The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
on entertainment and media

Category: fox news

Newt Gingrich bashes Politico's John Harris, media in debate ploy

Newt Gingrich Rick Perry

This post has been corrected. See the note at the bottom for details.

The role of stalwart chief executive already had two suitors in Rick Perry and Mitt Romney. Casting the rest of Wednesday night's Republican presidential debate, Ron Paul nailed the libertarian puritan and John Huntsman cornered reasonable moderate. So what job remained for onetime House Speaker Newt Gingrich, struggling to make a mark on a stage stacked with eight candidates?

How about Chief Media Basher and All-Around GOP Team Guy?

It may have amounted to a bit part, but one offering scene-stealing opportunity, especially given that the event at the Ronald Reagan Library & Museum in Simi Valley was being broadcast by MSNBC. The liberal-tilting cable network gave the also-ran Gingrich the perfect foil, the chance to play Republican Party uniter and -- who knows? -- maybe begin positioning himself for some future Cabinet appointment.

Gingrich's turn will be most remembered (and already celebrated by multiple conservative commentators) for attacking Politico's John Harris, when the debate moderator tried to get him to take sides between fellow GOP candidates on the issue of healthcare.

The Georgian got in a few other not-so-subtle digs at the media and advanced a much broader thesis: Attempts to tease out differences between the Republican hopefuls were thinly veiled maneuvers "to protect Barack Obama, who deserves to be defeated."

That proposition is enjoyable raw meat for the GOP base. And it would make a lot of sense, except for the fact that the entire cumbersome, protracted and heavily covered primary-election process is designed to expose and explain differences among a political party's various candidates. Is there any other way to help voters decide which product to finally pull off the shelf? (Well, probably, but this is the system we are stuck with, for now.)

Yet Gingrich and a sizable pack of post-debate commentators expressed dismay, even outrage, that NBC anchor Brian Williams and Harris would try to get the candidates to talk about their differences. Obviously, given MSNBC's well-deserved reputation for liberal political commentary, this had to be a partisan plot.

This raises many questions: Did all these people sleep through the last several presidential campaigns? Don't any of them recall how the media, to take just the most recent instance, spent months reporting and glorying in every possible distinction between dueling Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton? Have political debates, three years later, been redesignated as "friending" circles?

You would think so to listen to the undeniably bright (and, in this case, cunning) Gingrich. From his first answer, he made clear he would be school-marming and parrying the debate moderators, while playing shamelessly to the partisan gallery.

Asked about writing the forward for Perry's book "Fed Up" -- which outlines the Texas governor's serious doubts about all sorts of federal programs, including Medicare -- Gingrich would have none of it.

"Look, he's said himself that was an interesting book of ideas by somebody who's not proposing a manifesto for president," Gingrich said. "And I think to go back and try to take that apart is silly."

Even though the book was published just last year, Gingrich suggested to Williams that questions about "Fed Up" made no sense. So Check One, on Gingrich's new debating rules: Would-be presidents should not have to talk about their previous scribblings, even ones they wrote as visions of the Oval Office danced in their heads.

Near the end of the debate, the former Speaker would have to straighten Williams out again. In response to a question about Federal Reserve chief Ben Bernanke (whom he would fire "tomorrow"), Gingrich pivoted to an earlier question. A much earlier question; actually from a previous GOP debate.

"We were asked the wrong question at the last debate," Gingrich said. "The question isn't, would we favor a tax increase? The question is, how would we generate revenue?"

Gingrich said the conversation should be about cutting government and opening vast tracts of Alaska to gas and oil extraction. Never mind that many economists and public-opinion surveys would seem to put some tax increases (for higher-income earners) on the table for most Americans. We nonetheless have Gingrich's Check Two: No more questions about higher taxes. For anyone.

He saved his third rule, and sharpest barb, for Harris, the longtime political writer and co-founder of

Harris suggested that the two GOP front-runners -- Romney and Perry -- had "a genuine philosophical disagreement" over healthcare. As governor of Massachusetts, Romney passed a reform that required residents to buy health insurance. Perry and other Republicans have designated such a "mandate," a key to President Obama's national healthcare law, as just the sort of big-government solution that is anathema to economic recovery and American values.

