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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Obama-bashing alert: Fox News suddenly obsessed with poetry readings

May 12, 2011 |  1:16 pm

Common With the war going badly in Libya, gas prices skyrocketing, Syria continuing its violent crackdown on democracy protesters and a nasty war of words escalating between Pakistan and the U.S. over the killing of Osama bin Laden, you knew something had to be up when everyone at Fox News suddenly abandoned the big news of the day to focus on ... rapper-actor Common being invited to a poetry reading at the White House.

If you thought the culture wars were over, you'd be wrong. At Fox News, they're still in full flower, especially when conservatives have a golden opportunity to badmouth President Obama by linking him to a hip-hop artist whom Karl Rove, of all people, called "a thug," claiming that a line in a Common song, which used the phrase "burn a bush," was a call for the assassination of George W. Bush.

It turns out that Common wrote a song years ago defending a Black Panther who was convicted in 1977 of killing a New Jersey state trooper. It being National Police Week in Washington, some police leaders are unhappy to see Common being given the red carpet treatment at the White House. As Bill O'Reilly put it on his show Wednesday night: "This guy has sympathized with convicted cop killers. He also does the usual rap stuff, touting guns and other antisocial behavior. In addition, he is a friend of Rev. Jeremiah Wright. So why on Earth would the president and first lady invite this man to the White House?"

Everyone at Fox has been reading Common lyrics, including Sean Hannity, who selectively picked out the most inflammatory ones he could find, then asked a couple of his guests: "That sounds like killing cops to me -- sound like killing cops to you?" Of course, no one got around to mentioning anything else about Common, like the fact that he's a two-time Grammy winner, has appeared in Gap ads, showed up on "Sesame Street" with Elmo and has a flourishing film career, having appeared in such movies as "Date Night," opposite Tina Fey and Steve Carell and "Wanted" with Angelina Jolie.

What's going on here? Well, it's pretty obvious that none of this is about Common, who wouldn't even be a blip on the Fox News radar screen except for the fact that his presence at a White House event gives the network a great opening to try to undermine Obama's post-Bin Laden killing popularity, painting him as being, as O'Reilly put it, out of step with "the sensibilities of many Americans."

As someone who looks at this from the aspect of covering popular culture, the sudden outrage over Common not only appears purely politically motivated, but proves once again that conservative commentators like Hannity and O'Reilly have no understanding of how popular art works. If Common is a "thug" for taking up the cause of a cop killer, then what does that make Bob Dylan, who similarly championed the wrongful imprisonment of Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, who was sentenced to life in prison after allegedly murdering three people in a 1966 robbery? (Carter was finally released from prison in 1985 after a judge threw out the charges.)

And by the way, how come no one gets worked up about Johnny Cash, who in perhaps his most fabled song, "Folsom Prison Blues," boasted that he "shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die." Where was Karl Rove with his "thug" charges when that was a big hit? It's always great to know that when Fox News has nothing else bad to say about Obama, it can try to cut him down by linking him to a rapper who is such a scary figure that he gets to hang out on Hollywood movie sets with the likes of Fey and Jolie.

O'Reilly has done this before, demanding that viewers boycott Pepsi after the soft drink company hired Ludacris as one of its spokesmen, saying the rapper "encourages drug use and violence." Even though Pepsi canned Ludacris, O'Reilly continued to condemn him, calling him -- geez, where have we heard this word before? -- a "thug." This "Fear of a Black Planet" approach seems to play well at Fox, but it seems weirdly out of step with today's cultural mainstream, which has long ago accepted hip-hop as another perfectly acceptable tool to sell consumer products and rouse fans at basketball games.

The White House's response to the criticism of Common has been to say that one inflammatory song is not representative of the body of the artist's work. But having watched Hannity read Common's lyrics, I think the White House should simply invite Hannity to its next poetry event, offering him a chance to display some of his original material. As Bob Dylan once said: He's a poet and he didn't even know it.

-- Patrick Goldstein

 Photo: President Obama greeting Common at the 2009 National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony in Washington.

Credit: Charles Dharapak/Associated Press