Think of Fox News as a vast rightwing theater production: Lately, the painted backdrops keep falling down, and the actors have to talk really loud to maintain the audience’s suspension of disbelief.
Take Ingrid Martin, introduced as an "unemployed health care worker" on Thursday’s Fox & Friends. Martin had been brought on the show because she "put the president to the test" by resolutely telling Obama she opposed health care reform after his speech in Strongsville, Ohio, last week–and the Fox folks clearly thought they had a female Joe the Plumber in the offing. Hoping that her almost two-minute chat with the president would turn up an incriminating quote or two, Steve Doocy asked her to dish: Well, Martin said, she’d been shaking her head "No" all through the speech, and when Obama came off stage to shake hands, he asked if she was OK. When she told him she was unemployed, he asked if she had COBRA. Then she informed this rotten fellow that she had lost her job because of the possibility that his Obamacare might become law. At this point, we are starting to see Joe the Tinkerbell flap its wings.
But then Martin lets it drop that she’s not exactly a "health care worker," she’s an insurance agent. And proud of it, adding that she’s "very active in the National Association of Underwriters." And loyal Fox viewers need to suddenly avert their chastened eyes.
That was a bit like Glenn Beck’s epic fail with Rep. Eric Massa (formerly D-NY), whose naked confrontation with Rahm Emanuel in the congressional gym showers would bring down the nazi-socialist presidency–at least, so Glenn promised the night before. But by the time Beck had wasted his entire hour trying to get Massa to reveal the true evil of Obamacrats, all we got was Massa’s heartfelt assertion that Washington needs…campaign finance reform.
Beck threatened to bleed from his eyes. Maybe Fox should not in principle give air-time to real human beings caught up in real human crises, because amateurs can’t be relied upon to know their lines. But even the pros have been giving Roger Ailes flop sweat lately.
Perhaps the biggest blooper of all came last month, when a VP from insurance giant WellPoint was scolded by a Fox Business panel–not so much for raising premiums in California by 25 percent, but for doing it in the middle of our monster health care debate. Why didn’t WellPoint "wait for this to blow over and maybe a year from now try to hike rates?" asked an incredulous Charles Payne, as his cohost Stu Varney chided, "You handed the politicians red meat!"
Eric Fluegel, the VP, calmly said, in effect, Duh: With rising costs and a shrinking pool of healthy customers who can afford individual policies in this economy, a bottom-feeding company like WellPoint can’t survive without government reform that forces the uninsured to buy coverage.
Whoa! You could almost hear Stu and Chuck’s brains straining at their gaskets: The insurance cartel favors reform–does not compute, this guy’s off script. A 3D reality pops out of Fox’s 2D world once again.
As it occasionally did during Bret Baier’s interview of Obama this week. Most coverage of the interview focused on the Fox host’s 16 or so aggressive interruptions, but it was the weird subjectivity of the questions that stayed with you. They seemed to come less from a news anchor and more from a man with 40 pitchforks at his back. Bret tried, for instance, to vault over the possibility that reform might help some folks by quoting from Fox’s "18,000" emails from "regular people" whose questions ("If the health care bill is so wonderful, why do you have to bribe Congress to pass it?") sounded suspiciously like Fox talking points.
Obama responded that he gets "40,000 letters or emails a day," most asking why insurance rates are going up 40 percent or why pre-existing conditions can’t be covered. But no matter how much Baier tried to stop Obama from saying such things, in the end he failed to paint the man who is still the most popular player on the national stage as a menace to America.
Baier’s singleminded attempts to keep unreality in front of reality are of a piece with Fox’s chyrons that can magically change a politician’s party affiliation depending on the day’s news. (Remember how Florida GOP Congressman Mark Foley was suddenly identified as a Democrat when the scandal broke that he was chasing male congressional pages, or South Carolina Republican Governor Mark Sanford was listed as a Dem when he tried explaining how his hike along the Appalachian Trail ended up in Argentina?) Instead of "catapulting the propaganda," as George W. Bush once put it, these kinds of obvious flubs call attention to the propaganda-making itself.
No matter. On Thursday, Fox’s on-screen graphics simply willed away the Congressional Budget Office’s nonpartisan finding that the reconciliation bill would cut the deficit by $130 billion over 10 years, according to Media Matters. The network only mentioned the CBO’s estimate of $940 billion in costs.
Fox’s greatest achievement in news communications has been to show the world that politically convenient fantasies can outsell more-or-less honest attempts to wrestle with actual fact. So, for much of Fox’s audience, a few glimpses of the backstage won’t shake their suspension of disbelief in the least. I think a lot of people watch Fox and know perfectly well that large chunks of it aren’t true, they just love and admire the utterly ruthless spin.
But over the next few days, we will learn if a handful of Democratic congresspeople will notice that the backdrop for Act III–"If you vote yes, we’ll kill you with negative ads" (as if they wouldn’t try anyway)–is just painted cardboard, too. Here’s betting they do.