Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

Fox's laughable case for Romney

By Howell Raines, Special to CNN
updated 1:40 PM EDT, Fri September 28, 2012
Fox's Bill O'Reilly brings on guests who deliver an alternate reality about Mitt Romney's weakened campaign, Howell Raines says.
Fox's Bill O'Reilly brings on guests who deliver an alternate reality about Mitt Romney's weakened campaign, Howell Raines says.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Howell Raines: Fox News has been contorting to deliver good news for Romney's campaign
  • He says commentators' spin attributes Obama gains to media distortion, voter ignorance, etc.
  • Raines: Bill O'Reilly says evenhanded things for deniability if spin is wrong, Romney fails
  • Raines: It will be interesting to see Fox spin if campaign should begin to reek of defeat

Editor's note: Howell Raines is an author and former executive editor of The New York Times. He is working on a novel set during the Civil War.

(CNN) -- Who says the media aren't interested in good news? Fox News has been broadcasting lots of it for Mitt Romney this week. Never have so many gray clouds had silver linings as those hovering over the hapless Republican candidate and his deflating campaign.

I bring you this report after having ventured into Bill O'Reilly's "No-Spin Zone," and believe me, his initial shout-out urging viewers to exercise "caution" before watching is fully, if unintentionally, appropriate. Apparently in Fox World, "no-spin" means "I am now going to share my news-based fantasies."

Howell Raines
Howell Raines

The Wednesday broadcast featured Dick Morris, Karl Rove and Dennis Miller, an a-cappella chorus humming O'Reilly's favorite tunes: that the mainstream media is rooting for Obama; that the polls consistently misrepresent a race that is still a dead heat; that Romney will re-emerge from this autumnal swoon by winning the October 3 debate through his superior if often-invisible oratorical skills; that Romney is in decline simply because voters don't yet understand the necessity of top-end tax cuts, the sanctity of corporate profits and the horror of social welfare spending run amok.

Across its programs, the Fox News mantra is "there's still plenty of time." That's a truism, but chanting the obvious is not among the standard definitions of journalism. Institutionally, Fox is in denial about the state of the campaign. Romney is looking very weak very early. The attempt to avoid reporting this state of play in a "fair and balanced" way is producing comical results.

Stylistically, the O'Reilly quartet may be on to something new. We've had mainstream journalism, alternative journalism, conservative journalism. This appears to be vaudeville journalism. Wednesday, the verisimilitude of the performance was maintained by the illusion that of the four, only Miller is a stand-up comic.

Toobin: Why are candidates silent on Supreme Court?

Rove's role is nuttily professorial. He has adopted one of those erasable white slates popularized by the late Tim Russert. On it he scribbles integers with plus or minus signs. These, he alleges, are the amounts being added to President Barack Obama and/or subtracted from Romney by such daredevil organizations as The New York Times, The Washington Post, CBS, NBC, CNN, Gallup and the co-opted poll-averagers at the website RealClearPolitics. Bottom line: This vast conspiracy is downgrading Romney three to nine points by using screens that overstate the votes of blacks, Latinos, Asians, women and the young.

Morris, who is beginning to bear a waxen resemblance to Orson Welles, explained, I think, that pollsters cheat by using false baseline figures from previous elections. Morris didn't have time to explicate fully how every news organization except Fox has signed up to help Obama by disseminating these cooked figures. Even so, O'Reilly thanked Morris for explaining polling mysteries he said he had not previously understood.

Opinion: Why Romney's rallies are a waste of time

The effect was somewhat spoiled by an unscripted guest from reality, Larry Sabato, the scholarly political scientist from the University of Virginia, who immediately dismissed Morris' rant as "grassy-knoll" statistics. He added that the poll averages on RealClearPolitics had things about right. Obama was ahead by about four points nationally. Of the big-three swing states, Sabato said, perhaps in order not to appear rude to his host, only Florida is still close.

Different messages in battleground state
Romney campaign questions polls

The presence of Miller is apparently driven by commercial considerations. He and O'Reilly now have a lecture-circuit act that is selling out in such venues as Houston and Las Vegas. The closest I've heard Miller come to elegant public-policy analysis was to call Obama a "crap president" earlier this week. As a nod to factuality, O'Reilly does call Miller a "satirist" and, less plausibly, an NFL expert, due to his badly reviewed stint on Monday Night Football. In any event, it's hard to imagine anyone with a master's in public policy from Harvard, which O'Reilly has, consulting Miller on an important national election -- unless there's money in it.

Which brings us to the interesting case of O'Reilly himself. O'Reilly is no dummy, and he did work as a broadcast news professional before veering into infotainment with "Inside Edition" and the Fox gig. For all his pugnacity, these days O'Reilly has the look of a man doing beautiful pirouettes on increasingly thin ice. He's clearly angling to survive a Romney train wreck with some credible deniability by leaving the delusional commentary to Rove et al. and hinting at his suppressed misgivings about Romney's chances.

Opinion: For GOP, it's the social issues, stupid

He's not a man easily knocked off balance by contrary evidence. Thursday he opened with Fox's own poll, which presumably lacked the evils defined by Rove and Morris. It showed Obama's favorability up by 51% to Romney's 48%. It was, from a Foxian point of view, a nicer number than Obama's five point head-to-head lead, 48% to 43%.

Cannily, he drops in terms such as "in fairness to Obama," praises the president's campaigning skills and takes note of criticism of Romney by other conservatives. He hangs his hat on the observation that October 3 is Romney's last chance to get back in the race. This leaves him room to turn around if the polls -- we're talking the real ones here -- don't.

O'Reilly's newest hedge, unveiled with Fox's bleak new poll, is that the "likability" factor gives Obama an advantage with "uninformed, casual voters."

I think there's a secret behind O'Reilly's trademark smirk. Were it in his interest to say what's on his mind about the candidates' performance to date, he'd almost certainly admit that Obama has come on like a superstar candidate of the Reagan ilk, and so far Romney is one of the biggest duds in post-World War II presidential elections.

Right now, Fox News' general excuse for Romney is that he's not getting his "message" across. I'll tune in from time to time to see when the news from the real world arrives in the Fox studios. The message of Romney's tooth-and-fang financial-market capitalism is driving down the polls, and the messenger is coming across as an unlikable empty suit, even when he ditches his tie and jacket.

At a certain point, campaigns in early decline begin to reek of impending defeat. I can't wait to see how they spin that in the no-spin zone. Meanwhile, we can contemplate the dilemma of another O'Reilly regular, the Loneliest in the Public Opinion Trade, aka pollster Scott Rasmussen. He's telling O'Reilly the race is tied within the margin of error around 46% or 47%.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Howell Raines.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:24 PM EDT, Sat September 20, 2014
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
updated 7:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
updated 5:47 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
updated 11:44 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
updated 11:01 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
updated 9:57 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
updated 11:47 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
updated 10:27 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
updated 10:48 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
updated 8:34 PM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT