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.
It was all downhill after that. On Fox’s array of hosted opinion shows—O’Reilly, Beck, Cavuto, Hannity, and Van Susteren, the speech rode the down escalator through the evening. Said Hannity: “President Barack Obama joined the likes of Yasser Arafat, Jimmy Carter, and Al Gore earlier today when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in a ceremony in Oslo, Norway.” Hannity later said Obama, whom he called the “anointed one,” had appeased the crowd with criticism of the U.S. “Obama just can’t seem to give a speech overseas without bashing America,” he said. Stephen Hayes of The Weekly Standard praised the initial portion of the speech but said, “the second two-thirds was filled with typical Obama rhetorical flourishes and excesses.” John Bolton, Bush’s ambassador to the United Nations, wrapped up the night’s commentary by telling Van Susteren the speech “was a pretty bad speech—turgid, repetitive. I thought it was analytically weak, sort of at a high school level. It’s like he didn’t have any lead in his pencil left after his speeches at the U.N. and the speech on Afghanistan. So all in all, a pretty surprisingly disappointing performance.”