The real Fox News Democrats

How the "Fair and Balanced" network pits Democrats against their own party.

Topics: Bill Richardson, George W. Bush, Fox News, John F. Kerry, D-Mass., John Edwards, Joe Lieberman, Bill O'Reilly, Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, Charlie Rangel, D-N.Y., Geraldine Ferraro

The real Fox News Democrats

So far the lefty blogosphere is one for two in its campaign to keep Democratic presidential candidates from debating on Fox News. On March 9, after both John Edwards and Bill Richardson announced that they would not participate, the Nevada Democratic Party dropped plans for a debate to be broadcast by Fox. On March 29, the Congressional Black Caucus announced that it would go forward with its own Fox-sponsored Democratic presidential debate in the fall.

But boycotting debates is not the same as boycotting a network. Most of those national Democrats who’ve criticized Fox, like former Clinton advisor Paul Begala and pollster Mark Mellman, have stopped short of calling for the party to avoid Fox altogether. They would just like Democrats to realize what they’re getting into. “As long as you’re willing to treat Fox News as a political adversary, and you think you can use Fox News to further your arguments, you should do it,” says Matt Stoller, a blogger at MyDD.com and a leader of the charge against the debates. “But don’t go on there assuming that Fox News is a neutral news outlet.”

Plenty of Democrats do appear on Fox. In fact, John Edwards, the first of the announced presidential candidates to drop out of the Nevada debate, has appeared on the network more than 30 times, most recently in late January of this year, and Mark Mellman has appeared more than 80 times.

But Fox also has a stable of regular commentators, some under contract to the network, who pop up frequently as representatives of the Democratic or progressive viewpoint. They do not appear to know what they have gotten into. Though these Democrats tell Salon they are doing their best to reach out and sway potential voters, they often seem to be used to further a conservative political agenda, fulfilling one of several roles that ultimately just helps the network’s right-of-center hosts make their arguments against liberals.

Those Fox-friendly Democrats who agreed to speak with Salon say they’re doing their best to help the party, arguing that Democrats can’t afford to ignore the nation’s most watched cable news network. They insist that when they’ve appeared on Fox they’ve scored points for progressives and swayed some viewers. “I think there are some liberals who are extremely biased about Fox News,” says Alan Colmes, the liberal half of “Hannity & Colmes,” “and wish to shun it or wish to criticize any liberal who appears on Fox News. That, to me, is not a particularly liberal attitude.”

“What do they think would happen if I weren’t there?” asks Colmes. “Either Sean Hannity would be by himself, which wouldn’t serve the purposes of liberals, or they’d have another liberal on with Sean Hannity, and then they’d criticize that liberal for being at Fox News.”

Kirsten Powers, a Democratic strategist who is a Fox News political analyst (and who has written for Salon), says she thinks that “If you’re going to follow Howard Dean’s 50-state strategy, which, last time I checked, most of the bloggers supported, then it seems sort of strange to me to be disregarding the top cable news network. From a strategic standpoint, it doesn’t really make sense to me.”

But if one actually watches a lot of Fox News, the in-house Democrats don’t come off as effective evangelists for their party or for liberal politics in general. It sounds harsh, but think of most of the Fox Democrats, at least those who appear on the opinion shows, which take up half the network’s airtime, as one of three types. They are either scary liberals, losers or enablers. Representatives of each type may score some points for Democrats when they appear on-air, but ultimately they help further Fox’s larger narrative about Democrats and liberals and what they stand for.

Take, for example, the scary Democrats. Think about frequent guests like the Rev. Al Sharpton and Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., both big-city liberals, or Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Vegan Peacenik. Then consider Fox’s audience. Besides being rather elderly — the median age of a Fox viewer tops 60 — it is disproportionately conservative and Republican. In the 2004 election, according to Mark Mellman, Fox viewers preferred President Bush over John Kerry by an astonishing 88 percent to 7 percent. Bush’s backing among Fox viewers was more solid than his support among white evangelicals, gun owners or supporters of the Iraq war. Sharpton, Rangel and Kucinich help confirm the worst fears of such a homogenous audience, even before the occasional cameo appearance by someone like Minister Hashim Nzinga, national chief of staff of the New Black Panther Party. Nzinga has been a repeat guest on “Hannity & Colmes.” Host Sean Hannity once told Nzinga that he needed to seek mental help, only to bring him back on the show several months later.

Then there are the losers, the strategists and politicians who are no longer players in the Democratic Party, at least partially because of their electoral failures. There’s former vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro, who also twice failed to win election to the U.S. Senate, and Susan Estrich, who managed Michael Dukakis’ star-crossed 1988 presidential campaign. Another is Bob Beckel, a Fox News contributor who, along with Ferraro, is a survivor of the Democrats’ disastrous 1984 presidential ticket — he managed the campaign. As Beckel himself laughingly, and without prompting, told Salon, he “manage[d] Walter Mondale to the largest loss in the history of American politics, then got on TV as a political expert — only in America.”

