Silly, silly Tim Pawlenty.
The governor of Minnesota visits the flood disaster in the southern end of his state and calls a special session of the Legislature to discuss bringing relief to 35 counties. He takes trade missions to China, checks on National Guard troops in Iraq and fights Democrats over how to balance his state’s budget.
All that fuss and muss get the Naif of the North some passing attention. But on Fox News, the sun and moon for any Republican climbing the ladder, that work got Pawlenty nothing like the multiple, personalized appearances of other GOP politicians who, like Pawlenty, have pondered the idea of running for president in 2012.
Pawlenty’s failure? Wasting all that time plugging away like a little tugboat via the old channels. Other top Republicans — namely Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee — have taken right to the high seas by going to work for Fox News. It’s easy to get news coverage, it turns out, when you work for a news company!
Politico wrote this week that Fox’s tradition-defying employment of multiple potential presidential candidates has thrown others for a loop. That includes competing news outlets, which get little or no air time with the big-name Republicans because they are under exclusive contract to Fox. It also includes other potential GOP contenders, though they made their complaints quietly, lest they anger the powers at Fox.
A story that once might have prompted shock and outrage got very little play outside political circles. Why? Because the information juggernaut built by Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes, once a GOP attack dog and now head of Fox News, has been tilting the playing field for so long, so persistently and denying its bias so shamelessly that it’s created an alternate reality.
We are talking about a new order where Fox parent News Corp. unapologetically gave $1 million to the Republican Governor’s Assn. We are talking about a new order where Fox’s supposed news personalities — not just its prime-time opinion makers — routinely pound away at conservative talking points. (Who, but Fox, knew that a couple of punks calling themselves Black Panthers and standing in front of a Pennsylvania polling place in the last national election had fomented a national crisis, worthy of weeks of breathless coverage?) We are talking about a new order where Palin and a clownish Florida pastor (and would-be Koran burner) unabashedly commend Fox as the place to go to get your story out.
One doesn’t even blink with surprise anymore when a Fox opinion program rolls out black-and-white newsreel footage of fascists, and with uniformly straight faces suggest that the Obama administration has America on the brink of a similar calamity.
I can already hear some of you starting to pound out your rebuttals via e-mail: Sure, Fox has a point of view. But all the other news outlets are shamelessly liberal. What about CNN? What about MSNBC?
What about them? CNN has hewed relentlessly to the he-said-she said reporting imperative of old. The 24-hour news pioneer puts on alternative viewpoints, and not merely as whipping objects for ideological hosts. It’s aired multiple segments dissecting President Obama, his economic policies and his plans for Afghanistan.
MSNBC, in contrast, has clearly tried to get its Fox on and follow an Internet Age imperative to find an audience niche and give it what it wants. Its leftward tilt is undeniable. I’ve written before about clear cases where news anchors — not just prime-time hosts like Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow — smacked down conservatives and carried the liberal torch.
But MSNBC’s bosses and anchors stand as rank amateurs in branding and message discipline compared with their counterparts over at Fox. Whether that’s due to some latent, archaic news scruples, mere inattention or the incompleteness of an ongoing transformation, I don’t know.
In Monday’s story, Politico made it clear that Gingrich & Co. are not the first presidential aspirants who have launched campaigns from a comfortable media roost. Pat Buchanan hosted CNN’s “Crossfire” in the 1990s, leaving that spot in early 1995, shortly before declaring his candidacy for the Republican nomination.
But the story points out that Fox’s current incursion into the current rank of GOP hopefuls was unprecedented in scope. Competing TV operators told the website how they had been shut down when they tried to get the Fox contributors on their programs.
These complaints did not come from wild ideologues, mind you, but news veterans like Steve Scully, political editor of C-SPAN, who had tried and failed to get Palin to appear. If the Switzerland of news outlets — without peer in playing the middle — can’t get one of the Fox candidates, who can?
Not that Palin is aching to be let out of Fox’s stable. The former Alaska governor has made it clear she doesn’t want to contend with anyone who might really probe or prod her. Remember this is the woman who buckled under the relentless hectoring of the menacing Katie Couric, the CBS anchor with all those questions about Palin’s time in government and, for gosh sakes, what newspapers and magazines she reads.
Following up on the Politico story, liberal media watchdog Media Matters counted the number of times the potential candidates appeared on Fox for more than a passing moment since the start of this year. Former Arkansas governor Huckabee, who has a weekend program on Fox, led the way with 96 appearances. Next came one-time Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum (52) , former House Speaker Gingrich (48), Palin (37) and former U.N. ambassador John Bolton (36).
Through mid-September, those outside the Fox stable were central to far fewer segments. Pawlenty appeared 14 times and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, another presidential aspirant, just nine times.
I called Pawlenty’s political spokesman Alex Conant, to ask why his man was wasting time on all that, you know, governing and old-school politicking. Why not just chuck it, like that erstwhile governor, Palin, and, unencumbered, deliver opinions on Fox?
Conant laughed. A little. “I understand the point you are trying to make,” Conant said. “But we have a very good relationship with Fox News. They are very receptive to having [Pawlenty] on.”
Expect the stable of potential candidates to stay undeclared, and on the Fox payroll, for as long as possible. That way, they can to pitch to a favorite audience, maintain a high profile for fundraising and ward off those pesky news people, the ones who work for every other television news outlet in America.