Harris asked Gingrich to weigh in on the side of Romney's Massachusetts plan or the small-government approach in Texas, where one-quarter of residents are uninsured.

"Well, I'm frankly not interested in your effort to get Republicans fighting each other," Gingrich snapped. Harris interjected that there is a real choice to be made -- requiring citizens to buy health insurance, or not.

Gingrich remained unmoved. He huffed that he would "repudiate every effort of the news media to get Republicans to fight each other to protect Barack Obama, who deserves to be defeated." Check Three: the media should never expect one Republican to speak ill of another.

It seems abundantly clear, as Gingrich pointed out, that Republicans are unified in opposing Obama's healthcare changes. But not so clear, or true, is Gingrich's contention that only slippery, scheming journalists want to talk about Romney's healthcare record. The record of the last few months will show any number of occasions in which Republicans on the stump, with little aid from villainous reporters, used "Romneycare" to bludgeon the former Massachusetts governor.

Could the news media in clear conscience cover the current campaign and not raise one of the front-running candidate's major policy initiatives, one that was also a substantial public policy watershed? Wouldn't a moderator who failed to question what other candidates felt about that initiative be guilty of sloppiness, if not malpractice?

That Gingrich has begun flailing to draw himself attention is not just a conclusion of crazy liberals. Speaking on Fox Business Network on Thursday morning, anchor Chris Wallace said of Gingrich: "He is doing this stunt, which he did with me and he did with John Harris yesterday, which is attack the messenger. If he thinks that works, fine. I find it kind of sad."

[For the Record: 2:08 p.m. Sept. 9: A previous version of this post said anchor Chris Wallace spoke on Fox Business News.]


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-- James Rainey

Photo: Texas Gov. Rick Perry, right, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich greet after a debate among GOP presidential candidates at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Musuem in Simi Valley on Wednesday. Credit: Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images

Britain riots, Fox's O'Reilly asks: where are the guns?

BillOreilly Fox News personality and sometime media critic Bill O’Reilly thought he detected yet another case of liberal media bias last week, this time coming from England. The subject was guns.

As my "On the Media" column suggests, the recent riots in Britain have raised a lively discussion about whether social networks and cellphone communications should be limited.

O’Reilly suggested on his Fox News program that the social unrest should spark another debate. But he said “the BBC and the other liberal British press” had been remiss, failing to report how  British cops and shop owners weren't armed well enough to rein in the chaos.

If you “don’t have a gun, you’re in real trouble,” facing rioters, O’Reilly said.

"The difference between America and Great Britain is that here in America many of us are armed because of the Second Amendment," O'Reilly began. "In Great Britain they don't like guns . . . .the cops don't even carry guns."

No doubt a loaded firearm would have caused some hooligans to think twice before, as the Brits say, pinching (shoplifting) a pair of trainers (sneakers), or attempting much worse.

Of course, arming the populace can have other consequences, as O'Reilly should recall, since he was in Los Angeles at the time of the 1992 riots.

Fifty-four people died in L.A., about two-thirds of them from gunshot wounds. (Eleven of the dead were shot by police or the National Guard.) In the riots that swept several British cities this summer, a total of five died. One of them was by a gunshot. (Three others died after being intentionally run over by a car. One  man was beaten to death.)

A Los Angeles Times account a few months after the riots showed the mixed impact of private gun ownership. Widely distributed pictures showed Korean American shop owners defending their stores. But not all the gunfire went toward the right targets. The story described a group of Korean American youths who went to help the shop owners, only to be mistakenly shot themselves. Edward Song Lee, 18, died of his wounds.

Fox News Correspondent Amy Kellogg told O’Reilly last week that, despite the London riots, the debate about arming the police, or allowing more guns in the hands of private citizens, “has not come up.” O’Reilly is not ready to drop the subject, it seems. He ended the discussion predicting that, in the event of continued trouble, “the gun debate will ramp up.”

