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Fox Ferreting Out Fans

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 30, 2009 10:44 AM

Fox Nation, an opinionated site that launches this morning -- and really, what other network would name a country after itself? -- is based on a gut-level appeal:

"It's Time to Say NO to Biased Media and Say YES to Fair Play and Free Speech."

Biased media are in the eye of the beholder, and with a site built around such high-decibel stars as Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck, Fox is hoping to leverage its brand online, especially among conservative true believers. "We felt that giving people a real destination to go and express themselves would give them a feeling of belonging," says Senior Vice President Joel Cheatwood. "People feel they're dictated to a lot by the media."

The launch comes as Fox News Channel is touting its aggressive approach to the Obama administration, which has led to rising ratings after eight years in which the network's top commentators often sided with the Bush White House.

Hannity, who had been balanced by liberal co-host Alan Colmes, is flying solo this year, ripping the president for "socialist" policies and calling for the firing of his Treasury secretary, "Turbo Tax Cheat Tim Geithner." Beck, hired away from HLN (Headline News), has been an instant smash, railing against "the people who are betraying you over and over and over again and lying to us in Washington." Mike Huckabee, the former GOP governor of Arkansas, holds forth on a weekend show.

Night after night, Fox's top commentators are former White House aide Karl Rove, former House speaker Newt Gingrich and Dick Morris, the onetime Clinton strategist turned debunker of Democrats. Another contributor, Michael Steele, recently left to become Republican Party chairman. And while Democratic analysts hired during the campaign, such as former Hillary Clinton advisers Howard Wolfson and Lanny Davis, have left the network, Fox is beefing up its conservative ranks, recently hiring National Review's Jonah Goldberg.

The Web site will attempt to emulate the social aspects of Facebook -- as well as MySpace, which, like Fox, is owned by Rupert Murdoch -- by encouraging readers to post comments and argue with one another. And the hook will be columns, blogs and videos from the likes of Bill O'Reilly, Greta Van Susteren and Hannity, which will likely draw their strongest followers.

"I don't think this is going to be limited to die-hard Fox News fans," Cheatwood says. When registration begins in two months, users will be asked to abide by "core principles of tolerance, open debate, civil discourse and fair and balanced coverage of the news," with insulting comments deleted.

"If they're critical of Fox News, that's fine," Cheatwood says. "You just can't say anything that's hateful or hurtful to someone else."

Fox has been losing the online wars. The new site would be linked to FoxNews.com, which drew 16 million unique visitors in February, trailing MSNBC.com (41 million visitors) and CNN.com (36 million).

Liberal outlets thrived during the last administration, when those who couldn't stand the president gravitated toward the strongest Bush critics. MSNBC gained in the ratings by moving sharply left, installing Air America's Rachel Maddow in the hour after Keith Olbermann last fall.

A right-leaning brand might be a similar asset in the Obama era. The Washington Times is creating a conservative opinion site, and last week announced that its newsroom is launching a syndicated show on Talk Radio Network, which carries such conservative hosts as Laura Ingraham and Michael Savage.

Some skeptics said Fox News, which enjoyed easy access to top Bush administration officials, might suffer under a Democratic president. But the ratings don't bear that out, with Fox now the second-ranking channel in cable land, behind the USA Network.

So far this year, Fox News ratings are up 26 percent compared with the same period last year, CNN up 17 percent and MSNBC up 20 percent. The Fox average, 1.2 million, is roughly equal to its two rivals combined.

"The O'Reilly Factor" is drawing nearly 3.4 million viewers, a 26 percent jump over last year. In that 8 p.m. hour, Olbermann's MSNBC show is averaging 1.4 million (up 37 percent); HLN's Nancy Grace, 1.2 million (up 80 percent); and CNN's Campbell Brown 1.1 million, up 4 percent.

"Hannity" is averaging 2.7 million viewers, 40 percent higher than the old show with Colmes. He is trailed by CNN's Larry King, with 1.4 million (up 20 percent); and MSNBC's Maddow with 1.2 million (up 133 percent from the old Dan Abrams program). News anchor Bret Baier, who succeeded Brit Hume, has even boosted Fox's numbers at 6 p.m.

Obama refused to appear on Fox News during the campaign until a confidential meeting in June, when Chairman Roger Ailes told him the network would be fair but not "in the tank" for him. The president recently told House Republicans, "Go ahead and whack me, I'll watch Fox News and feel bad about myself." He dismissed that as a joke in an interview with Fox's Chris Wallace.

