubtedly, significant news value.

With Charlie Hebdo’s expanded press run of millions of copies for this post-attack edition, and a great deal of global coverage, the image is being seen, judged and commented on all over the world. Times readers should not have had to go elsewhere to find it.

But why not? Why, exactly, shouldn’t Times readers have to go elsewhere?

You can say that’s denying the readers the news, but who in the world reads only the Times?

The list of stories, ads and specific words the Times won’t publish is long. The Times has been doing this forever, and people have been complaining about it forever, it’s their stock in trade.

Why shouldn’t there be a space in American journalism where certain borders aren’t crossed, where editors strain, however awkwardly, not to inflame one side or the other, and where everyone is a Mr. or a Ms? One reason people buy the Times is to see their rather gentrified worldview, whether they agree with it or not, and most of its readers know the paper’s limits—they don’t write fearlessly about New York real estate, for instance, or, like most publications, their own advertisers; they don’t run semi-nudes or beheading photos. You can get all that elsewhere (the semi-nudes, to my surprise, can be gotten on the homepage of the conservative Daily Caller).

The Times is establishment media, which begets alternative media, like Charlie, or The Nation, or the Daily Caller, or any of the thousands of other alts on the Internet.

The Times needs to be pushed and questioned on this, absolutely, but I’m not sure it hasn’t come up with the right answer for itself for now—cover the hell out of the story and describe but don’t reproduce the cartoons.

Anyway, the Times’s real problem isn’t their sins of omission so much as commission: publishing Judy Miller’s stories, for example, which helped trick us into invading Iraq, or instigating a fruitless and destructive Whitewater investigation, or until very recently, using words like “enhanced interrogation” or “harsh CIA methods” instead of “torture” to describe what American forces were doing at black sites around the world.

To publish or not to publish Charlie’s Mohammad cartoons has become an instant litmus test to see who has political balls. Since the January 7 attacks, Tucker Carlson and other conservatives have been taunting the Times, CNN, the New York Daily News, among other media, as “cowards” and unprincipled for going cartoonless. (Much as the right dared Obama to screen The Interview in the White House before it was finally released online.) Fueling some of the taunts are thinly veiled incitements to crackdown on Muslims.

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The really interesting aspect of the Times’s cartoonoclasm is the way this issue has scrambled right and left. An exception to the right’s newfound free-speech absolutism is Joe Scarborough, who today defended NBC’s and MSNBC’s decision to be like Baquet, saying, “If showing a cartoon offends well over a billion Muslims—who are not violent, but who are just as offended by that as I would be offended by seeing a picture of a crucifix in a jar of urine—why, I guess, do it? Just tell people they can find it online.” After all, initially even Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News and The Wall Street Journal abstained from showing the pictures, but both have come around for Charlie’s new issue.

Of course, many of us on the left have also gone after the Times for being flaccid on free speech, like in this classic between Baquet and Marc Cooper (in which Baquet resorted to an alternative media venue, Facebook, to use another word banned by the Times, “asshole”). Most all media have restrained themselves from showing the cartoons that can be interpreted—somewhat mistakenly, says Vox—as virulently racist or Islamophobic.

But as threats against Muslims increase in Europe and here—and as Charlie is for the moment the apple of the world’s eye—it’s important for media on all sides to circulate the lefty Charlie’s anti-racist, anti-Islamophobic images, like this one from “The Charlie Hebdo cartoons no one is showing you”:


As ProgNet notes in Daily Kos: “This cartoon by Cabu criticizes racial profiling, specifically discrimination by the French police against immigrants from North Africa and people of African descent. The caption reads: ‘No to racist controls [identity checks].’”

Read next: Leslie Savan on Fox captures the culprit for the Paris attacks

Fox Captures the Culprit for the Paris Attacks: Bill de Blasio, With an Assist From Obama

Fox’s Eric Bolling called for the police to “over-militarize” in response to the Charlie Hebdo attack. (Image via Fox News)

My first thought on hearing about the killing of at least a dozen Parisians at the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo—including editors, cartoonists and one cop shot on a sidewalk, execution-style, in front of cellphone cameras—was that Bill Maher will feel even more justified in denouncing Islam as a violent religion, the eloquent counterarguments by Reza Aslan and others notwithstanding. The murders were an attack not just on journalism but on comedy itself, not unlike the hacking of Sony over the cartoony Seth Rogen movie The Interview.

My second thought was, “Will journos and comedians now need bodyguards?” Unfortunately, they already do—one of the cops killed Wednesday had been assigned to protect editor Stéphane Charbonnier because of Charlie’s previous cartoons lampooning the prophet Muhammed and jihadist terror groups. The offices were firebombed in 2011 because of Charbonnier’s fearlessness.