--James Rainey

Twitter: latimesrainey

Photo: Fox News' top-rated host, Bill O'Reilly has helped drive the entire cable network's ratings higher. Last week, he wondered why the media had so little to say about the lack of guns in rioting Britain. Credit: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times



Juan Williams: Muzzled, but still talking all the time

JuanWilliamsNPR Among the striking non sequiturs in Juan Williams' new book "Muzzled," besides the title, is the author's simultaneous embrace of Fox News and despair at what he says is a national discourse that has become overly ideological and coarse.

Those two ideas may coexist in the nearly 300 pages of Williams' book, but they will ring jarringly dissonant to anyone who has spent more than a few minutes watching Fox hosts batter anyone with an opposing (read: liberal) position.

Fox is the leading practitioner of the full-contact partisan commentary that's spreading across cable television (most notably to MSNBC) and, arguably, to the body politic. Williams won a $2-million contract with Fox over three years after being booted from NPR last fall.

He charges it is the public radio network that is a safe haven for liberal political cant.

I have a longer discussion of the Williams book in my On the Media column, but there wasn't room to mention all the disconnects there. One other misnomer from the onetime Washington Post journalist: In a section of "Muzzled" in which he discusses how much the public liked his work at National Public Radio, Williams notes that the "ombudswoman said she got more response to my work than to any other voice on the network." What he fails to write is that much of that public feedback was negative--complaints about Williams' screeds on Fox.

The book and the discussion accompanying it raise many questions. One for NPR: If Williams was as ineffectual and overly opinionated as you suggest, why did you keep him around for a decade? Perhaps it had something to do with the star status he had achieved in part, ahem, by appearing on Fox. For Williams: If NPR was as corrupt and politically correct as you now report, why didn't you quit before they fired you?

I tried to get Williams through a couple of Fox representatives this week. They did not respond to my inquiries.

--James Rainey

Photo: News analyst Juan Williams is now a commentator at Fox News, full time, after being ousted from his job at National Public Radio last fall. His new book, "Muzzled: The Assault on Honest Debate," discusses the controversy and his thoughts on runaway political correctness. Credit: Richard Drew / AP



No joke: Jon Stewart voted Republican, at least once

Johnstewart Jon Stewart may have surprised some people when he told Chris Wallace on “Fox News Sunday” that he voted for Republican George H.W. Bush for president in 1988. “There was an integrity about him that I respected greatly,” Stewart told the Fox host.

Not so greatly that he made Bush 41 immune to his “Daily Show” barbs. As Stewart said repeatedly to the seemingly incredulous Fox host, “I am a comedian first."

Stewart’s Comedy Central program came on about seven years after the elder Bush left office, so he did not give the 41st president a full satiric working over. But over the years, he lobbed a few gentle darts at the retired chief executive.

When Bush went skydiving in 2004 to celebrate his 80th birthday, Stewart showed the clip. “OK,” he said, “we’re sorry we called you a wimp. Let it go!”

More than once, Stewart lumped the elder Bush in with the last half-dozen presidents in segments that castigated the entire group for failing to make the U.S. energy independent.

Around the time of Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009, Stewart showed the incoming president meeting with predecessors Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. Stewart said it looked like a “World’s Greatest Grandpa” competition, declaring Bush 41 the winner because “his pockets are filled with hard rock candy and penny whistles.”

Fox's Wallace invited Stewart on the program Sunday to challenge the comedian's suggestion that the Fox News channel functions as a conservative political organ more than a news outlet. Stewart neatly rebuffed Wallace’s arguments, saying ideology was only a secondary motivation for him.

"My comedy is informed by ideology, there is no question," he said. "But I am not an ideologue."
As I was looking for Stewart’s previous “Daily Show” mentions of Bush the elder, I ran into plenty of clips that would tend to back his comedy-first claim.

To cite just one: a June 25, 2009, segment in which the comedian contrasted Obama’s lofty election talk about transparency with his administration’s record of withholding information and documents, including background about a government eavesdropping program.

Stewart had one other quip for Wallace about why he voted for Bush. The then-vice president's opponent was then-Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis. Referencing an infamous Dukakis photo faux pas, Stewart said: “There’s something about tiny people in helmets.”

-- James Rainey

Twitter: latimesrainey

Photo: Jon Stewart of the Daily Show debated Chris Wallace on "Fox News Sunday." He said comedy drove his show, not ideology. Credit: Frank Ockenfels 3 / "The Daily Show"

Bin Laden death brings lots of praise on Fox News, not so much for Obama

AndyCard A couple of hours into television coverage of the death of Osama bin Laden, commentators rightly congratulated a host of winners: the U.S. military, intelligence officials, the victims of the 9/11 attacks and their families.

But on Fox News, at least, credit was faint, at best, for one other individual: President Obama.

The conservative cable outlet quoted a string of former Republican officials who seemed unaware, or unwilling to acknowledge, that the commander in chief had ordered the mission that took out the world's most wanted man, with no American casualties.

Stephen Hadley, President George W. Bush's assistant for national security, told Fox the successful mission by U.S. forces was a "great moment" for the military, intelligence officials and Muslims who had been victimized by Bin Laden.

Former Bush Chief of Staff Andrew Card recounted how Bush had promised the mother of one of the firefighters killed at the World Trade Center in New York that he would never forget her son. Card said it was Bush's resolve that "led to the resolve that President Obama showed."

Regular Fox commentator Charles Krauthammer called the successful attack on the Al Qaeda terrorist leader a "great day for the United States." He said the mission showed America's resolve. Krauthammer didn't say anything about Obama's resolve, though the Democratic president had said getting Bin Laden was his top national security priority.

I switched to several stations through the night, so I might have missed a tip of the Fox cap to Obama. The first words of clear praise I heard came just before 2 a.m. EDT, when Greta Van Susteren said Obama would have been blamed if things went wrong. She added that, because of the mission's success: "He gets lots of credit, so does our military." 

Out on Twitter, political consultant Mike Murphy acknowledged the boost that the winning end to the 10-year manhunt would give the president. "Huge American victory," Murphy wrote. "Politics are great for Obama, not so great for continuing the current mission in Afghanistan."

Indeed, the complications and continuing threats from Muslim extremists can't be underestimated. That's as much the news in the decade-long war on terror as the death of a terrorist mastermind, in an operation ordered by President Obama.

-- James Rainey

Photo: Andrew Card.  Credit: Alex Wong / "Meet the Press" / Associated Press 

Al Jazeera, Fox log biggest audience jumps during Egypt crisis

AlJazeera Al Jazeera English and Fox News appear to be the winners in terms of audience expansion during the recent crisis in Egypt. Other news  outlets that usually gain in such big international crises, like CNN, got a more modest bump as they covered the events leading to the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak's government.

In the week (ending Feb. 6) before Mubarak stepped down, Al logged 727,000 unique visitors in the United States, according to the Internet tracking outlet That's about five times more readers (and viewers, given the site's streaming video) than the cable outlet had in a similar week a year earlier, when it logged 154,000 uniques.

Readers/viewers of the site praised the immediacy it brought to the action in Tahrir Square in Cairo and its ability to sample opinions from the crowd, even when the security situation made it too dangerous for some Western-based news operations to be out among the crowds, which included a particularly violent element supporting the regime.

Fox News also got a bump in its prime-time ratings, with an average of nearly 2.4 million viewers watching from 8 to 11 p.m. the week ending Sunday, Feb. 13. (Mubarak resigned Feb. 11.) During a week in early January before the crisis, by way of comparison, Fox averaged a little under 2 million viewers during the same time slots.

Second-place cable news outlet MSNBC, by contrast, saw its audience decline slightly in the same comparison--from 985,000 to 929,000. And CNN got a slight boost--from 712,000 to 739,000. CNN has traditionally seen bigger increases in viewership during big breaking news events.

