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Conservative Idol: Health Care and the Fox News Incentive System

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UPDATE: Not surprisingly, just as I was writing this post, Fox News did a "breaking news" segment that showed a crazed protestor screaming at Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter (D). Here's the screen shot from Fox's website. I'm sure the protestor will soon be an "exclusive guest" on a Fox News program. As I said, this is not merely a right-leaning news outlet - it is a partisan propaganda machine.

To understand how Fox News crosses the line from right-leaning news outlet into partisan propaganda machine (and there is a difference between the two), look no further than exactly how the network is driving (or at least trying to drive) the health care debate via the congressional town hall meetings.

As a PR tactic, Fox's three-tiered formula is absolutely ingenious:

1. First, Fox has given a huge amount of airtime to covering the lobbyist-organized protests at the town hall meetings, without, of course, mentioning that many of the protests are organized by lobbyists. Mind you, we know this interest in protest and "democracy" is completely politically motivated because we know it is completely new -- it's not some ongoing Fox News principle. This is the same network that regularly pilloried anti-war protests during the Bush administration, and gave them almost no coverage, much less positive, whatsoever. So it's safe to assume that Fox is only now interested in protest and democracy because it might hurt President Obama, Democrats and the progressive agenda.

2. Whenever one member of the protesters in the Khaki Pants Offensive makes an especially circus-like scene, Fox then has that particular protester on for an interview -- all under the pretense that the protester has made him/herself "news." In the last two days alone, I've seen Fox aggressively promote "exclusive" interviews with screaming protesters from Rep. John Dingell's (D-MI) and Rep. David Scott's (D-GA) town meetings. Fox dutifully promotes these people as persecuted martyrs, and their actual claims about health care are barely -- if ever -- explored for their veracity (or lack thereof).

3. Finally, after helping create the media image of mass protests, Fox has manufactured a reason to continue covering the supposed mass protests. And the cycle starts over.

What this does is create a vicious cycle whereby the small group of conservative activists who are terrorizing these town halls have an incentive to be more and more aggressive. They know that if they can go further than the last supposed martyr, they might get their mug on Fox News. In that way, it's a little like American Idol - only it's Conservative Idol. And so from protesters trying to shut down town hall meetings with screaming we get protesters shoving matches and then protesters arming themselves and then protestors making death threats. This is the Fox News Incentive System at work.

Let's be clear: I have absolutely no problem with conservative protesters -- even those organized by corporate lobbyists -- expressing their strong opposition to health care reform. While I happen to think most of these people are motivated from raw selfishness, and while polls show these people represent a tiny minority of Americans, I sincerely believe they have every right to make their voice heard. Indeed, my personal email signature is a Teddy Roosevelt quote which says, "To announce that there must be no criticism of the president, or that we are to stand by the president, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public."

However, just because you have a right to speak, doesn't mean you have a right to block/intimidate others from speaking or a right to shut down town hall meetings. That's what the Me-First, Screw-Everyone-Else Crowd is trying to do in starting its World War Z. And the Fox News Incentive System is rewarding them for it.

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