Now and then, Fox News makes a stab at living up to its "fair and balanced" tag line.
At other times, the cable network's operatives throw off all pretense, let their neatly trimmed hair down and do what they seem to love best -- blame all of the world's evils on those pointy-headed, America-hating liberals. Like, say, Barack Obama!
Fox host Sean Hannity and his producers served up a heaping portion of just such red meat Sunday night on "Hannity's America." And they've since been making lame defenses of the faux documentary, which bore the subtle title: "Obama and Friends: The History of Radicalism."
Fox's hourlong screed is just the kind of media coverage that has contributed to the increasingly angry and irrational tone on the campaign trail. Even by the low standards of this election's advocacy journalism, the program plumbed new depths -- relying on innuendo and guilt by association to paint the Illinois senator as a dupe of the shadowy forces of the left.
Much of Hannity's report was based on interviews with half a dozen partisan commentators, whose main qualification seems to have been a previously expressed disdain for Obama.
Near the top of the program, the host introduced one of them, Andy Martin, as an "author and journalist." But reporters in his Chicago hometown know Martin better as a perennial political candidate and serial litigant.
The Chicago Tribune has spent some time examining Martin's past. He was refused entry to the Illinois bar in the 1970s, in part because his Selective Service records showed his thoughts exhibited "a paranoid flavor and a grandiose character."
In a 1983 personal bankruptcy case, he referred to a judge as a "crooked, slimy Jew." And a federal judge noted his history of "vexatious, frivolous and scandalous" lawsuits.
When he ran for Illinois governor two years ago, Martin quoted a nearly 30-year-old Tribune editorial that called him "an absolutely brilliant campaigner" when he was running for a Senate seat. He didn't mention that the same editorial said he "has no more business in the U.S. Senate than an elk has in a phone booth."
The producer of the Hannity program declined to be interviewed, so it's impossible to determine whether Fox didn't know about Martin's history or just didn't care.
Perhaps the producers relied on the gadfly's own website, which assures us he is "a legendary Chicago muckraker, author, Internet columnist, radio talk-show host, broadcaster and media critic." And expert in all things Barack Obama.
So when Hannity wanted to know what Obama did as a young community organizer, Martin was ready with a pithy answer: "I think a community organizer, in Barack Obama's case, was somebody that was in training for a radical overthrow of the government."
Martin offered no evidence. None. But, when I called him, he helped me understand why this was not a problem.
"I do involve with the facts," he began, "but when the facts aren't all there, and the perpetrator has concealed all the facts and is basically refusing to testify, you are allowed to draw an adverse inference."
It sounds to me as if he's saying: When you can't prove something, you're allowed to make stuff up. And does that also mean you might as well assume the worst? I asked.
"The proof of the pudding," Martin responded, "is that they are on the verge of taking over the government."
So, if Obama is elected, that would constitute a "radical overthrow"?
Well, Martin conceded, "maybe I should have changed my words around to say there would be a change of the government that would put a radical in charge."
During the program, Martin floated other wild theories, including one based on Obama's association with 1960s radical William Ayres.
He noted that Ayres had spoken fondly of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who, in turn, "learned from Fidel Castro of the Cuban revolution."
That led Martin to share this conclusion with Fox viewers: "If you love the Cuban revolution and Castro, and if you love what's happening in Venezuela with Hugo Chavez, you'll love Barry Obama -- Barack Obama, as he calls himself -- in the White House."
Helpful. Now I'm starting to get it. Take opinions and present them as facts. Stitch them into patterns. Then pretend to your viewers -- as many as 2 million typically watch Hannity's Sunday show -- that those patterns reveal the truth.
But that was merely mortar for the program's building blocks: Obama's relationships. And if Obama knew them -- Ayres, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., Palestinian scholar Rashid Khalidi -- it's pretty obvious (darn right!) he must subscribe to their most controversial ideas.
I take Hannity at his word -- when confronted on-air this week by Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs over Martin's past comments -- that he and his Fox colleagues do not condone anti-Semitism. Martin has denied he ever made anti-Semitic remarks.
The Fox host seemed to excuse the lack of balance by arguing that he had interviewed liberals, such as Malik Shabazz and Al Sharpton, on other programs.
How that even remotely exonerates the Obama program, which made no pretense of presenting even a single defense of the Democrat, is beyond me.
Of course, there was no time in the Hannity hour to, for instance, interview the conservatives who helped elect Obama president of the Harvard Law Review.
Hannity was too busy probing deep into Obamaworld's shadowy corridors, like the one that leads to Saul Alinsky, the founder of community organizing.
No one denies that the young Obama, like thousands of others before and since, was inspired by Alinsky, who preached that society's have-nots should expand their power by working aggressively within the government.
As a young reporter here in Los Angeles, I learned firsthand the impact of such teachings, when Alinsky-inspired community organizations first shook the halls of power.
What did they do? They lowered auto insurance premiums on the Eastside. They drove liquor stores out of South Central. They organized an anti-gang program.
Hannity and his confederates ought to take a close look at that last one. It had the backing of another wild-eyed fanatic -- Richard Riordan, the city's Republican mayor.