I am looking at an ABC News headline: Fear for Obama's Safety Grows as Hate Groups Thrive on Racial Backlash. It cites a guy in Maryland carrying a "Death to Obama, Death to Michelle and her two stupid kids" sign. It cites the standoff in Los Angeles between police, Secret Service agents, and a suspect who had allegedly made threats against the White House. It cites Rush Limbaugh.
The story does not cite Glenn Beck. But you can bet that if shots ever ring out, Beck will not escape scrutiny. Beck's show is already the subject of an organized boycott. A group called ColorOfChange.org says it has collected more than 100,000 names on a petition, which it has been using to pressure advertisers to withdraw support from Beck's show. (The group objected to Beck calling President Obama a racist, which Beck followed by attributing the entire Obama policy agenda—from the corporate bailouts to cap-and-trade—to a desire to obtain "reparations" for African-Americans.)
Geico has pulled its ads from Beck's show. So has Proctor & Gamble, Progressive Insurance, Men's Wearhouse, and Sargento cheese. The advertisers can simply redirect their buys to other time slots on Fox, so the network won't actually lose money. But the squeamishness of advertisers creates a problem—one that can easily mutate and grow.
Nobody has ever accused Fox boss Rupert Murdoch of being stupid—and for good reason. But in the next few paragraphs I may come close.
The Obama presidency was a guaranteed boon to Fox—requiring no particular effort on the network's part. It's simply a function of the yin and yang of ideological journalism. Nation magazine publisher Victor Navasky was not exactly an admirer of George W. Bush. But as a business proposition, Bush was the greatest president in the history of The Nation (founded in 1865). Subscriptions soared as liberals sought a friendly fireside chat, a place where they could find like-minded souls as hostile to the White House as they were.
All those Fox viewers feeling marginalized by the changing of the guard, all those appalled by the ObamaNation in Washington, would have gravitated naturally to Fox News. The network is built for them; they would have tuned in for solidarity and comfort, and once the controversies heated up, for some political fire and brimstone, too.
But instead of simply feeding the furnace to keep things hot, Murdoch seems to have given matches to the kids and sent them upstairs to play. With each passing day, more smoke rises from the rafters as the boys set fire to ever larger sections of the attic.
Casual incitements to violence were once the portfolio of the radical Left on American campuses and the streets. They now appear to be the job description of select Fox News personalities. (Read David Frum here for a partial inventory.)
Alienated men enamored of firearms and drunk on cheap rhetoric sometimes do unsurprising things with terrible consequences. If the worst—or merely the awful—were to happen, where does Murdoch think the bulk of the blame would fall? On George Will?
A liberal cottage industry now exists to keep track of every utterance of Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly, and Glenn Beck. O'Reilly's relentless attacks on abortion doctor George Tiller, subsequently murdered by a zealot, have already generated condemnation. But Tiller's murder barely rose to the level of a national event—and O'Reilly is the responsible one of the trio.
If 100,000 petitioners can respond to Beck's racial theories with an effective advertiser boycott, how would 69 million Obama voters respond in the event of actual political violence? Does Murdoch really think his network wouldn't be blamed? Does he think his advertisers wouldn't notice that a sizable portion of the nation held Fox News accountable?
Executives at Fox felt compelled to arrange a cease-fire with MSNBC and curtail Bill O'Reilly's vitriol aimed at GE chief executive Jeffrey Immelt. Apparently they deemed it bad for business. Yet they've made no similar move to call off the dogs against the chief executive of the United States.
The line between energetic, even angry, provocations and dangerous demagoguery is thin but bright. It can't be that hard to ensure that seasoned professionals—even professional provocateurs—do not cross it. If Murdoch can't manage to summon a civic rationale for scaling back the incitements, can't he at least see the unnecessary business risk he's taking? Is Rupert Murdoch getting stupid?