The headline out of Chris Wallace’s tirade at President Obama for appearing on every Sunday talk show except his Fox News Sunday was that he called Obama’s staff "the biggest bunch of crybabies I have dealt with in my 30 years in Washington." But elsewhere in the rant, which aired on The O’Reilly Factor last week, Wallace let spill a sequence of numbers that revealed just how deranging life in the Foxhole can be for a transplanted "mainstream" reporter.
Wallace was taking the Fox line that the Obama administration condescends toward folks like the protesters at the 9/12 rally in Washington:
WALLACE: When you have David Axelrod go on Face the Nation and denigrate the million or, I don’t know, 100,000–thousands and tens of thousands of people who came here into the streets of Washington to protest–
O’REILLY: 70,000, right.
WALLACE: –and basically says, you know, they’re not representative. Well, they are representative of those 70,000.
To see, in the space of a few seconds, the former NBC and ABC newsman slink down from the thoroughly debunked, Glenn Beckian fantasy crowd estimate of a "million," to the still inflated "100,000" to, eventually, the fact-based 70,000 is to watch an acrobat in real pain. The precipitous drop of 930,000 points of cred has got to hurt–not to mention getting fact-checked by Bill O’Reilly.
In Chris’s countdown, you notice, his initial, Fox-trained resort to rightwing propaganda seemed to kick in autonomically. But then he caught himself, perhaps realizing that the one million number might sound kinda Beckeroo Banzai to his old establishment news colleague, and so he jumped down to something ("100,000") that couldn’t quite be tagged a lie but was nonetheless padded with an extra zero to break the fall. Then, perhaps channeling his father, Ur-journalist Mike Wallace, or the stepfather who actually raised him, former CBS News president Bill Leonard, Chris quickly came to rest on the "thousands and tens of thousands" that reputable news organizations had reported, based on the D.C. Fire Department’s official estimate of 70K.
Another telling moment in the clip comes early on, when Wallace clearly blames Beck and his "point of view" for spoiling his relationship with the White House. But blaming Beck for the diss must be causing Wallace a serious case of cognitive dissonance. Apparently believing that Obama is lumping him, Fox, and Fox viewers into one big snub pool, Wallace finds himself echoing (if not also identifying with) the rejected, resentful 9/12ers and therefore, ultimately, the outsiderish outrage of their leader, Beck. After all, Chris Wallace is a special brand at Fox: his Sunday show is the only national news outlet on the Fox Broadcasting network, and by hiring him in 2003, Fox hoped to garner some of the big network respect that has generally eluded the cable guys over at Fox News.
(For what it’s worth, the White House press office says Obama skipped Wallace’s show because the Fox network refused to run the president’s health care address to a joint session of Congress.)
President Obama’s nine months in office must have been a letdown for Fox. Though their cable ratings have soared to Wrestlemania levels as the channel has transformed itself into a Birther and Deather petting zoo, there’s no way to gainsay the fact that they’ve lost their eight-year-long royal perch at the White House. The hormonal haze that proximity to power creates in Washington is, for Fox, gone with the wind.
But exile can forge a delicious self-pity, and Fox simply couldn’t resist adding artificial ingredients and supersizing it (just as Beck, and briefly Wallace, did about that crowd size). Fox turned all the tea partying and sympathy into a fullsize print ad: Over photos of 9/12 marchers, it read: "How Did ABC, CBS, NBC, MSNBC and CNN Miss the Story?" To which CNN answered:
Doing the math is not high on any Fox presenter’s resume, but today the three main network evening news shows still split up some 20 million viewers every night, while O’Reilly, the largest cable draw, hovers around 3 million, and poor Chris can’t even post a third of that (for a broadcast show). But over the years Fox (along with the GOP agenda itself) has gotten a lot of mojo for its relatively puny numbers, mostly by bullying the nets into covering their agitprop and generally making enough noise for two networks.
Any dreams Wallace might have had of stepping out of the shadow of his illustrious TV news forebears were passive-aggressively squashed by Bill O’Reilly himself, when he laid down the law to Chris: "Mike Wallace, CBS guy. You’re rooted there in the network news. It’s over. The power shift in the media is now with FOX, FOX News and talk radio."
Was it a power shift or Wallace’s own abysmal ratings that led him, in August, to promote a guest’s Palinesque claim that a government booklet on end-of-life counseling for U.S. veterans is really a "death book"? (See, Obama’s minions want to convince vets to kill themselves in order to contain military health costs.) As Media Matter‘s Eric Boehlert writes, it’s "an absolutely absurd conspiracy theory that Wallace must have known came without even the faintest hint of reality to it."
But even a little "death book" hysteria failed to increase Wallace’s viewership–by tens of thousands, 100,000, much less a million. The lesson of Glenn Beck’s career for all newspeople is that working for Fox is like the old saw about getting pregnant: you can’t be just a little bit nutty.