Third thought: “How will Fox cover this?” Will they be torn between hating the terrorists and defending the “surrender monkey” French? Will they somehow connect this to the two cops killed in New York and blame Mayor de Blasio and protesters around the country who marched against police violence? Nah, they can’t manage that, can they?

But you can always count on Fox. Within hours of the breaking news this morning, host Martha MacCallum and New York Post columnist Michael Goodwin were throwing the Paris attack and the NYC story into the same blender. After the Ferguson and New York protests, Goodwin said, “police started to second-guess themselves” for fear of being unjustly blamed or worse, killed, for acting too aggressively. The cops, he said, were like journalists who “censor themselves” for fear of being attacked.

Martha nodded. Whether it’s journalists holding their tongues for the sake of political correctness or cops holding back on choke-holds and shooting unarmed black men, “that makes things a lot softer,” she said.

Fox’s Eric Bolling raised the stakes on Outnumbered, saying, “This should be a test case for New York City and cities everywhere. Here’s the point: there’s a very serious push from the left that the police should not be militarized. We should over-militarize.”

An hour earlier, Fox & Friends had been jumping back and forth between the Paris attack and Obama’s threat to veto the first two bills coming out of the new Republican Congress. Elisabeth Hasselbeck teased before two commercial breaks: “Coming up: Hypocrisy brewing over president’s veto threats?” The idea is to link two unrelated things—terrorism and Obama’s promised veto of the Keystone pipeline—by weaving them into the same time and space. Weave and repeat: it’s simple and effective propagandistic association.

Ultimately, Fox connects everything under a still-larger narrative: you are under attack. Different Fox hosts Wednesday morning went on to tie the Paris attack to the release of Guantánamo prisoners, the Benghazi terrorists who haven’t been apprehended, and the likelihood that enhanced interrogation techniques—i.e., torture—won’t be used on any perpetrators because Obama is just too soft on Islamic terrorists.

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On cable news this morning, you did hear the caveat to not blame all Muslims—Bobby Ghozi warned against that impulse on CNN; on MSNBC, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Islam was “a “peaceful religion.” And even on Fox, a counterterrorism expert said, “Islam is not the definition of terrorism. Far from it.” But he added that unless we start calling it “what it is—radical Islamic terrorism,” we can’t beat them.

In other words, while much of the liberal media are still trying to sort out just what happened and who did it, Fox is already out of the gate incorporating the attack into its ongoing agenda. And no matter whether or not this terrorist assault helps the authoritarian right over here like 9/11 did, in France it will almost certainly boost the Islamophobic Marine Le Pen and the right in the country’s 2017 elections.

As political commentator and Huff Post French editor Philippe Moreau Chevrolet said on Al Jazeera, “The far right doesn’t need to campaign anymore. [The attack] is doing the campaigning for them.”

Read Next: Leslie Savan on the right-wing media’s demonization of #BlackLivesMatter

After the Death of Two Cops, Right-Wing Media Demonize #BlackLivesMatter Protests

Former mayor Rudy Giuliani (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

For much of the right-wing media it was payday. Two New York City cops were murdered by a troubled gunman who had allegedly suggested on social media that he’d kill cops to avenge the deaths of unarmed blacks by police—and that was all some of the rightward press needed to finally justify attacking Mayor Bill de Blasio and the entire #BlackLivesMatter movement without restraint.

For the New York Post in particular this has been a moment of sweet revenge. During the 2013 mayoral campaign, the Post continually red-baited the left-leaning de Blasio, warning that his opposition to police stop-and-frisk practices would plunge the city’s crime rates back to those of the 1970s (so far, it looks like the city’s become safer). But the Post failed to stir the required hysteria and de Blasio won election handily. But now, with PBA president Pat Lynch accusing both anti–police-brutality protesters and the mayor of having "blood on the hands,” and with police turning their backs on de Blasio when he entered a Brooklyn hospital to pay his respects to the slain officers, Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, the Post can seem—if you’re not looking closely—to be vindicated.

It’s running cover headlines like “Shamed mayor begs New Yorkers to save cops,” and letting ridiculous invective run loose. “Like most radicals with no real-world experience,” columnist Michael Goodwin wrote of de Blasio, “he assumes the way to fix things is to first smash them into pieces. That’s what he’s doing to New York.” No real-life experience? Smash NYC to pieces? Whatever he’s talking about, it doesn’t matter. The details get swept up by the fury.

