But most of the time Santorum found himself on the eraser’s edge. Greta Van Susteren broadcast her 10:00 pm show, On the Record, from Milwaukee to better cover the primary. She began with a 15-minute taped Romney interview during which, to her credit, she asked the candidate about problems like poverty and failing schools rather than peppering him with predictable horse-race questions. Van Susteren’s other big “get” during the hour-long show was House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, who has, yes, endorsed Romney. Ryan warbled his on-message praise of the GOP front-runner: “I’m just convinced that he has the best conservative principles…and the best chance of beating Barack Obama.”
Only one brief segment was devoted to Santorum—and the only reason that he was judged newsworthy was because he appeared in Van Susteren’s hometown of Appleton, Wisconsin. On the Record aired a brief clip of Santorum standing in front of an oversized American flag in Appleton asking his audience, “Does anyone have any stories about Greta they want to tell?” Only by jokingly playing to the ego of the Fox News host did Santorum get his substance-free cameo on the network’s last major show before the polls opened in Wisconsin.
Santorum was interviewed from Wisconsin Monday on one of the rare Fox News shows that—just my luck—I missed: America’s Newsroom at 9:00 am. But its Mitt-looks-like-a-winner framing did not differ much from the rest of the Fox coverage. There is no evidence to suggest that this mostly benign neglect of Santorum is based on anything other than a slavish devotion to the conventional wisdom. The polling average at Real Clear Politics, showing Romney up by 7.5 percentage points in Wisconsin, was invoked so often on Fox that an unwary viewer might think that these were actual election returns. Only rare commentators like Bret Baier bothered to point out that this year pre-primary polling has been about as accurate as a blunderbuss. But Fox News has been typical in its tone of finality about the GOP race. The Project for Excellence in Journalism pointed out in its study of the news media as a whole last week that Santorum “saw a dramatic downturn in his coverage.”
For all my brickbats, Fox News also deserves plaudits for a segment that captured the essence of Santorum’s stubborn determination. Appearing on Special Report with Bret Baier at 6:00 pm, Brit Hume offered an eloquent valedictory to the conservative crusader:
He began this race as the longest of long shots….Now he remains, having done more with less than probably any candidate in the modern history of his party. When I saw him here at Fox the other day, he seemed more alive than I’ve ever seen him. His face was radiant and while he may have been exhausted, he was also exhilarated. No use saying to him, “Hey buddy, you may have gone farther than anyone thought you could, but it’s time to quit.”
Fox News did boast one standing feature that captured the dramatic electricity of high-stakes politics—its breathless promos for its own primary night coverage: “A powerful special report live Tuesday only on America’s Election Headquarters.” It’s too bad for Republican voters that (Brit Hume and Bret Baier aside) such adrenaline-rush energy was not reflected in Fox News’s languid pre-primary coverage.