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The Lou Dobbs Factor


“It just makes your blood boil,” he said of Cisco. “I mean, it’s disgusting. But … it’s encouraging that [the stockholder group] has the integrity and the drive to push through. That is a very hopeful sign.”

“It certainly is,” his correspondent agreed, and that was that. The news!

The day before the midterms, Dobbs introduced a standard pre-election report with this: “Many middle-class Americans are simply fed up with corporate America and special interests and their tight hold on our government. Tomorrow many voters across the country will have a chance to reassert their property rights and to vote for an increase in the minimum wage.”

And people are flocking to this startling new hybrid of opinionews, this Daily Show without jokes or irony. For the first ten months of this year, Dobbs’s audience “in the demo”—ages 25 to 54—was up 40 percent over the comparable period last year. On certain nights lately he’s even won his time slot against Fox.

Lou rules. As James Wolcott smartly predicted last spring, the midterms were “for better or worse … a Lou Dobbs election,” and Jacob Weisberg recently wrote in Slate about the victorious “Lou Dobbs Democrats” (even though a few immigration hard-liners lost seats). A member of the Washington policy Establishment tells me that “the Lou Dobbs factor” has become the routine shorthand when calculating the potential for grassroots political backlash to particular policies. Two weeks ago at a Four Seasons dinner for Harvard’s Shorenstein Center—i.e., an ultra-Establishmentarian conclave—Bill Clinton singled him out for praise: I disagree with a lot of what Lou Dobbs says, but I still watch every night—and I learn something every time. Lou, sitting right next to the stage, smiled and glowed, basking in the friendly attention of the soft-on-immigration, pro-free-trade elite.

He’s a sane, steady, well-socialized, and carefully groomed version of Howard Beale, the news anchor in Network whose rage—“I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take this anymore!”—revives his ratings and career. That movie’s cynical view of corporate cynicism, if you haven’t seen it lately, is astonishingly prescient 30 years later. “I’ve been telling you people since I took this job,” the head programmer says, “that I want angry shows … I want anti-Establishment.” And the network’s owner informs Beale that his anti-globalized-business muckraking is futile. “You are an old man who thinks in terms of nations and peoples,” he says. “There are no nations … There is only one holistic system of systems; one vast, interwoven, interacting, multivaried, multinational dominion of dollars.”

At the turn of the century, when he was chairman of Time Warner and the overlord of CNN, I actually heard Gerry Levin make very similar remarks—but with an optimistic instead of a sinister spin, for a CNN special about the future. And in the real world, unlike in Network, the holistic corporate system is so effective at co-opting and subsuming dissent that Time Warner’s chairman doesn’t need to pull his mad-as-hell economic nationalist of an anchorman back onto the reservation (or have him assassinated), because the reservation can extend almost infinitely to keep him on it.

For instance, Dobbs has compiled a list of hundreds of U.S. companies, all implicitly boycottable, that are “sending American jobs overseas, or choosing to employ cheap overseas labor, instead of American workers.” The list, posted on, includes Time Warner. Other companies were among those recommended to investors in the $199-a-year Lou Dobbs Money Letter, which he published until a year ago. And someone familiar with CNN’s ad-sales operations tells me that big corporate advertisers are very comfortable with Dobbs’s program, his anti-free-market tilt notwithstanding—as opposed to “the tabloid shows,” which tend to be a harder sell.

CNN Headline News, which has also started doing well by Foxifying itself, is the tabloid brand, and makes Lou Dobbs Tonight look like PBS’s NewsHour by comparison. Its stars are Nancy Grace, the angry, high-strung former prosecutor, and Glenn Beck, a shock-jock-y right-winger transplanted from talk radio six months ago. On the radio last year, Beck joked that he was “thinking about killing Michael Moore”—an example of what CNN’s PR calls his “unique and often amusing perspective.” And a couple of weeks ago, a show Beck did on “The Extremist Agenda”—Islam’s, not his—was the highest-rated in any time slot on any of the four cable news channels.

“Lou’s show is not a harbinger of things to come at CNN,” Jon Klein has said. “He is sui generis, one of a kind.” That’s not exactly true. Just before the midterms, I watched CNN anchorman Jack Cafferty do his not-ready-for-prime-time cover version of Dobbs, ripping away at “one of the worst Congresses we’ve had in our 200-year history.” Populist anti-Establishment anger is now a major part of the CNN brand. And if it’s working for them, why wouldn’t they allow newsreading and opinion-mongering to merge some more? Having started sliding so spectacularly and successfully down this slippery slope, on what principle will they stop now?



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