The national media smell blood, too, and that’s encouraging them to take bolder moves than usual. Bill O’Reilly interrupted his vacation to call into The O’Reilly Factor and demand that de Blasio resign. Joe Scarborough, who had been railing for weeks against the protesters, the Rams players who supported them, and anyone who chanted “Hands up, don’t shoot” did something Monday he almost never does: he made a direct-to-camera speech; it amounted to an I-told-you-so that “these assassinations were too predictable.”

And of course the usual suspects are all over Fox: former mayor Rudy Giuliani keeps insisting that the largely peaceful (exceptions below) protests that de Blasio rightly allowed wouldn’t have occurred on “my streets” (as if the streets didn’t belong to the public). Former NYPD detective and Fox contributor Bo Dietl has been shouting nonstop about “comrade” de Blasio” and advising him to “take his wife...and go back to Cuba and live there.” (De Blasio and Chirlane McCray’s honeymooned in Cuba in 1994.) Former New York City Police commissioner Bernard Kerik joined in the bloody-hands demands that de Blasio resign. “I personally feel that Mayor de Blasio, Sharpton and others like them, they actually have blood on their hands.” (Fox doesn’t mention it, but Kerik had to resign from the Giuliani administration and was sentenced to four years in prison after pleading guilty to eight felony charges in 2010.)

The resignation meme is no longer confined to Fox. CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked a guest last night whether de Blasio should leave office. (The answer was “yes.”) As long as people, even if it’s mostly media people like O’Reilly, are putting it out there, it’s a legit question, but you rarely hear a cogent argument for just why he should resign. For losing the respect of some of the police? (For all we know now, most may actually support de Blasio.) For allowing the protests to take place? (De Blasio called for them to cease until after the funerals of the two slain officers, a plea many protesters have ignored.) For even sympathizing with the protesters?

The anger is such that de Blasio’s foes are begrudging a black kid from getting the sound and classic advice to be careful about how he acts around police, advice de Blasio said he’s given to his 17-year-old biracial son, Dante. Former NYPD commissioner Ray Kelly has been all over TV denouncing de Blasio’s public statement as a terrible breach. The right is acting as though the murders of the two police officers nullify every problem with every police force in the US. Suddenly, it's dicey to question law enforcement.

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This is a far cry from how conservative media cover the stories of right-wing, anti-government cop-killers.

From Eric Frein, who allegedly shot and killed a Pennsylvania state trooper, which set off a manhunt this fall to Glenn Beck fan Richard Poplawski, who fatally shot three Pittsburgh police office in 2009 to the assassinations in June of two local policemen in a Las Vegas restaurant by Jerad Miller (who had hung with the Clive Bundy crew) and his wife Amanda, the right’s coverage of anti-government cop murderers has been sparse at best. As Eric Boehlert writes of the Miller case:

Raw Story reported that Miller “left behind social media postings that show his concerns over Benghazi, chemtrails, gun control laws, and the government’s treatment of rancher Cliven Bundy.” And according to an NBC News report, the shooter had talked to his neighbor about his “desire to overthrow the government and President Obama and kill police officers.”

Fox News primetime hosts Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity both ignored the shocking cop-killer story the night after it happened; Megyn Kelly devoted four sentences to it.

This stands in sharp contrast to how Fox and friends have covered the Brooklyn killings, says Boehlert, by leaning “heavily on assigning a larger cultural and political blame.” Yet…

Fox News has routinely paid very little attention to breaking news stories that feature right-wing, or anti-government, gunmen….

And critically, when they have touched on those deadly attacks, Fox talkers have stressed that it’s not fair to blame politics. Note that in 2013, after racist skinhead Michael Page started killing worshipers at an Oak Creek, WI., Sikh temple, and then murdered a police officer, Fox’s Andrea Tantaros stressed that the killing spree was an isolated event that didn’t have any larger implications. “How do you stop a lunatic?” she asked. “This is not a political issue.”

Progressives have been trying again and again to point out that protesting police brutality is not the same as protesting the existence of police, much less calling for their death. (After Fox host Brian Kilmeade painted Jon Stewart as anti-police, Stewart came back with: “By the way, jackass, you can truly grieve for every officer who’s been lost in the line of duty in this country, and still be troubled by cases of police overreach. Those two ideas are not mutually exclusive.”)

The tens of thousands of New York protesters have been overwhelmingly peaceful. It is true that some marchers in New York were chanting “What do we want? Dead cops!” about a week before the December 20 shooting of Ramos and Liu. But as the Daily Beast writes, “Evidence from photos, video, social-media posts and interviews suggests it was a single group, desperate to ‘turn up the anger’ at otherwise-peaceful protests.”

