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The Lou Dobbs Factor

Fox is shrinking, while CNN has found a new way to lure viewers—by Foxifying itself. And Dobbs’s America won’t be ignored.

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Illustration by Darrow  

We all know that the simultaneous rise of Fox News and Bush-Cheney-Rove Republicanism was of a synergistic piece, not just the result of the same Zeitgeist weather patterns but each an enabler of the other. And now that the Republican Party has lost both houses of Congress, we can see with the clarity of hindsight that the downward trend lines have been moving in tandem as well. Every month since last fall—since Katrina, since the Iraq adventure came to seem utterly hopeless—the audience for Fox News in prime time has been smaller than it was the same month a year before, and the shrinkage is accelerating.

Then there’s CNN. While between 2000 and 2005 its audience went from more than twice the size of Fox News’ to less than half as big, this year, as Fox has declined, CNN has been on the rise. So have CNN Headline News and MSNBC.

It would be nice to conclude that the center of gravity in cable news is therefore shifting back to the less aggravating status quo ante of the pre–Fox News twentieth century, when the ideological bias was tacit and modest rather than assertively central. The fair-minded pursuit of truth revived! The old walls between opinion and facts restored!

Dream on. Sure, Fox is suffering from having hitched its wagon so completely to a particular, discredited political regime (and from seeming televisionally stale and tired), but the big reason for CNN’s comeback is that it has finally incorporated the Fox News paradigm in the broadest sense. CNN is resurgent by embracing more and more populism—that is, not just the celebrity-tropic cheeseball populism of Larry King, and Anderson Cooper’s first-rate I-feel-your-pain populism, but pointedly political soapbox appeals by anchors to all-American fear and loathing. Yet because CNN, unlike Fox News, is party-agnostic, it may now be in a position to outdo Fox by creating a populist-news big tent with many different flavors of populist bile and spittle.

When Jon Klein was named president of CNN/U.S. two years ago, his first major move was canceling Crossfire, going so far as to say he “agreed wholeheartedly” with Jon Stewart’s condemnation of the show’s rank partisanship and ritualized spectator-sport political arguments. It seemed at the time like a gutsy, contrarian move, in the direction of open-minded journalism, intellectual honesty, nuance.

But … not so much. As it’s turned out, among the main tools with which CNN and Headline News have revived themselves is delivered-straight-to-the-camera opinion, in particular an amazingly tendentious nightly CNN “news” program that goes well beyond the line-blurring that Fox pioneered. Lou Dobbs—mainstream media’s first real anchor-rabble-rouser hybrid—is now a tail wagging the CNN dog.

Dobbs was on the Long March with Ted Turner, at CNN from the start as the new channel’s chief business and economics reporter. In 2001 and 2002 CNN executives kept trying to rein in his propensity for extending himself beyond the financial beat, and for mixing his strong opinions into his newscasts—like when he announced that he would henceforth call the “war on terror” the “war on Islamists.” The bosses vetoed him.

But he kept pushing, and as soon as Walter Isaacson left the CNN chairmanship in 2003, management let Lou be Lou: Moneyline was rechristened Lou Dobbs Tonight, and he launched his anti-globalization, anti-free-trade crusade under the rubric “Exporting America.” Then came “Broken Borders,” his title for any and all stories about illegal (Mexican) immigration. And then “The War on the Middle Class,” a war whose main fronts consist of a globalized labor market, illegal (Mexican) immigration, and general corporate greed.

What I hadn’t realized until I recently started watching his show night after night was how completely and seamlessly he mingles actual news with opinion and straight-out tirade. Everyone understands that the Bill O’Reillys and Sean Hannitys are bumptious opinion-spouters, not latter-day Cronkites delivering news reports evenhandedly. But Dobbs does both, interchangeably. On CNN.com his show is listed under News, not Interview and Debate, and from six to seven every evening, between hours of Wolf Blitzer’s straight-news Situation Room, Dobbs is the very picture of central-casting anchorman-of-a-certain-age gravitas. Yet when it comes to his pet issues, which get major play, interlarded among more or less straight stories, he unapologetically slants things.

Not that I always think his opinions are wrong. And the fact that he’s ideologically eclectic prevents a critical mass of anti-Dobbs antipathy forming on either the right or left. But surely our journalistic standards shouldn’t be contingent on how much we agree or disagree with the contortions of the journalism.

For instance, I enjoyed CNN business reporter Kitty Pilgrim’s normal-nightly-news piece about a Cisco stockholder initiative that would forbid the Internet hardware company from doing business with the Chinese censorship apparatus. But when she threw back to Dobbs, he couldn’t contain himself, as usual.


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