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Beckel bristles, however, at any suggestion that being on Fox makes him somehow less liberal, and in an interview with Salon, he continually said his time and effort as a liberal and activist would stack up with anyone else in the party.

“I will put my liberal credentials and my length of time in the liberal trenches up against anybody at MoveOn.org or MyDD or anybody else for that matter,” Beckel says. “Have they been in labor strikes, have they been on picket lines, like I have? Did they go out and work on the Equal Rights Amendment? Have they been involved in civil rights? … [B]ecause I go on Fox all of a sudden I’m not a ‘real liberal,’ and I’d just say I’m happy to debate any one of them. Let me see what their credentials are.”

But for bloggers to put their credentials up against Beckel’s, they’d have to know who he is. When they spoke with Salon for this story, neither Matt Stoller of MyDD nor Markos Moulitsas Zúniga of DailyKos, one of the leading liberal blogs, had ever heard of him.

Other Democrats who are chosen to counter Fox’s conservative guests and hosts often appear as enablers. They’re on-screen to prove to viewers that even Democrats agree that a radical left wing dominates the Democratic Party, not to mention the media.

To see how this works, one needed only watch one segment of “The O’Reilly Factor,” wherein Bill O’Reilly discussed, ironically, the cancellation of the Nevada debate. His guests were, it’s true, both Democrats — but they were Democrats who opposed the cancellation and supported Fox News. One, Lanny Davis, had had numerous run-ins with the faction of the party that favored killing the debate — i.e., bloggers — when he was closely involved in Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman‘s reelection campaign last year. Predictably, as soon as he spoke, Davis lashed out at his old foes, saying with some prodding from O’Reilly that “I’m inclined to give everybody the benefit of the doubt here, except the people that were calling for cancellation of the debate because they don’t like Fox. I think that’s the element of our party that wants to talk to only people that agree with us … I disagree with this pressure from DailyKos and MoveOn.org to cancel the debate, and I think anybody that took that pressure, including John Edwards, before this incident, ought to be ashamed of themselves.” Davis later disagreed with O’Reilly on some small points, but it didn’t matter: The larger point that O’Reilly was making, that the loony left had hijacked the Democratic Party, had already been conceded.

It’s not the first time Davis has appeared on Fox as an enabler. Last February, when the right was attacking former Vice President Al Gore for making a speech in Saudi Arabia about American abuse of Arabs after 9/11, Davis turned up on “The O’Reilly Factor.” He echoed the right’s talking points about Gore, saying, “My problem with Vice President Gore’s remarks is the location and the judgment that he should make such a speech in Saudi Arabia, of all places … I think there is some value in our focusing on the few instances where we’ve made mistakes to apologize. But I don’t think a former vice president of the United States ought to be in Saudi Arabia, of all places, to make such a speech.”

Susan Estrich, who did not respond to a request for comment from Salon, has frequently come in for criticism for attacking Democrats when she appears on Fox. For example, she once said Gore had gone “off the deep end” for a different speech against some of the administration’s policies in the war on terror. Radio host Tammy Bruce, who also did not respond to a request for comment, calls herself a “progressive Democrat,” and is billed as such when she appears on Fox. She voted for President Bush in 2004 and spends much of her time assailing Democrats. Her explanation to Alan Colmes was that “the left has gone so far to the left now, they’re fascists, and I’m considered a conservative, and I’m pro-choice and I’m a lesbian and I’m a feminist, [but] it’s gone so far to the left, I’m considered a conservative.”

Then there’s former Democratic pollster Pat Caddell who, as the liberal press watchdog Media Matters has documented, has a history of attacking Democrats on-air. First he makes sure to say he’s one himself. “I’m a Democrat and I’m a liberal Democrat,” he said on one 2004 appearance on Fox’s “The Big Story With John Gibson,” discussing supposed liberal hatred of the president. “But I’ll tell you, I’ve said to the party before and I said it in speeches, paranoia is going to kill this party.” In the summer of last year, on the eve of Lieberman’s defeat in Connecticut’s Democratic primary, Caddell laid into what he called “the real fringe of this party,” saying a Lieberman loss would empower such a fringe. “That’s what we’re looking at here, this is kind of madness,” Caddell said. “The country’s going to look at us and say, ‘What are you doing?’”