At a Monday press conference, after a reporter repeatedly asked de Blasio about the violent rhetoric, the mayor rather uncharacteristically, lashed out at the media. “It was wrong, it’s nasty, it’s negative,” he said. “They should not do that. But they, my friend, are not the majority. So stop portraying them as the majority.”

As if actual calls for “dead cops” weren’t disgusting enough, some in the media are so intent at portraying protesters as violent that they’re putting words in their mouths. Over the weekend, Fox TV affiliate WBFF in Baltimore was found to have deceptively edited footage of a Washington, DC, march to make it sound as if protesters were shouting “kill a cop.” As Gawker pointed out, the actual chant was: “We won’t stop, we can’t stop, ‘til killer cops, are in cell blocks,” but on WBFF it became: “We won’t stop, we can’t stop, so kill a cop.” (Al Sharpton had attended that march, and TPM found that “YouTube videos of the misinterpreted chant contain labels such as “Sharpton’s ‘Go Kill A Cop’ March.”)

WBFF said it was an “error” and apologized on-air to Tawanda Jones, who had led the nonviolent chant. She is the sister of Tyrone West, who died in police custody in 2013. Jones confronted the station, saying, “The interesting part that really gets to me is, where you guys edited it and stopped—like, how could that be a mistake?”

“Once you play that whole thing, you would know that’s not something that’s being said,” she added.

The station didn’t quite come up with an answer.

Poetry and Voting in the Age of Eric Garner

A makeshift memorial for Eric Garner, August 1, Staten Island (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

In these days of the NYPD’s near insurrection against Mayor de Blasio, of idiots chanting “What do we want? Dead cops!”, of cops killing unarmed black people across the country, of the murder of two officers in Brooklyn, and of Rudy Giuliani barking that when he was mayor, “Nobody took my streets,” hearing Crystal Valentine read her poetry can strike like lightning, maybe even open up space in closing minds.

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Valentine, 19, is the NYC Youth Poet Laureate, and this morning she read two of her poems on WNYC radio’s Brian Lehrer Show, where she explained how she’s using poetry to try to get people to vote. From “A Voter’s Problem”:

Maybe politics aren’t Armageddon enough for us
Aren’t spark enough for us
Aren’t call to action enough for us

Hear the whole segment:

You can read “On Evaluating Black Privilege” here and “A Voter’s Problem” here.

Here’s Valentine reading in late October:

Read Next: What ‘The Colbert Report’ taught us about the psychology of conservatives.

What ‘The Colbert Report’ Taught Us About the Psychology of Conservatives

Stephen Colbert

(Photo: Comedy Central)

No one thought that Stephen Colbert, the character, would last this long. His right-wing, self-regarding, bloviating pundit was a shtick, a bit, good for a year or two, tops.

As Colbert said Monday of the soon-to-retire Michele Bachmann, “Godspeed, Michele, Godspeed. I cannot believe you kept up that crazy conservative character for eight years.”

But for nine years now Colbert has been reminding us that politics, and the right-wing shtick in particular, is a performance.* For his last show, tonight, the Grim Reaper will reportedly be taking him out. But we can thank his longevity in part to the still longer reigns of his sources of inspiration—“Papa Bear” Bill O’Reilly, of course, but also Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Steve Doocy, and the Fox News mindset itself.

We can also thank these last nine years to the very thing that made them seem improbable: as a character, and not merely a critic, of the right, Colbert held a unique key to the riddle of modern conservatism: How do they keep getting away with it? Why have so many conservatives turned into such small-minded haters and deniers of science, of reality? Voters tend to disagree with their actual policies, so why do they keep voting for them?

We liberals keep banging our heads against the wall of their illogic, and in frustration sputter the only explanation we can think of: “They’re… they’re… they’re INSANE!”

Instead of trying the key from the outside, as most critics of the right must, Colbert jiggled it from the inside, counterfeit though his key was. By inhabiting their heads via a character, Colbert could demonstrate, four nights a week, how right-wing psychology works.

And so in his last “Formidable Opponent” segment, the rabid-right Stephen said that America would never torture. The more moderate Stephen countered that the Senate report proves it does. To which the first Stephen replies, “Oh, I’m not talking about the actual country. I’m talking about the idea of America. The idea of America would never torture….And that, my friend, is why I choose to live in the idea of America.”

You can’t stick with that kind of truthiness-based character (and play him in public appearances off the show) without some sympathy for him, and even for conservatism itself.