Fox executives maintain that the channel's reporting is aggressive but not ideological. Senior Vice President Bill Shine says that "our reporters, people like Major Garrett, have been asking tougher questions" than their rivals, such as scrutinizing efforts to increase White House involvement in the 2010 Census.

As for the commentators, Shine says Hannity still has some liberal guests and that Beck has "a very populist message -- he's mad as hell and not gonna take it anymore. There's anger and fear out there and he's giving people an outlet for that."

Such people could become charter members of Fox Nation if the Web site catches on. Says Shine: "We're calling it a mix between the Huffington Post and Drudge."

Pulling the Plug

CNBC's Larry Kudlow, who had been flirting with a Senate campaign, is staying put.

After talking with Connecticut Republicans about a possible run, Kudlow now says "it was never really a serious proposition." The liberal advocacy group Media Matters had pressed CNBC to disclose whether the talk-show host planned to challenge Democratic Sen. Chris Dodd.

Following in the footsteps of Chris Matthews, who signed a new deal at MSNBC rather than run for the Senate Democratic nomination in Pennsylvania, Kudlow told viewers last week: "In my heart I know that I belong right here at CNBC. This is my love."

Arianna's Army

With the newspaper industry in deep distress, Arianna Huffington says she's riding to the rescue.

The co-founder of the liberal Huffington Post site says she is teaming up with Atlantic Philanthropies to launch a $1.75 million investigative fund to hire 10 reporters to focus, for now, on the economy. Atlantic describes itself as "bringing about lasting changes in the lives of disadvantaged and vulnerable people" -- which more or less describes many journalists these days.

Huffington, who hopes to draw from the ranks of laid-off reporters, said in a statement yesterday that "the importance of investigative journalism cannot be overstated -- especially during our tumultuous times." The project will be headed by Nick Penniman, who has worked for such liberal magazines as the Washington Monthly and American Prospect and the progressive Campaign for America's Future.

Raising Suspicions

Federal authorities have denied an al-Qaeda terrorist access to a potentially dangerous weapon.

Mohamed al-Owhali, serving a life sentence in Colorado for his role in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa, tried to subscribe to The Washington Post's weekly edition. The papers were blocked, with the Federal Bureau of Prisons declaring: "This information has been determined to be detrimental to the security, good order and discipline of the institution."

And here we thought it was a nice family newspaper.

Bureau spokeswoman Tracy Billingsley says that "it's not The Washington Post per se" and that prison officials examine each edition and might have objected to "just one article." Thirteen issues were returned to The Post.

Stirring Motto

New York Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., who last week laid off 100 employees and told the rest that their salaries would be cut by as much as 5 percent this year, is using a new slogan, according to the May issue of Vanity Fair. In this time of industry turmoil, it is "W.S.L." -- for "we suck less."

Moving right along . . . Joe Biden had pretty much slipped off the media radar screen. But when the White House wanted to put out the word about how influential the veep is, the president made time to talk to the NYT's Mark Leibovich:

"Mr. Biden has settled into a role of what Mr. Obama compares to a basketball player 'who does a bunch of things that don't show up in the stat sheet," the president said in an interview Friday. "He gets that extra rebound, takes the charge, makes that extra pass.' "

Sure, but he used to be more fun poking his finger in the opponent's eye and occasionally double-dribbling.

"Mr. Biden's reputation for windiness, self-regard and unrestrained ambition have long prompted some degree of eye-rolling around him and probably always will. But what has been striking to many in the administration has been how strenuously the president has worked to include him and, perhaps most notably, the influence Mr. Biden appears to be wielding."

By contrast, Newsweek puts Paul Krugman on the cover ("Obama Is Wrong") and reports:

"The Obama White House is careful not to provoke the wrath of Krugman any more than necessary. Treasury officials go out of their way to praise him by name (while also decrying the bank-rescue prescriptions of him and his ilk as 'deeply impractical'). But the administration does not seek to cultivate him."

With the president's decision to dispatch more troops to Afghanistan, the pundits are now calling it "Obama's War." Time's Michael Scherer explains the opposition's new message machine:

"As Obama gave his speech laying out a new strategy for Afghanistan Friday, Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley posted on Twitter, 'Listning Prez on Fox anounce his Afhgan stategy Now it bcomes Obama War Not Bush war any longer.' Indeed. In addition to laying out the new strategy--more U.S. blood, more U.S. treasure, more international involvement -- he fully endorsed the rationale of the U.S. fighting an indefinite war in a land that has long laid waste to foreign powers."

