The Top 5 (Most Recent) Reasons that Fox News Has Jumped Way, Way Over the Shark into Uncharted Depths of Wing-Nutty Non-Journalism.
In September of 1977, in the climax of a special three-part episode that opened the 5th season of Happy Days, America’s favorite greasy rock n’ roll rebel, Arthur Fonzarelli, performed a now-infamous feat of derring-do. The Fonz donned swim trunks, water skis (and his leather jacket, of course) and jumped over a shark. For many fans and critics, that highly implausible scenario signaled the beginning of the end of the series. That’s why, since 1985 — the year after Happy Days went off the air — the phrase “jumping the shark” has come to mean the point at which a TV program spins off into absurd plot lines and suffers a mortal, self-inflicted wound to its fundamental integrity, often in quest of a ratings boost.
Whatever you may think about the integrity of Fox News at any point since its launch on October 7, 1996 by Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes (a former media consultant for Presidents Nixon, Reagan and Bush the First) – the period from January 3-11, 2010 may come to be considered the week that Fox News finally jumped the journalistic shark. Always a reliable source for unreliable information with a right wing spin, Fox News has recently leapt beyond conservative bias into the abyss of utter lunacy. Expect bigger ratings to follow.
The 9-day period, from the day Brit Hume completed his conversion from news anchor to televangelist to the day that Fox News announced that Sarah Palin was on their payroll, marks not just a final shattering of Fox’s facade as a real news organization — it may also sound a death knell for political satire. What is left to ridicule, exaggerate, burlesque or parody when your target has jumped the shark and sailed clear through the looking-glass?
Let’s take a look at just how crazy it’s gotten with a roundup of my Top 5 Fox Non-Newspeople.
#1 Britt Hume: Anchor & Televangelist.
Until recently, droopy, sanctimonious Brit Hume was the D.C. managing editor of Fox News and the anchor of Special Report with Brit Hume. Now in semi-retirement, Brit crawls out from under his rock regularly to appear as a guest pundit on the network. In was as a guest on Fox News Sunday that, on January 3, 2010, Hume bade a final farewell to his reputation as an objective newsman by suggesting that Tiger Woods should turn to Jesus Christ in order to find true forgiveness and redemption. Hume went on to say that Buddhism just doesn’t cut it in the redemption department the way Christianity does. But let me allow Brit to speak for himself…
Tiger Woods will recover as a golfer. Whether he can recover as a person I think is a very open question…but the Tiger Woods that emerges once the news value dies out of this scandal — the extent to which he can recover — seems to me to depend on his faith. He’s said to be a Buddhist; I don’t think that faith offers the kind of forgiveness and redemption that is offered by the Christian faith. So my message to Tiger would be, ‘”Tiger, turn to the Christian faith and you can make a total recovery and be a great example to the world.”
That’s how far Fox News has gone. A former news anchor feels perfectly comfortable as a guest pundit on Fox to dismiss one of the world’s great religions and become cheerleader for another? And given a chance to clarify his anti-Buddhist statements in the wake of the mini-brouhaha that followed, Bishop Hume went on Bill O’Reilly’s show and doubled down on Jesus, with an added touch of faux persecution: “It’s always been a puzzling thing to me. The Bible even speaks of it. You speak the name Jesus Christ — and all hell breaks loose.”
Don’t blame Jesus, Brit. Jesus advised us to “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God’s what is God’s.” He knew when and where to draw the line. Then again, Jesus’ classically liberal point of view never really gets much play on Fox News.
#2 Sarah Palin: Fox’s Newest News Fox.
Fox News has established a tradition of casting hot-looking women as reporters and anchors on their newscasts – even on the local level. Fox News foxes are generally long-legged blondes who dress like they’ve just been to a cocktail party. Now the Fox blondes will have to make room for the Big Brunette. On January 11, 2010, Fox News announced that 2008 GOP Vice Presidential nominee and Alaskan Gubernatorial Quitter, Sarah Palin was joining Fox News as a contributor. Bill O’Reilly, who (allegedly) enjoys chasing gals around the newsroom, hailed the move: “This, of course, is good news for us, as the governor is the most charismatic politician in the country right now, with the possible exception of President Obama…and she’s a legitimate presidential contender in 2012 should she seek the office.”
That Sarah Palin is considered “a legitimate presidential contender” has a lot to do with Fox News pushing that meme. And now, they’re giving her a bully pulpit for self-promotion. And just what is Sarah Palin qualified to comment on? What kind of serious contribution can she make to a news show? In the new book, Game Change, authors John Heilemann and Mark Halperin quote McCain Campaign manager Steve Schmidt on the subject of Palin’s depth: “She knew nothing. She had to be taken through World War I, World War II, the Cold War, and Palin was not aware there was a difference between North and South Korea.” Yikes. And this ignoramus could have been one heart attack away from the Presidency? Surely, Palin will say something stupid enough on Fox News to ruin her chances of ever holding high office again.
But why hold out false hope? Glenn Beck has already proven you can never say something stupid enough on Fox News.
#3 Glenn Beck: Dangerous & Tragic Clown
If Glenn Beck hadn’t been born, then Paddy Chayefsky would have had to create him. After all, the only differences between Glenn Beck and Chayefsky’s fictional anchorman-gone-mad, Howard Beale from the film Network, are that Beale was sincere and paid the price for truth-telling with his life. Beck, on the other hand, in an insincere carnival barker who gets paid millions to tell lies. Both Beale and Beck are, however, emotionally damaged, paranoid nutcases who rant and rage night after night, drawing viewers for many of the same reasons an auto accident does.
Beck’s back-story provides clues to what lies behind his rage and paranoia. I won’t go into his childhood family tragedies (you can link to them here), but Beck is, by his own admission, a recovering alcoholic and drug addict. Of course, having been a heavy drinker and pot smoker doesn’t disqualify him from the role of newsman any more than the fact that he’s been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Nor should his fitness as a newsman be questioned because he dropped out of college after taking one theology class, “Early Christology.” It may raise an eyebrow to learn that Beck was raised in the Catholic Church as a kid and became a Mormon as an adult, but that’s between him and his deity. The whole biographical package, however, does raise questions about his stability. And his schtick on camera indicates that either Beck’s a guy who’s truly teetering on the edge of sanity (as his bio suggests) – or he’s a dangerous demagogue who’s actually crazy like a fox.
Once again, we can look to a great movie, this time Elia Kazan’s 1957 film, A Face in the Crowd, written by Budd Schulberg, for another Beck parallel. This classic film noir follows the rise of a hillbilly huckster named Lonesome Rhodes as he works his opportunistic way up from local radio rabble-rouser to a television cult personality with heavy political clout. In fact, Keith Olbermann frequently refers to Beck as Lonesome Rhodes. But I’m not the only one who sees a far more dangerous and instructive parallel to Beck, not in characters from fiction, but in real world history.
Father Charles Edward Coughlin was a Canadian-born Roman Catholic priest who was one of the first political hacks to use radio to browbeat the ill-informed masses. Back in the 1930’s, Father Coughlin drew up to 40 million listeners for his weekly broadcasts. Though he was an early supporter of Franklin Roosevelt, Coughlin soon became one of the harshest critics of FDR’s New Deal policies. His message also became increasingly anti-Semitic, and he sought to rationalize some of Hitler and Mussolini’s fascist policies in the run-up to WW2 as antidotes to Communism. In time, with America’s entrance into WW2, Father Coughlin’s extreme views and anti-Semitic paranoia lost favor with the public, and he retired to become pastor of his Catholic parish where, one assumes, he preached the Christian gospel of love, tolerance, and peace. I see in Glenn Beck’s weeping, race-baiting and tea-bagging too much of Father Coughlin’s paranoia and embrace of right wing fascism masquerading as faux populism. Sarah Palin is freaky — but Beck is scary.
And now for the comic relief…
#4 Fox & Friends: TV’s Unintentional Morning Zoo
Bozo’s Circus, which featured Bozo the Clown and his wacky friends for over 40 years, is the only TV show in history that starred more clowns than Fox & Friends. Never, I repeat never, fall asleep with your TV tuned to Fox News or you may wake up first thing in the morning to the inane blathering of that trio of know-nothings, Steve Doocy, Gretchen Carlson and Brian Kilmeade.
Steve Doocy has also been the network’s weather forecaster. The dude is a TV weatherman. ‘Nuff said. Gretchen Carlson’s background is a little heavier. She worked at CBS News as a news correspondent and co-anchored the CBS Saturday Early Show, covering breaking real news events like the Columbia space shuttle disaster and the 9-11 attacks. And before her television career, she was the first classical violinist to be crowned Miss America, she graduated with honors from Stanford University, and also studied at Oxford University in England. But all of Carlson’s education, training, and experience is wasted in the lowbrow back and forth on Fox & Friends — though her pageant-winning pulchritude is probably more relevant to her position on the show. As for Brian Kilmeade? He’s a former sports reporter — and not a very bright one. I know Keith Olbermann. Keith Olberman is a friend of mine. You, Brian, are no Keith Olbermann.
And speaking of sports – no serious TV news interviewer lobs a softball question quite like Chris Wallace.
#5 Chris Wallace: Softball Pitcher
Chris Wallace’s dad is the legendary 60 Minutes reporter Mike Wallace: the guy who made his bones putting hard questions to the biggest of the big boys. Mike went toe to toe with the Ayatollah Khomeini in a 1979 interview in Tehran during the Hostage Crisis. Yet, in Chris Wallace, the apple has fallen many miles from the tree.
Wimpy Chris Wallace routinely invites GOP flacks like Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, Mitch McConnell and others to come on his show and serve up baseless assertions and dubious facts – without any real challenge from Chris: the guy who’s supposed to ask the tough questions. It’s not like Chris doesn’t know how to ask a tough, insightful question. Heck, the guy worked at ABC News for 15 years as a senior correspondent and as a substitute host for Nightline. Surely Ted Koppel taught him something — even if watching his daddy all those years on 60 Minutes didn’t.
That’s not to say Chris Wallace never asks a tough question. If his guest is a Democrat foolish enough to gamble that a Fox News show might actually be fair and balanced for a moment – then Chris is full of facts, figures, and fighting spirit. Suddenly, the softball pitcher is tossing knuckleballs, wicked curves — and the high hard one, up and inside. Obviously, Roger Ailes is behind the plate, calling the signals. GOP at bat? Softball over the plate. Democrat up to bat? Fastball, high and tight.
This past week, as Fox News finally lost all journalistic credibilty – there was one slight ray of hope. The day before it was announced that Sarah Palin was joining Fox News, Matthew Freud, the son-in-law of News Corp chairman Rupert Murdoch and a part-owner of the company, denounced Roger Ailes, telling the New York Times he was “ashamed and sickened by Roger Ailes’s horrendous and sustained disregard of the journalistic standards that News Corporation, its founder and every other global media business aspires to”.
It was a moment of institutional sanity drowned out by the mad splash of Fonzie’s water skis flying through the surf and up over that damned shark.