Not long ago, Fox News's Alisyn Camerota interviewed Fox contributor Karl Rove and committed one of those faux pas that can make viewing Fox so interesting. She asked Rove about the steady stream of Code Pink protesters who had been following him on his book tour. "These are sort of sad and pathetic people," Rove explained. "Let's not give them any more attention." Some viewers who remember the separation between the role of journalist and "politician," consultant and/or huckster might have been surprised to see a paid employee of a putative news organization admonishing a journalist on air for daring to ask a difficult question.
Of course, Karl Rove is no ordinary employee, just as Fox is no ordinary news organization. Fox also employs Newt Gingrich, Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin, Dick Morris and many other Republican politicians and potential presidential candidates. Even its full-time journalists, like Fred Barnes, sometimes moonlight as Republican fundraisers. True, Fox did force Sean Hannity to cancel an appearance for a group of tea party organizers charging money to experience his aura. But a Media Matters investigation demonstrates beyond any doubt that such appearances are business as usual at the network, saying "at least twenty Fox News personalities have endorsed, raised money for or campaigned for Republican candidates or causes, or against Democratic candidates or causes, in more than 300 instances and in at least 49 states"—and they have been routinely advertised as Fox News personalities while doing so.
Fox may be the most brazen in its refusal to observe any useful distinction between journalist and everyone else, but the difference between the two labels is everywhere becoming increasingly difficult to discern. In the recent special issue of Time promoting the alleged 100 "Most Influential People in the World," the actual practice of journalism could hardly be less relevant. Can Time readers really expect a candid assessment of the relative strengths and weaknesses of Gen. Stanley McChrystal by his immediate superior, Gen. David Petraeus? Can Mitt Romney, running for his party's nomination for president and eager for support from the influential new star of his party, from his home state, honestly assess Scott Brown? And in what may be the most offensive single page in the history of the magazine (this issue was published, ironically, days after The Publisher, Alan Brinkley's masterly biography of Henry Luce), its editors, perhaps suffering from a rare, undiagnosed form of cat scratch fever, picked Ted Nugent—yes, the deadbeat dad who had to be sued to provide child support to his illegitimate child; who terms Hillary Clinton "a worthless bitch"; and who believes "Barack Hussein Obama should be put in jail"—to explain Sarah Palin.
How'd he do? Well for starters, Nugent claims, "The tsunami of support proves that Sarah, 46, represents what many Americans know to be common and sensible." Actually, Sarah Palin's approval rating stands at a whopping 24 percent, about half of Obama's. Perhaps Time's fact-checkers were worried that Nugent might shoot them if they asked any impertinent questions. (Please don't shoot me either, Ted. I kid because I love.)
Time's "Most Influential" is less a newsmagazine than an advertiser-friendly, mutual-masturbation exercise of a kind one often finds at particularly fancy fundraisers where "friends" and acolytes buy pages to sing the honoree's praises. And it comes on the heels of The New York Times Magazine's 8,000-word devotional profile of Politico's Mike Allen, whose early morning "Playbook" e-mail performs a similar task on a daily basis. To be fair, Allen's "Playbook" compares favorably with the Tiger Beat treatment by Time of Palin et al. But its distinguishing feature is its insistence on treating everyone in the Beltway "game" as playing on the same team. Republicans, Democrats, reporters, consultants, corporate lobbyists; the jobs are interchangeable for the right kind of insider. Allen's Boswell, Mark Liebovich, described the human embodiment of the daily e-mail at a party in which "a couple hundred influentials gathered for a Mardi Gras-themed birthday party for Betsy Fischer, the executive producer of 'Meet the Press.' Held at the Washington home of the lobbyist Jack Quinn, the party was a classic Suck-Up City affair in which everyone seemed to be congratulating one another on some recent story, book deal, show or haircut." The next paragraph featured former DNC chair Terry McAuliffe; former RNC chair Ed Gillespie; Fox News's Greta Van Susteren; White House major-domo David Axelrod; Meet the Press's David Gregory; Newsweek editor Jon Meacham; and NBC's Andrea Mitchell and her husband, deposed godhead Alan Greenspan. In what might be the most distasteful image ever described in a major metropolitan newspaper, Liebovich informs us, "In the basement, a very white, bipartisan Soul Train was getting down to hip-hop." (All that's missing is Michael Steele and a dominatrix or two.)
The following weekend, Washington found itself riveted by its annual mash-up of politics, celebrity and journalism called the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner. Fox News honcho Roger Ailes spoke the truest words of his life when he explained of reporters at the dinner, "They are not here as journalists."
I missed all the fun. As the cocktails were being served, I was in a Greenwich Village church basement with a group of diehard Dissent-ers, listening to scholars Michael Walzer, Robin Blackburn, Sheri Berman and Michael Kazin discuss liberalism, socialism, social democracy and their relationship (or lack thereof) to the present state of politics. No moguls, no celebrities and no (evident) lesbian bondage; just a group of unfashionable folk trying to figure out how to be good citizens in an age in which America's political class has all but abandoned the idea as, sadly, passé.