Colbert expressed that sympathy by showing that beneath his character’s assertion of omnipotence and certitude, there’s a fragility, one that’s also buried in most of the real-life blowhards and their dittoheads.

If they stop clapping, Tinker Bell will die. If they stop nodding in agreement, or step off the reservation of Tax Cuts, Guns, and Built It Myself, they could get Other-ed. If you stop stampeding in one direction, you get trampled.

Every night, Colbert’s character would steel himself to stay on the straight and narrow path out of fear.

His braggadocio disguised the fact that he was a coward and a big baby. (In that, the character closest to Colbert would be Lawton Smalls, Marc Maron’s old right-wing foil who’d break down and sob when he could no longer maintain his political delusions.) Every now and then Colbert would come apart at the seams, hiding under the desk, or going off on how we have to wipe bears off the face of the earth! Conceivably, bears stood for Russia, as in the Reagan “Bear in the Woods” commercial, or maybe for Papa Bear. But more likely, Colbert’s bear fear was fear itself, an irrational dread of something he’d never encounter, like death panels or jack-booted government thugs coming to take his guns. Were they going to take “Sweetness,” the pistol he’d caress and which was, as far as we know, Stephen’s only serious love interest?

More frequently, though, Colbert would ride fearlessly straight through his absurdities, oblivious to any problems at all. That was the Inspector Clouseau aspect of Colbert. It’s the character’s odd innocence and the real person’s heart that combine, I think, to create so much affection and outright love for Colbert.

I’ve always said that I appreciate Jon Stewart (and I really, really like John Oliver), but I love Stephen. I laugh so hard I cry, and in crying, I swoon.

It’s commonly thought that Stewart does the harder-hitting political satire. But Colbert, softly sheathed in fiction, can actually bite much deeper. Colbert is in fact more of a threat to O’Reilly—who seems to actively dislike him—while O’Reilly and Stewart are mutually supportive buds.

On occasion, Colbert shared in Stewart’s left-and-right false equivalencies—as he did by co-hosting the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear in 2010. But Colbert also does things closer to the activism that Stewart tends to find so uncool. Like when he testified before a House Judiciary subcommittee about the plight of migrant farm workers, or when, in one of the most brilliant, ballsy moments in comedy ever, he hosted the 2006 White House Correspondent’s Dinner. Standing just feet from President George W. Bush, Colbert, the character, said:

We’re not so different, he and I. We get it. We’re not brainiacs on the nerd patrol. We’re not members of the factinista. We go straight from the gut, right sir?…

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The greatest thing about this man is he’s steady. You know where he stands. He believes the same thing Wednesday that he believed on Monday, no matter what happened Tuesday. Events can change; this man’s beliefs never will.

But Colbert bit most deeply into the attending Beltway journalists, who famously found him unfunny:

Over the last five years you people were so good—over tax cuts, WMD intelligence, the effect of global warming. We Americans didn’t want to know, and you had the courtesy not to try to find out. Those were good times, as far as we knew.

But, listen, let’s review the rules. Here’s how it works: the president makes decisions. He’s the Decider. The press secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type. Just put them through a spell check and go home. Get to know your family again. Make love to your wife. Write that novel you’ve got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration. You know—fiction!

It’s hard to imagine that the nonfiction Stephen Colbert would say anything like that to a guest on The Late Show. But you never know. He’s amazed us before.

*I was on the O’Reilly show years ago, arguing in defense of Martha Stewart, who was then headed to prison. After our joust, as I was getting up to leave, O’Reilly said to me, “The audience loves this stuff.” As if he was admitting it was all for show.


Read Next: “Can Al Sharpton Be Both an Activist and a Fair TV Anchor?”

Can Al Sharpton Be Both an Activist and a Fair TV Anchor?

Al Sharpton’s all over the media lately, and the media are all over him. With his front-stage involvement in the Ferguson and Eric Garner protests and this Saturday’s march on Washington against police brutality, the Rev is, once again, the target of pop parody and right-wing hysteria. But now that he’s hosting the MSNBC show Politics Nation, he’s also the target of some perfectly valid scrutiny of his potentially conflicting roles of activist and cable news anchor.

In a Sharpton spoof last Saturday, Saturday Night Live didn’t touch on any conflicts of interest; its cold open simply reprised the image of Sharpton as a bombastic fool—but softly enough that Al ran a clip of it on his Monday show. Per usual for SNL, the skit was more flat than funny, but it did catch that exceedingly rare moment when—largely because of the Eric Garner case—most of the world actually agreed with Al Sharpton. “Folks are high-fiving with me, inviting me places,” says Al, played by Kenan Thompson. “This must be what it feels like to be Beyoncé.” (SNL also caught his mangled pronunciations, but it mistakenly showed him talking so much that his guests could barely get in a word. At MSNBC, that’s Chris Matthews’s job.)

The right wing, however, doesn’t do Al softly. They won’t forget his handling of the Tawana Brawley case (and for his part, Sharpton won’t admit it was a hoax, which is like Governor Chris Christie’s refusing to admit there was never a traffic study), and maybe they shouldn’t. But the right also refuses to see that Sharpton has mellowed or changed at all: they need him to forever be a radical and a race hustler. Glen Beck virtually called him a terrorist, saying, “He’s a dangerous, extremist cleric.” To Sean Hannity, Sharpton is one of the “racial arsonists,” along with Barack Obama and Eric Holder, responsible for the rioting in Ferguson (“Are those three people responsible,” Jon Stewart wondered, “or did you just name the only three black guys you could think of?”).

Because he’s the best-known single figure in the growing protest movement, the right will blame him for any violence, when, in fact, as New York City police commissioner Bill Bratton told Don Imus last week, Sharpton has been helping to promote the peace, as he did in Staten Island rallies earlier this year. In any case, this new grassroots civil rights movement has grown far beyond Sharpton, and perhaps any one leader.

The more relevant question about Sharpton is the one asked by Brian Stelter, host of CNN’s media-watch show, Reliable Sources. Given his prominence as an activist and newsmaker himself, “Are there ethical issues for MSNBC to have Sharpton anchor every night?”

It’s not just that Sharpton’s wearing both the anchor and the activist hats. “It’s more complicated than that,” Stelter said. “He’s wearing like seven hats,” including those of preacher, fundraiser, adviser to Obama, confidant of NYC mayor Bill De Blasio, and “importantly,” said Stelter, “a grief counselor to families in need like [Michael] Brown’s family. And, finally, he seems to be coordinating their media appearances.”

Sharpton has handled his haberdashery habit well enough since he got his MSNBC gig in 2011 until now, but has Ferguson somehow changed all that? “I think for the first time it’s probably gotten a little bit sticky,” NY1 anchor Erroll Lewis told Stelter. “When you see him interviewing somebody who he’s also representing and then he goes to the Justice Department or to the White House, you have to wonder, who in all of this is he really speaking to and for?”

Stelter said that in a phone conversation, Sharpton “pointed out that Jesse Jackson had a show on CNN in the 1990s, while heading up the Rainbow Coalition,” but Stelter implied that Jackson’s Saturday show, Both Sides, was somehow less transgressive than Sharpton’s daily show at “6 pm, almost prime time.” But that would seem to make only a quantitative, not a qualitative, difference.

It is complicated, indeed, as are most conflicts of interest involving media and political cross-dressers. Fox News hands out shows and/or lucrative contributor deals to any politico it wants to—Mike Huckabee, Scott Brown, Sarah Palin—until and if they run for office, when, maybe, they gotta go. MSNBC made Keith Olbermann return money he donated to two candidates (including Gabby Giffords, before she was shot).

I have friends on the left, though, who find Sharpton’s many roles endlessly irritating. “Is he making the news or delivering the news?” one of them asks. “Sharpton takes an hour away from a professional journalist who might possibly do some good by reporting. He’s not a professional, he’s a showman, as all good advocates in society need to be. But it almost says anyone can be a network news person. It’s a cheapening and a celebrification of the news.” This friend feels the same way about Ronan Farrow, another non-journalist activist with an MSNBC show. Back when Sharpton first took over Politics Nation (from “Young Turk” Cenk Uygar), St. Petersburg Times television critic Eric Deggans, a former officer of the National Association of Black Journalists, also gave MSNBC flak for not handing its valuable real estate to a black journalist.

Personally, I’m not bothered by Sharpton’s other roles. When you have twenty-four hours of cable to fill, why not mix it up? As long as a news or an opinion show is backed up by good journalism, why not extend diversity to include other professions and backgrounds? Comedians like Jon Stewart and John Oliver are doing a kind of journalism, as much as Stewart tries to deny it, and doing it well. The lines, they are a-blurrin’.

As National Urban League president Marc Morial told Stelter, in the “age of opinion journalism…TV anchors write blogs, lead or participate in organizations” and “wear different hats along the way. In that regard, I don’t think Reverend Sharpton is a lot different. He’s better known.”