Government by Twitter. I just felt a shudder.

David Brooks offers his assessment after visiting Kabul:

"Every element of my skepticism was reinforced during a six-day tour of the country. Yet the people who work here make an overwhelming case that Afghanistan can become a functional, terror-fighting society and that it is worth sending our sons and daughters into danger to achieve this.

"In the first place, the Afghan people want what we want. . . . Second, we're already well through the screwing-up phase of our operation. At first, the Western nations underestimated the insurgency. They tried to centralize power in Kabul. They tried to fight a hodgepodge, multilateral war. Those and other errors have been exposed, and coalition forces are learning."

Looking at the Afghan situation, Andrew Sullivan is "skeptical for two reasons. The first is that pacifying that entire region -- the region that defeated the British and the Soviets -- is a gargantuan task whose costs do not seem to me outweighed by the obvious security benefits. As long as we can prevent terrorist bases forming that could target the US mainland, I do not see a reason for this kind of human and institutional enmeshment. My fear is that it multiplies our enemies, drags us further into the Pakistan nightmare, and will never Westernize a place like Afghanistan without decades-long imperial engagement.

"Secondly, I do not believe that Iraq is as stable as some optimists do, and fear that we will not be able to get out as cleanly as the president currently envisages. To be trapped more deeply in both places in a year's time seems Bush-like folly to me."

Sullivan objects to this line from Brooks's column:

"Foreign policy experts can promote one doctrine or another, but this energetic and ambitious response -- amid economic crisis and war weariness -- says something profound about America's DNA.

"It is part of America's DNA to be occupying and remaking an entire foreign semi-country thousands and thousands of miles away, with an utterly alien culture, institutions, religion and polity?"

Is Obama having to eat some of his campaign words? Washington Examiner's Byron York rings up his old rival:

"Barack Obama used to get very upset about federal budget deficits. Denouncing an 'orgy of spending and enormous deficits,' he turned to John McCain during their presidential debates last fall and said, 'We have had, over the last eight years, the biggest increases in deficit spending and national debt in our history. . . . Now we have a half-trillion deficit annually . . . and Sen. McCain voted for four out of five of those George Bush budgets.'

"That was then. Now, President Obama is asking lawmakers to vote for a budget with a deficit three times the size of the one that so disturbed candidate Obama just a few months ago . . .

"I asked McCain about the president's seemingly forgotten concern about deficits. McCain doesn't like to rehash the campaign -- 'The one thing Americans don't like is a sore loser,' he told me -- but when I read him Obama's quote from the debate, he said, 'Well, there are a number of statements that were made by then-candidate Obama which have not translated into his policies.' "

The view from across the pond, where the Economist endorsed the Democratic candidate:

"Mr Obama has had a difficult start. His performance has been weaker than those who endorsed his candidacy, including this newspaper, had hoped. Many of his strongest supporters -- liberal columnists, prominent donors, Democratic Party stalwarts -- have started to question him. . . .

"Mr Obama has seemed curiously feeble.

"There are two main reasons for this. The first is Mr Obama's failure to grapple as fast and as single-mindedly with the economy as he should have done. His stimulus package, though huge, was subcontracted to Congress, which did a mediocre job: too much of the money will arrive too late to be of help in the current crisis. His budget, though in some ways more honest than his predecessor's, is wildly optimistic. And he has taken too long to produce his plan for dealing with the trillions of dollars of toxic assets which fester on banks' balance-sheets."

You know the whole Obama-can't-speak-without-a-teleprompter meme? Atlantic's James Fallows, a onetime Jimmy Carter speechwriter, tries to debunk it:

"The important point with Obama is that the content, command of fact and concept, and overall intelligence of his extemporized answers matched that of the scripted presentation. That could not have been so if he were teleprompter-dependent. For example: by the end of his term, George W. Bush had become quite effective in delivering a formal speech. His interview- and press conference performance if anything deteriorated through his time in office. The whole 'Obama can't talk on his own' concept is bizarre, given his performance through two years of stump speeches and debates during the campaign. But it seems to have gotten so much credence in the right-wing world that it is worth addressing head on."

I'd love to hear some of the critics hold forth extemporaneously for an hour.

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