‘A perpetual revulsion machine’

‘A PERPETUAL REVULSION MACHINE’…. I’ve been trying to write a lot less about the so-called “feud” between the White House and Fox News — is there a 12-step program? — but CNN’s Campbell Brown raised an important-but-wrong point this week that underscores the confusion that exists among many mainstream journalists.

Brown explained that it’s “obvious,” at least to her, that Fox News and MSNBC are bookends on the ideological spectrum: “Just as Fox News leans to the right with their opinionated hosts in prime time, MSNBC leans left. I don’t think anyone at Fox or MSNBC would disagree.”

It’s hard to overstate how wrong this is. It’s a fundamentally lazy way of looking at the larger media dynamic, and those who make the argument — which is to say, a whole lot of D.C. political media establishment — almost certainly haven’t watched much in the way of cable news.

Jon Stewart’s segment on Fox News this week is worth watching. He notes at the outset that a variety of right-wing personalities have accused the White House of “censorship” because some officials have dared to offer mild-but-accurate criticism of the Republican network. Cal Thomas went so far as to compare the White House criticizing a partisan news outlet to Stalin’s Russia. (Oddly enough, just a year ago, when the Bush White House went after MSNBC, Cal Thomas was delighted, and wondered why the Bush team hadn’t done more of this.)

But the point of “The Daily Show’s” segment was to note that the alleged wall that separates Fox News’ high-profile opinion shows and Fox News’ objective hard-news reporting doesn’t actually exist.

And that continues to be the point that Campbell Brown and others keep missing. On MSNBC, a viewer can find three hours a day of left-leaning opinion journalism. Viewers can also find three hours a day of a show hosted by a conservative, former Republican congressman. Throughout the afternoon, however, MSNBC offers straight news, without an ideological bent.

Fox News’ straight reporting isn’t straight reporting. The wall between news side and the opinion side doesn’t exist. This isn’t a network that does legitimate journalism during the day, and then let’s GOP clowns run wild at night — this is a network that acts as the arm of a political party and a cog in a larger partisan machine all day. As Jamison Foser explained the other day, “Fox’s daytime, ostensibly ‘straight news’ programs are filled with right-wing misinformation. And remember: It wasn’t Sean Hannity or any other prime-time host who suggested during last year’s presidential campaign that Barack and Michelle Obama had performed a ‘terrorist fist-jab.’ It was a daytime news anchor.”

It was also a daytime anchor, Jon Scott, who has read Republican Party talking points — typos and all — on the air, presenting them as Fox News research. This during the “straight news” portion of the day.

Josh Marshall, who keeps the cable networks running throughout the day at the TPM offices, noted recently, “[A]s a product [Fox News’] straight news is almost more the stuff of parody than the talk shows which are at least more or less straightforward about what they are…. MSNBC has now made a big push to refashion itself as a liberal or perhaps just non-hard-right-wing alternative to Fox. But the distinction between the two operations becomes clear whenever you watch ‘news’ on MSNBC as opposed to Maddow, Olbermann or Ed.”

In the bigger picture, the FNC-MSNBC comparison is itself foolish. For one thing, figures like Maddow and Olbermann bring intellectual seriousness to their work, while Beck and Hannity peddle bizarre and unhinged conspiracy theories. What’s more, Maddow and Olbermann are not partisans — regular viewers realize that they criticize the Obama White House and congressional Democrats all the time. Fox News doesn’t offer anything similar because that would be crazy — an appendage of the Republican Party wouldn’t dare criticize the Republican Party.

Why is this so difficult for the mainstream to understand?