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Fox and the Hounding

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There's a headline currently running here at the Huffington Post that made me do a double take the first time I saw it, and which led me to immediately check to see if it was something that had been filed under the comedy banner; it just felt -- and feels -- too much like the kind of dead-on satire I'd expect from Chris Kelly or Andy Borowitz.

It reads: "Bob Scheiffer Defends Himself Against Fox News on New Black Panthers Story."

See what I mean?

I missed CNN's Reliable Sources over the weekend, mostly because I reached my yearly recommended dosage of Howie Kurtz somewhere back around mid-February, but apparently Scheiffer felt as if he needed to address accusations being hurled at him in the wake of a sit-down he did with Attorney General Eric Holder. At issue is the fact that at no point during that interview did he hammer Holder about a 2008 case in which a couple of members of the so-called New Black Panther Party, one carrying a nightstick, reportedly stood around a polling place in a predominantly black area of Philadelphia and eventually had to be escorted off the property by police. The DOJ went on to file a federal injunction against one of the two -- the guy with the stick -- but wound up dropping it because it determined that there wasn't enough to the case to make it worth pursuing.

And that's where things get sticky. And by sticky, I mean predictably dumb.

Conservative media, particularly Fox News, have finally picked up on the item and are trumpeting it as another example of President Obama's Machiavellian hand silently pulling strings behind the scenes to protect those groups who might have helped steer votes in his direction during the 2008 race for the White House. If this sounds familiar, that's because you've heard it before -- back when it was known as "The ACORN Scandal." If you can't immediately see what the members of the New Black Panther Party and the people who were generally helped out by ACORN have in common, you need to have your eyes checked.

For the record, the New Black Panther Party is a fringe group that's actually been denounced by the original Black Panthers. Its leader, the artist formerly known as Paris Lewis who now goes by the amusingly generic hyper-African moniker "Dr. Malik Zulu Shabazz," is the kind of clownish caricature Fox News loves to trot out at regular intervals. This is because he's guaranteed to say something mindlessly inflammatory that will scare the hell out of the network's demographic of lily-white, middle-American doofs, confirming all their worst fears about the encroaching "Negro threat." As former Washington Post columnist Dave Weigel beautifully put it, Shabazz is to Bill O'Reilly what the KKK or GG Allin was to Donahue: Somebody who makes for great TV and whom your core audience can feel comfortable disliking intensely.

If you haven't been watching Fox News lately -- and I can't in good conscience suggest that you do -- the Panthers "story" has been obsessively, breathlessly beaten into the ground by one network personality in particular: Megyn Kelly. She's taken it upon herself, bless her little heart, to be the avatar for every freaked-the-fuck-out white Christian soul convinced that he or she is losing this great country to minorities or illegal immigrants or whatever, and that it all started with the election of the Great Kenyan Socialist Usurper. She's like Elisabeth Hasselbeck with an actual associate's degree and a shit-ton more professional ambition. Kelly is Fox's rising star du jour, even going so far as to get an official canonization from none other than Sarah Palin via her overworked Twitter feed -- and the reason for this is that she knows exactly when to crinkle her face into that lemon-sucking look of smug skepticism, and just what buttons to press and what open-ended questions to ask of her viewers.

And so she's harped on the New Black Panthers meme with stalker-like intensity -- and with the full understanding that it's good for the network and therefore good for her career. Which is what caused her to "call out" Bob Scheiffer for supposedly shirking his journalistic duty by not asking the tough questions about the New Black Panthers bombshell when he had the chance.

Pay attention to enough partisan media these days -- particularly on the conservative side, only because it has the largest megaphone in Fox News and the most impressive bullpen of bullies -- and the patterns among the chaos really begin to stand out. As with ACORN, which was always a mostly bullshit story, the right created a controversy out of thin air, amplified and advanced that contrived controversy, and now is engaging in indignant political theater by pretending to give a damn that no one outside the echo chamber cares about the controversy it's made deafening inside the echo chamber. The problem, of course, is that thanks to its typical spinelessness in the face of any accusation of a liberal bias, the rest of the press is more than happy to let itself be suckered into the right's vortex of largely fact-free crazy. The mainstream media allow themselves to be talked into seeing the same ghosts that Fox News is trying to scare the hell out of its audience with.

That's what makes it so painful to watch Bob Scheiffer (a titan of the network news business whose reputation is just about bulletproof) feel like he has to answer to allegations made by Megyn Kelly (a yapping chihuahua who wouldn't know journalism if it came in a bottle of peroxide).

The New Black Panthers Party "story" isn't a story at all -- certainly not as Fox News is selling it. It's a Southern Strategy dog whistle designed to rile up more fear in an already angry and frightened white America. It's one racist tool with a nightstick being used to confirm the inflexibly entrenched suspicions of a good number of other racist tools.

But as long as credible guys like Bob Scheiffer allow Fox News and Megyn Kelly to set the narrative -- to browbeat them into submission, into having to defend their own news judgment -- this kind of thing is going to happen again and again. Kelly isn't pushing the Panthers meme because she believes it's an important story; she's doing it because she knows it's exactly what her viewers want to hear, believe anyway, and will never be convinced otherwise of.

Which means that any attempt by the media to indulge it will not only play directly into Fox and Kelly's hand, furthering each's goal, it won't win them one convert from the audience it's unnecessarily attempting to defer to.