DROPPING THE PRETENSE…. Obviously, far-right activists are entitled to host “Tea Parties” next week to complain about … whatever it is that makes them so angry. But Fox News’ decision to do promotional work for the events, as if the network were directly sponsoring the rallies, seems strange, even for the partisan network.

Continuing Fox News’ pattern of encouraging people to participate in “tea party” protests, described primarily as a response to President Obama’s fiscal policies, The Fox Nation linked to an April 8 Fox Forum entry by Fox News contributor James Pinkerton, titled, “Tea Parties: A Great Part of American History — And America’s Future.” The Fox Nation, which Fox News claims does not traffic in “biased media,” also featured an accompanying graphic: a used tea bag superimposed over images of the Constitution and the American flag.

As Media Matters for America documented, Fox News hosts have frequently encouraged viewers to participate in the “tea parties”; during the April 6 edition of Glenn Beck, on-screen text characterized these events as “FNC Tax Day Tea Parties.” Tea-party organizers have used the planned attendance of Fox News hosts to promote their protests. Fox News has also aired numerous interviews with protest organizers. Moreover, Fox News contributors are listed as “Tea Party Sponsor[s]” on TaxDayTeaParty.com.

The network seems really excited about the events — endorsing the rallies, promoting the rallies, encouraging viewers to attend the rallies, and sending on-air personalities out to help boost attendance.

Now, only a fool believes Fox News is an independent, objective news source, committed to quality, unbiased journalism. That said, Fox News generally maintains the pretense of fairness. When accused of being an appendage of the Republican Party, Fox News tends to deny it, sometimes with a straight face. The network’s on-air talent (I use the word loosely) operates from the assumption that Fox News is a legitimate news source, and the political world follows along with the game — the network gets to ask questions at White House press conferences, travel with presidential campaigns, hosts debates, etc. Everyone knows full well it’s pretend journalism, but the establishment just winks and nods about it.

It’s odd, then, that Fox News would be quite this brazen about its support for right-wing rallies in opposition to Obama. I’d expect the network to offer more coverage of the Tea Baggers’ efforts than the real cable news networks, but Fox News is acting as if the events are literally sponsored by the network itself.

Howard Kurtz said the other day that the network isn’t crossing any lines of propriety, arguing that Fox News’ personalities are “free to stage whatever kind of protest they want.”

I’m not sure if that’s right. Imagine this were 2005, and MSNBC decided it would support a series of national rallies in opposition to the Bush economic agenda. MNSBC would send out on-air figures to speak at the events, and the network would spend weeks not only endorsing the protests, but referring to the events as “MSNBC Rallies” on the air.

I suspect, given those circumstances, Republicans would not only denounce the network as biased, but the GOP would probably stop allowing Republican officials to appear on MSNBC. And they’d have a point.

So why is this any different?

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.