It's hard to compare those figures to the three broadcast networks--NBC, ABC and CBS--which draw the biggest audiences for any single regular news show. All three of the network evening news programs appeared to be down fractionally during the week the Egypt crisis culminated, compared to a week in early January.

Regular nightly leader NBC Nightly News, with Brian Williams, drew just under 10 million viewers on average for the week ending Feb. 13. (During the week ending Jan 16, for comparison, the Williams-anchored news had drawn 10.5 million a night.) The ABC World News Tonight with Diane Sawyer hit 8.8 million people that same week (down from the January week of more than 9.1 million) and the CBS Evening News with Katie Couric brought in 6.4 million (compared to more than 7.1 in the earlier week.)

--James Rainey


Photo: The logo of Qatar-based Al Jazeera satellite news channel is seen in Doha. The channel was launched 15 years ago by the Gulf Arab state's Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani with the goal of providing the sort of independent news that the region's state-run broadcasters had long ignored. Al Jazeera first grasped the enormity of the Tunisia uprising and its implications for the region, which soon spread to Egypt and other countries. Credit: Fadi Al-Assaad /  REUTERS





Fox News shocker: Fox analysts agree that Bill O'Reilly's Obama interview was terrific

Bill-Oreilly Covering Hollywood, I've learned that one of the worst things about the business is how everyone kowtows to the boss. When a big-shot filmmaker shows his pals and associates a first cut of his new film, everyone is full of praise, no matter how awful the movie actually is. The same goes inside the studio executive suite, where once a studio chief has offered unbridled excitement about a spec script, the underlings are quick to echo that enthusiasm, no matter what they might privately think.

I was thinking about all that showbiz Group Think when I was watching "The O'Reilly Factor" Monday night, knowing that the real fun wasn't so much in watching Bill O'Reilly interview President Obama on Super Sunday, but in watching Papa Bear crow about his scoop the following evening. Sure enough, O'Reilly was busting his buttons with pride, replaying a bunch of the highlights, along with some unseen interview footage, but not before boasting that his session with Obama was, as he modestly put it, "the most widely viewed interview of all time."

But what really mattered wasn't just how much O'Reilly liked the interview, but how much his cohorts at Fox News liked it as well. So O'Reilly brought in a host of Fox News staffers, all of whom--gasp!--told him what a great job he did interviewing the president. Fox contributor Juan Williams could barely contain himself, gushing "Let me say congratulations! You're the talk of the nation today." Fox analyst Mary Katharine Ham told O'Reilly his interview with Obama was marvelous, just "as it always is when you two guys talk." Even Brit Hume showed up to pat O'Reilly on the back, saying in his cozy, barroom baritone: "I thought you did fine." Bernie Goldberg, who is sort of Fox's in-house mainstream media critic, also stopped by to offer praise, at least when he wasn't taking shots at rival news interviewers who'd supposedly been condescending toward Sarah Palin.

The whole show had the same air of blissful unreality that was no doubt on display the first time James Brooks showed his friends an early cut of "How Do You Know." Not that O'Reilly did a bad job at all. He's a good interviewer, once you get used to the fact that he's not content to just ask questions about Afghanistan or the debt crisis, but needs to let us know what he thinks about the issue too. I know a lot of my liberal pals thought O'Reilly interrupted the president way too often--20 times by AOL's count, 28 times according to MSNBC.

But as O'Reilly himself noted on Monday, when he heard that he's interrupted Obama 20 times in 15 minutes, he immediately thought--"That's all? I thought it was more!" That's good reporting. When you do a live interview, you have to be willing to prevent your subject from running out the clock. And that's hardly a conservative media trait. If MSNBC wants to count interruptions, it should start with its own Chris Matthews, who's so eager to hear his own voice that if he were interviewing a Shakespearian actor trying to recite "Hamlet," the poor guy would never get past "To be or not to be," because Matthews would be stepping on his lines, barking, "Well, which one is it?"

--Patrick Goldstein    

  Photo: Fox News' top rated host, Bill O'Reilly, at his New York studio.

Credit: Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times


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