The Lou Dobbs Factor

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 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.

“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?


The Lou Dobbs Factor