Watch the Sharpton segment on Reliable Sources:


Read Next: “Obama Hijacks ‘The Word’ From Stephen Colbert”

Obama Hijacks ‘The Word’ From Stephen Colbert

Obama on Colbert

(Comedy Central)

In one of his last shows, Stephen Colbert goes to Washington, and insists he could do a politician’s job but no pol could ever handle his… when out walks Obama. In his best Colbert imitation, POTUS does “The Word,” but Emperor that he is, he dubs it “The Decree.”

“Nation, as you know, I, Stephen Colbert, have never cared for our president,” Obama begins. “The guy is so arrogant, I bet he talks about himself in the third person.”

(It’s telling that Obama chose to use most of the segment to sell Healthcare.gov. Will new sign-ups surge overnight?)

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It’s brilliant even beyond the usual and a must-see. (For the rest of Colbert’s thirty-five minutes with the prez, click here.)

Read Next: “Right-Wing Media’s Painful Pivot From Demonizing Mike Brown to Giving Eric Garner a Moral Pass”

Right-Wing Media’s Painful Pivot From Demonizing Mike Brown to Giving Eric Garner a Moral Pass

protest sign

(Reuters/Eduardo Munoz)

The right-wing media are confused. After a grand jury failed to indict Officer Darren Wilson for the shooting death of Mike Brown in Ferguson, they felt the rush of vindication and could finally voice their full-throated disgust at black “thugs” like, in their eyes, Brown and the Ferguson protesters. But within hours after a grand jury refused to indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo for the choking death of Eric Garner in Staten Island, the same pundits and pols—shocked at video showing Garner repeatedly pleading for his life—had to make an arthritic 180-degree turn to give Garner and the “I can’t breathe” demonstrators a moral pass. That hurt.

Of course, there are major differences in the Garner and Brown cases—in the deadly weapon used, the men’s alleged crimes, the tone of the demonstrations and, in the Garner case, the presence of videotape. For the right highlighting the differences is the easy part. The hard part is, first, to ignore the similarities—white cops killing unarmed black males, including 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, armed with only a toy pellet gun. And, second, to maintain the all-important narrative that liberals are reverse racists for unfairly charging conservatives with racism.

The pain of pivoting from “Mike Brown, bad” to “Eric Garner, acceptable” has perhaps been most evident in Joe Scarborough, whose Morning Joe show is as much about the struggle within his own psyche as about real-world events.

On Monday, before the Staten Island grand jury decision came down on Wednesday, Scarborough was exploding at Mike Brown and the whole “Hands up, don’t shoot” crowd. Scarborough insisted (video below) that the left had made Brown a “hero,” and he likened the slain teenager not to Trayvon Martin but to George Zimmerman, who fatally shot Martin in 2012 and who Scarborough called a “thug.” (“No one has said Mike Brown was a hero,” NBC legal analyst Lisa Bloom tweeted in response. “What we have said was that we don’t give the death penalty to shoplifting teens.”)

The next day, Scarborough unleashed more of his considerable fury at the whole Ferguson movement and at anyone who dared to make the “Hands up” gesture, as three Democratic congresspersons did on the floor of the House and five Rams players did on the football field. They lie, said Joe, all of them!

But these players can suggest that the St. Louis cops shoot black youth with their hands up in the air? That’s cool with the NFL? That’s cool with the St. Louis Rams? That’s cool to suggest that St. Louis police officers in the town, probably a lot who go to the games and watch the games and are fans, the St. Louis Rams think it’s cool for them to suggest that St. Louis cops shoot young black men who had their hands up in the air when we know that was a lie? It’s a lie. And what was that gesture on Capitol Hill? More people like going, it doesn’t matter whether it’s the truth or not, I’ll suggest cops shoot people with their hands up in the air. What is wrong with this country?!

Co-hosts Mika Brzezinski sat by silently and Willie Geist chimed in, “These are elected officials”; only Thomas Roberts had the nerve to later say that, um, the gesture is not a “lie.” It “might be more symbolic,” he said, of the “deadly force” used by white cops on black people all over the country.

But for Joe, “this Ram thing” was “the final straw,” he said. “I have sat here quietly and listened to BS being spewed all over this network and all over other networks. I cannot take it anymore!” (My emphasis on his self-perception.)

After the announcement of Pantaleo’s non-indictment, however, Scarborough was positively grateful to have one of those presumed MSNBC spewers, the Rev. Al Sharpton, on the show to, in essence, vouch that Joe was not one of the bad guys on race.

“I don’t want to give people watching vertigo,” Joe said. “Obviously, [Sharpton and I] agreed on Trayvon. We talked a lot about that. We disagreed on Ferguson…. We disagree, but even when we disagree, we do it respectfully. We agree more than we disagree.”

