"I want to wait and hear what John Edwards has to say, he's kind of good-looking." That's how a sarcastic Barack Obama imagined Iowa caucus-goers might anticipate a talk by John Edwards.
Obama and I are on the same page. Edwards always struck me as the sort of oleaginous trial lawyer who can cry out of either eye on cue. And yet the supposed Breck girl of the Democratic Party did something very shrewd this month when he pulled out of a debate co-sponsored by the Nevada Democratic Party and Fox News. But the decision is also an ominous, or at least significant, portent about the direction of American politics.
Here's what happened. Edwards announced that he would pull out of a Democratic debate in Reno in August because Fox News was co-sponsoring the event. If you know anything about the left-wing, activist-blogger base of the Democratic Party, you know that Fox is a wee bit unpopular with that crowd.
Remember the scene in "Time Bandits" when Evil incarnate is blown to smithereens and G-d tells his cronies cleaning up the mess, "Do be careful! ... That's concentrated evil. One drop of that could turn you all into hermit crabs," and the little boy screams to his parents, "Mom! Dad! It's evil! Don't touch it!" but they touch it anyway and immediately explode?
Well, that's how they feel about Fox News on a good day.
So Edwards' declaration that he didn't want to touch Fox with a 10-foot pole was well received, particularly because the announcement was made on the leading left-wing blog, The Daily Kos. Edwards claimed he wasn't pandering to the base of his party, but he also claims that he doesn't use conditioner on that glorious mane of his. Actually, I'm making up that last part, but you get my point.
The rest of the Democratic candidates were left in a bind. The lefty base was hootin' and hollerin' with glee and redoubling its effort to get the rest of the candidates to follow Edwards' lead. However, the candidates couldn't just follow along. So when Roger Ailes, the head of Fox News, made a joke about Obama's name at the president's expense, the Nevada Democratic Party saved face for everyone and bailed out.
Edwards is clearly the big winner here. But it's not clear to me anyone else is. Look, I think liberals have reasonable gripes with Fox News. It does lean to the right, primarily in its opinion programming but also in its story selection (which is fine by me) and elsewhere. But it's worth remembering that Fox is less a bastion of ideological conservatism and more a populist, tabloidy network. It often does very good hard journalism, but it gets mixed up with a lot of other stuff, and the Fox-haters are hardly inclined to be discriminating viewers when it comes to separating the wheat from the pure, concentrated evil. And while few liberals have a problem with the editorializing of MSNBC's Keith Olbermann or Chris Matthews, they think it's just plain wrong for conservatives to play that game.
Fox's biggest critics don't appreciate why Fox News exists in the first place. It was created because vast numbers of Americans including many Democratic voters saw the mainstream media as too liberal and too elitist. Proof that Fox's creators were right can be found in its enormous ratings success. In response to that success as well as conservative talk radio's liberals have become obsessed with creating their own alternative media. The most famous example, Air America, has been a giant failure, and maybe that explains part of the left's mounting frustration with Fox. It just seems so unfair that viewers like Fox but don't really want to watch Al Franken whine about Dick Cheney all day.
Regardless, the Edwards Maneuver ratchets this whole cycle up to a new level. Already, conservatives are mumbling that their politicians shouldn't appear on liberal networks. That's hardly surprising. After 40 years of bashing the media from the right, conservatives are unlikely to get one-upped now.
This process of media balkanization may well be inevitable. I've long argued that we're heading toward a European-style press where newspapers and networks are more honest about their ideological biases. But in an age where the press and many politicians decry this division, it's worth pointing out what we're getting ourselves into.
For example, Edwards was tactically very smart to do what he did. But he's also the guy who decries the "two Americas" and hopes to unite them. It's a dumb metaphor, but by Edwards' own standards, Fox speaks to one of those two Americas. And boycotting Fox isn't going to help close that gap.