I’ve been told worse, so I wasn’t offended, but this put the story in a bind. I had thought a reported story on how Fox assembles its daily programming would be useful. Doing a story on Fox without access and cooperation necessarily changes the nature of the story. So in lieu of talking to Fox, the main thing I did was let Fox talk to me. That is, I watched a lot of Fox News, and I must report the Fox spokeswoman was absolutely correct. Shepard Smith is an interesting guy. He is far and away the most charming personality on Fox. Not that this takes special effort. Generally speaking, Fox doesn’t do charm. O’Reilly, for all of his considerable talents, blew a fuse in his charm machine years ago, and it’s not clear Beck ever had one to blow. Let’s not even start on Sean Hannity and Cavuto.
Smith’s show—or, rather, shows; he hosts two of them every weekday—are absent much of Fox’s usual cant. They are odd in Smith’s own ironic, idiosyncratic way, but not so unusual that you couldn’t imagine them appearing on one of the other cable news networks. In sum, they seem a perfect rebuttal to Dunn’s critique.
Now Dunn is no political naïf. She’s a seasoned, winning political operator. She didn’t wander accidentally into this thicket. She strode straight to it with nary a side step. Neither are Fox’s leaders naïve. In particular, Fox CEO Roger Ailes is a seasoned, some might say marinated, political operator. One or the other of the two sides to this discussion about the true nature of Fox News is being disingenuous. Or perhaps both are. Shocking, I know.
There is no shortage of people eager to comment on Fox and the nature of its news. We thought it simpler and potentially more valuable to just watch its programs and see what they said. We decided to examine and compare the prime time cable news programming of a single day, and we picked December 10, a Thursday. The newscasts that day and the programming that surrounded them offer some clear testimony on the question: What is Fox News?
The big event of the day was Obama’s Nobel prize speech, and its coverage provides a handy schematic for the three networks’ typical modus operandi. As noted above, all three led their nightly newscasts with the speech. The speech occurred early in the day, our time, so it was a subject of comment throughout the day and into the prime-time big money shows.
CNN had, as it almost always does, by far the most diverse array of commenters, including partisans from each side as well as others regarded as centrists. Their reaction contained by far the broadest range of the three channels, ranging from Jack Cafferty—“a great speech . . . . mesmerizing” and David Gergen—“transcendent quality”—to Alex Castellanos, a GOP consultant who thought it too self-absorbed—“It was I, I, I all the time”—and Michael Gerson, the former George W. Bush speechwriter, who termed it a “complex, intellectually rich, impressive speech.”
MSNBC offered generally effusive praise. Chris Matthews called the speech “a morally powerful speech worthy of a Jack Kennedy.” Chuck Todd labeled it “realistic idealism.” Cynthia Tucker thought it was “a very powerful speech . . . a speech for grown- ups . . . that embraced complexities.” Lawrence O’Donnell and Howard Fineman agreed it was humble. Historian Michael Beschloss said it was “elegant as always.” Rachel Maddow summarized it as “an eloquent speech on the nature and responsibilities of war.”
Fox News—in its hour-long news broadcasts—generally praised the speech or quoted others who did so. Major Garrett, the network’s White House correspondent, reporting from the scene of the award in Oslo, termed the speech a “muscular defense of war.” Others invited to comment on it during the news show were generally favorable. Newt Gingrich, former speaker of the House of Representatives, termed it a “very historic speech. And the president, I think, did a very good job of representing the role of America.” Charles Krauthammer demurred somewhat, saying “it was the best speech he has ever given on foreign soil,” implying that other prior speeches were limited in their effectiveness.