The Reverend agreed to that. And in turn, Joe declared that Sharpton, who’s been organizing around Ferguson and Garner, “does not go out looking for these people—it’s not like a trial lawyer. The families call him and ask him to come.”

To his credit, Joe is at least struggling with these issues. Much of the rest of the right wing is more kneejerk. As a TPM headline put it, “The Right Channels Its Outrage In Eric Garner Case Toward The ‘Nanny State.’ ” Garner, whom the cops were trying to arrest for selling single, untaxed cigarettes, or “loosies,” may or may not have been the victim of excessive police force, goes this argument, but he was definitely the victim of big government taxing us to death. “Whereas many conservatives said Wilson was simply doing his job, some on Wednesday said Pantaleo was enforcing a punitive big government policy,” TPM’s Tom Kludt wrote. “And while Brown was nothing more than a ‘thug,’ Garner was the victim of the dreaded nanny state.”

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Fox News analyst and former judge Andrew Napolitano, Senator Rand Paul and radio talk show host Dana Loesch are among those using versions of this argument, with Loesch tweeting: “The results of big government, #NannyStateEnforcement, and @MikeBloomberg ’s excise tax—> #EricGarner. Appalling and obscene.”

As much as some conservatives also seem authentically appalled at the sight of Garner being killed while gasping eleven times that he couldn’t breathe, many appear to be chomping at the bit to somehow, anyhow, turn this against Obama and the Dems.

In addition to attacking the nannies, there’s the old blame-the-victim tactic, pushed most notably Representative Peter King (R-NY). He said of Garner on Fox yesterday, “If he had not been obese, if he had not had diabetes, if he had not asthma, this probably would not have happened.” He also cited Garner’s many previous arrests, for likewise small infringements of the law.

As in the Mike Brown case, the most important thing for the right is to inoculate the police (and thus themselves) from charges of racism. Yesterday, Fox’s Bill Hemmer and Martha MacCallum had Kevin Jackson, the black author of Race Pimping: The Multi-Trillion Dollar Business of Liberalism, on their morning show, where he said of Garner’s death, “to make this racial is patently ridiculous.” The real profiling problem in the black community, he added, was the “profiling of police. Has anyone talked about that level of profiling?”

By last night, Megyn Kelly was all over her black guests to prove—with hard evidence—that Garner’s death had anything whatsoever to with race.

And if any of those arguments fail to convince the public that race matters, there’s still the distraction method: if you talk enough about blacks killing blacks you can magically make the issue of cops killing blacks disappear. Many are reacting with that default canard to President Obama’s and NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio’s calls for more police training. Sure, fine, train the police, Rudy Giuliani told Fox & Friends, “but you should spend 90 percent of your time talking about the way they’re actually probably going to get killed, which is by another black. To avoid that fact, I think is racist.”

And so it goes.

Read Next: “Some Fox Newsers Are Falling Short in Bashing ‘Bamnesty’ ”

Some Fox Newsers Are Falling Short in Bashing ‘Bamnesty’

This might sound odd, given all the Sturm und Drang from the right over Obama’s executive order to temporarily allow up to 5 million undocumented immigrants to stay in America without the threat of deportation. But I think that some of the Fox News hosts might be going a little soft on immigration.

Seven years ago, Geraldo Rivera and Bill O’Reilly had an epic, screeching, flesh-tearing brawl (a true must-see, below). The Geraldo v. Tucker Carlson bout on Fox & Friends this morning, however, was by comparison a gentlemen’s duel.

The cringe-inducing chryon of “Bamnesty” set the tone. After Geraldo, an informed and strong proponent of immigration reform, made an impassioned plea to accept the people who “clean our houses, mow our lawns, take care for our children, start businesses, and raise families,” Tucker was reduced to saying, with a bow-tie squareness, “I like immigrants. They are very hard working.”

Another bit of unexpected Fox softening came from Megyn Kelly shortly after Obama’s speech. She admitted that what Obama was ordering was not “amnesty,” as she and most Fox hosts have insisted in the past. As Media Matters puts it, she

acknowledged that the president is not actually pursuing “amnesty,” because “amnesty is citizenship and that’s not what [Obama] is talking about.” Kelly also explained how conservatives purposely misuse the word “amnesty” for political gain: “That’s a hot-button term that the right uses to sort of get people upset.”

But don’t think that Fox is going to actually have to re-write its glossary. Obama’s order might not legally be that dirty, bad A-word, she said, but “it amounts to amnesty.”

And here’s Geraldo and O’Reilly:

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