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Fox's laughable case for Romney

By Howell Raines, Special to CNN
September 28, 2012 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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%.

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

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