As for columnists, one could read Michael Barone warning about “The Coming Obama Thugocracy,” Jonah Goldberg jeering about Obama’s “pals from the Weather Underground who murdered or celebrated the murder of policemen,” and Charles Krauthammer lambasting Obama for being a celebrity, a narcissist, a rigid ideologue, a cynical pragmatist, ambitious, mysterious, and underhanded. “By the time he’s finished,” Krauthammer fumed, “Obama will have made the Clintons look scrupulous.” The National Review Online came to resemble a barnyard, in which strutting roosters spent their days hooting and hollering while littering the ground with manure.
In the end, no institution devoted more energy to assailing Barack Obama than Fox News. Any pretense that the network is anything other than an arm of the most rigid reaches of the Republican Party was dispelled by its relentless campaign against the Democrats. On The O’Reilly Factor, Bill O’Reilly offered nightly reports on Bill Ayers, including one “exclusive” in which a reporter staked out the Chicago professor’s house for days, then confronted him so aggressively that Ayers had to call the police. Greta Van Susteren, when not gushing over Sarah and Todd Palin, seemed to offer up a series of Republican talking points. “Next: Who Is Rashid Khalidi?” went a typical teaser. Appearing regularly on the network were a series of professional Democrat detractors, including architect-of-the-most-unpopular-presidency-in-American-history Karl Rove, onetime-Bill-Clinton-adviser-disgraced-after-having-been-found-consorting-with-a-prostitute Dick Morris, and the always-welcome-on-Fox-no-matter-how-foul-her-views Ann Coulter. “I feel,” she said on one show, “like we are talking to the Germans after Hitler comes to power, saying, ‘Oh, well, I didn’t know. I had no idea he was going to be like this.’ ”
When it comes to Obama-bashing, however, Sean Hannity was in a class by himself. Consumed with a hatred for Obama that at times seemed pathological, Hannity waged a nightly campaign to depict him as a treacherous enemy of the people, who, if allowed to take office, would subvert every value and tradition Americans hold dear. The centerpiece of this effort was an hour-long special, “Obama & Friends: History of Radicalism,” that drew on a series of marginal and shadowy writers and researchers to offer up a series of allegations and half-truths about Obama’s supposed ties to Tony Rezko, ACORN, Louis Farrakhan, Muslim fundamentalists, black-power advocates, and, of course, Bill Ayers. In one especially lunatic segment, Andy Martin, a writer with a history of making anti-Semitic statements, claimed that Obama, in deciding to work as a community organizer in Chicago after college, had “probably” been recruited for the job by Ayers, who was seeking to test his suitability for joining his radical political movement, the aim of which was to bring about in America a “socialist revolution.” Martin offered not a shred of evidence to back up this charge. Nonetheless, the image of Obama-as-Ayers-front-man became a staple on talk radio and in the blogosphere.
For years now, Fox has tried to promote the idea that, while its prime-time lineup of O’Reilly, Hannity, and Van Susteren might have a conservative bent, its newscasts are fair and balanced. Fox’s campaign coverage revealed the utter emptiness of that claim. Over the final weeks of the campaign, for instance, the network offered near-hourly updates on acorn and what Fox insinuated was its campaign to steal the election for the Democrats.
During the campaign, of course, MSNBC emerged as a left-leaning counterweight to Fox, and the two were often discussed as somehow balancing or canceling out each other. This is a false analogy, for while MSNBC was highly partisan and even shrill at times, it did not try to portray John McCain and Sarah Palin as anti-American figures determined to destroy and destabilize the nation. More generally, the Republican candidates (especially Palin) were subjected to often brutal and sometimes excessive criticism in the mainstream media, but they were never called thugs or accused of trying to turn America into a fascist state. After weeks of watching Fox, of listening to Limbaugh, and of surfing the Internet; after hours of hearing repeated references to terrorists and thugs, radicals and revolutionaries, Muslims and madrasahs, I came away feeling that these outlets were helping to foment such hatred and fear of Obama that some members of their audience might feel justified in resorting to violence to stop him. The climate seemed no less toxic than the one that arose in Israel in the months leading up to the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.