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How Liberal Activists Outfoxed FOX

Rick Perlstein

A really illuminating panel showed how a major right-wing organization was set back on its heels -- and how it can be done again and again and again.

When the Nevada Democratic Party announced that it was cosponsoring a presidential candidate debate with "Fox News," Robert Greenwald, the maker of the outstanding documentary Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism, started hearing from friends. "Can we convince them that this is a serious mistake?" they asked. And said: "We need to make it crystal clear to people that Fox is not a news organization."

He ended up circulating a video about Fox's war on Democrats that eventually got the debate canceled. And, even better, managed to do something Democrats have never been able to do, and never even tried: get people questioning Fox News's very legitimacy.

Greenwald told the story about what happened in between, at the panel, in a riveting way: via video. Yes, a video about a video. A simple video, to be sure, featuring short talking head interviews with the major activists who made it happen: Greenwald himself; Matt Stoller of; Adam Green of There was even a soundtrack behind them. (I recall synthesizers, and strumming guitars.)

By starting the panel that way, Greenwald made a crucial point: outfits like Fox can be fought on their own terms - via images - with surprising ease, and in incredibly compelling fashion. It was kind of, if you know what I mean, Brechtian. (If you don't know what I mean, no matter.)

Then Greenwald, in the flesh, took the podium, and fleshed out the rest of the story: how a new model of "mutually reinforcing activism" saved the day. Greenwald produced a video of the most damning clips of Fox savaging Democrats. The video included an address for an online petition at the end. Within 24 hours the petition had received thousands of signatures. They got angry local Nevada Democrats to bug Nevada Democratic leaders. They got local Nevada bloggers - people with but a thousand or two thousand readers a day - on the case. These blogs were read by local politicians, party officers, local media. The elites started taking notice. They managed to get national coverage of a local story. That made it bigger locally.

As the controversy started burbling, Fox made a clever play. They approached Air America and invited them to contribute a liberal to the debate panel. Tokenism: a powerful hustle. Especially since it would help them slap the "fair and balanced" imprimateur on a TV show designed, like all "Fox News" programs are designed, as a platform to humiliate Democrats.

Not so fast. Mark Green, Air America's co-owner, told the panel audience about the spanner he threw in Fox's works: not only did he turn them down, he sent letters to every Republican state chair, pointing out that Fox News and Air America have similar-size audiences, proposing that Air America sponsor a Republican candidate debate. The brilliant PR gambit amplified the entire message of the movement: Everyone knows agrees Air America is a liberal activist organization. Presto! He had just framed Fox as an equally activist organization of the right. (Green, Rudy Giuliani's longtime rival in New York municipal politics, repeated the quip he publicly made to Ailes: he could be at least as "fair and balanced" to Giuliani as Fox would be to the Democratic candidates.

On March 9 the debate was cancelled. Left wing activists had managed to do what conservatives had done for years: make a small story into a big one and seize terms of discussion. The movement's "most important role," Greenwald pointed out, was not getting the debate cancelled. "It was to de-brand Fox for the long haul. Once we agreed on that, then the decisions along the way all could fall into that pattern." Soon presidential candidates - this was the best part - started repeating the message.

Greenwald's lesson: "With no money spent on traditional publicity you can reach millions of people." And this: "Victory could not have happened...without various groups, sometimes with different agendas, coming together to fight the one fight."

It wasn't easy. They were, he said, "creating this model on the go." There were "struggles along the way." But once people started figuring out it helped everyone to stop saying, "Oh, but it's not my issue, we only to this - well, everone ended up benefiting. Said Adam from MoveOn - in the flesh: "This is what movement activism really is." It's a lesson too easy to forget. It's a lesson we'll have reason to revisit. "Because there are going to be more fights ahead."

Indeed, the same people are in one now.

Fox was pissed. Republicans don't take kindly to losing -- especially Republicans like Roger Ailes, the Fox chief who got his start in politics as Richard Nixon's media advisor. They came up with a brilliant idea: sponsoring a new Democratic debate, with the Congressional Black Institute as co-sponsor.

What good liberal movement, after all, would go after black congressmen?

The answer was: this liberal movement, which refused to be outfoxed. A stalwart African American progressive organization, Color of Change, stepped up as the voice of this next battle: telling the story that "Fox News Attacks African Americans." They circulated two more Greenwald videos: on Fox's serial abuse of the black community, and their denigration of Barack Obama. Color of Change was able to speak to the black community, with the message that the Congressional Black Institute was not speaking for the black community. Noted Greewald: "I want to make something very clear. Had we begun with a white organiation... Fox would have grabbed onto that and created fault lines."

That, indeed, was the Nixonian way. That was why Nixon promoted affirmative action in the building trades: to create fault lines between two traditional Democratic communities, labor and blacks.

It didn't work this time. We outfoxed them. Democratic candidates have started discovering sudden "scheduling conflicts." If this latest attempt at a a "Fox News" debate comes off, it will be a failure.

Says Adam Green, with this story, "You just kind of see the gradual evolution of our political leaders in response to a movement."

And isn't that what Take Back America is ultimately all about?

© 2007

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