Of course, these Democrats are not mere punching bags and yes men. Sometimes, they are vociferous, stalwart defenders of Democrats and progressive policies, and in speaking with Salon they all made a point of emphasizing that. Political analyst Powers, for instance, asked a network spokesperson to send this reporter a DailyKos diary praising Powers for speedily dispatching Ann Coulter when Powers guest-hosted “Hannity & Colmes.” A video of the debate does indeed show Powers pummeling Coulter into stunned, petulant defeat.

But when it comes to less obviously extreme right-wingers, or, for that matter, defending progressives, Powers is sometimes an enabler herself. For example, in January she discussed O’Reilly’s favorite new target, NBC News, whose cable channel MSNBC hosts O’Reilly nemesis (and former Salon columnist) Keith Olbermann. On this occasion, O’Reilly’s chosen line of attack was on William Arkin, a part-time NBC military analyst who wrote a controversial blog entry for the Washington Post about U.S. troops in Iraq. Powers, despite her opposition to the war in Iraq, used the occasion to hit out at blogs and the antiwar movement, likening Arkin’s writing to antiwar tropes coming out of the left, saying, “This was the type of thing that you would expect to read on a far left blog. It has all the hallmarks of the basic far left arguments, which is, you know, the reference to our sons and daughters. We have to save our sons and daughters. The reference to — they’re all pawns, they’re all stupid. They don’t actually want to be over there. The reference that they only support the war because they have to. What else would they do? They couldn’t get up in the morning unless they were.”

Moreover, while attacking the far left, Powers has also been hired as the liberal bookend to conservative blogger and columnist Michelle Malkin on a yet-to-be-launched Fox show called “It’s Out There.” Malkin, who has repeatedly defended the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, allows her column to appear on a Web site, VDARE, that also publishes self-proclaimed “white nationalists.” VDARE’s parent organization has been branded a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Powers has not commented publicly on Malkin’s ties, and declined to comment on them to Salon, saying she didn’t want to discuss her colleagues.

In fact, anyone who wants to assert that a debate held on Fox is inherently biased should pay less attention to a few specials starring the Democratic presidential candidates, and more attention to Fox’s regular programming and tandems such as Malkin and Powers. As the Malkin-Powers pairing demonstrates, Democrats who agree to appear regularly on Fox are signing on to a networkwide effort to shift the terms of the larger national political discussion to the right. The responsibility for skewing the spectrum lies not with the guests, however, who are only expressing their honest views, but with the network that hires them.

Consider Fox’s most recent high-profile Democratic hire, former Rep. Harold Ford Jr. of Tennessee. Ford could be a contender in two categories: He lost his campaign for election to the Senate in 2006, one of the few high-profile Democratic losses in this election cycle. And during that campaign, he showed plenty of signs of being an enabler in training, demanding, for instance, that John Kerry apologize for his infamous botched joke about Iraq. As the newly named head of the avowedly centrist Democratic Leadership Council, Ford recently twitted congressional Democrats for voting to set a timetable to end the Iraq war.

Now consider the other failed senatorial candidate who was hired at the same time as Ford: former Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Penn. On the surface, sure, the hiring was fair and balanced: one prominent Democrat who went down to defeat in 2006, and a Republican in the same position. Democrat, Republican — voilà, balance. But this case is actually just another example of how Fox’s choices of Democrats help to skew the very terms of discourse in favor of conservatives; Ford’s politics are just left of George Will‘s, while Santorum lists slightly to the right of Attila the Hun.

Fox News would not provide an executive to discuss its hiring practices, but some staffers have already provided some revealing glimpses. In 2006, the network’s London bureau chief penned an opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal’s European edition. “Even we at Fox News manage to get some lefties on the air occasionally,” wrote Norvell, “and often let them finish their sentences before we club them to death and feed the scraps to Karl Rove and Bill O’Reilly.”

Charlie Reina, a Fox News producer from 1997 to 2003, says Fox is “not going to put somebody on there who’s very strong or very articulate in terms of advocating Democratic values or positions … It’s not to say that they’re not truly Democrats or articulate in their own way, but they have to get with the program so to speak.” Reina was once witness, along with “Fox News Watch” host Eric Burns, to an explanation from a Fox News vice president of why Alan Colmes was the right man to appear across from Sean Hannity. Reina paraphrases the Fox executive as saying, ” You know who the perfect anchor is here? Alan Colmes. Because he knows what his role is — he knows that he’s there to set Hannity up, and that Hannity’s the star of the show.” (The working title inside Fox for “Hannity & Colmes” was, after all, reportedly “Hannity & LTBD,” or Liberal to Be Determined.)

Alan Colmes seems, therefore, to have it right. As he said, if he weren’t willing to sit opposite Sean Hannity, “they’d have another liberal on.” And that liberal, or Democrat, or progressive, whatever label you prefer, would probably be a lot like Alan Colmes.

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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