Daniel Libit – Sun Nov 1
Democratic pundit Bob Beckel has been under contract with Fox News for six years. And in the midst of the White House war against the cable network, some of his liberal friends think that’s six years too many.
They invited him to lunch the other day for an intervention: Why is Beckel — a true-blue Democrat who worked for Robert F. Kennedy and ran Walter Mondale’s 1984 presidential campaign — giving comfort to the enemy?
Beckel’s response: “I talk to more persuadable voters in a month than anybody on MSNBC and CNN talks to in a year.”In the eyes of some of their party brethren, Beckel and other Democratic strategists and pundits who appear regularly on Fox News are traitors to the cause. Or at least gluttons for punishment.
And some of them feel that way, too.
“It sucks,” says Democratic direct-mail consultant Liz Chadderdon, a regular on the network. “It is very, very tough to be a Democrat on Fox.”
During an October 2007 hit on “The Factor,” Chadderdon referred to the detainees at Guantanamo Bay as “victims.” It was a verbal faux pas, and she knew it. But no sooner did she get off the air than she received a death threat — the first of a handful she says she’s received after appearing on Bill O’Reilly’s Fox show.
More recently, Chadderdon has been invited to talk business with Fox’s Neil Cavuto — on the main network and on the two-year-old Fox Business Network — even though she readily admits that she has no background in economics.
“Speaking about those issues is not my forte,” said Chadderdon. “And I’m getting the tar kicked out of me.”
So why does she keep doing it? For pretty much the same reason Willie Sutton robbed banks. Fox is where the viewers are — No. 1 in the prime-time news ratings and drawing more than twice as many viewers on weeknights as either MSNBC or CNN.
“You know how I know nobody watches CNBC?” said Chadderdon. “I compared the pope to my 11th-grade algebra teacher, and nobody sent me a letter.”
Lanny Davis, former White House counsel for Bill Clinton, says some of his fellow Democrats privately encourage him to keep appearing on Fox — even as they boycott the network themselves.
“I get very positive but whispered reinforcement,” he said.
Davis made news during last year’s Democratic presidential primaries when he said that Fox was the fairest of the cable networks in its treatment of Hillary Clinton.
And now, he insists, the claims of bias directed at Fox are overstated, at least insofar as they come from devotees of one of its competitors.
“Is there a difference between Fox and MSNBC?” he asked. “You count the number of guests on Rachel [Maddow] and Keith [Olbermann] who are conservative Republicans. If you get to double digits, I’ll buy you dinner for each one.”
Susan Estrich is perhaps the most identifiable Democratic pundit on the network. She’s been on the payroll for more than a decade, having first gotten to know Fox News President Roger Ailes when they were working on opposite sides of the 1988 presidential campaign.
Estrich says they’ve become good friends and that when she’s had beefs about the network’s coverage, management has been receptive.
“If there is something I think is not right, I pick up the phone and I call,” she said. “What I have been hopefully able to do is offer my thoughts both inside and outside.”
Estrich encouraged Democratic pollster Doug Schoen to join Fox Nation at the end of the 2004 election. Weary of the unpredictability of other networks’ schedules, he was happy to sign on — and says he’s encouraged his Democratic friends to do the same.
“They are the most professional network of any I have dealt with,” he said. “If you are a Democrat who wants to deliver mindless talking points on Fox, it’s probably best to go to MSBNC and hope you get a chance to recite them. I think Fox encourages critical views of all sides, asks different kinds of questions and wants to have diversity of view.”
Beckel believes Fox viewers are more open to the Democratic side of the story than stereotypes might suggest. And indeed, a 2008 Pew Research survey found that while almost half of viewers who regularly watch Fox News identify as Republican or Republican leaning, 39 percent tip Democratic and 12 percent have no stated angle at all.
Chadderdon is skeptical that her Fox hits do much to advance the progressive cause. But she says they’re good for business.
“The clients I have dealt with will say to me that they are impressed I have gone on [Sean] Hannity and O’Reilly,” she says.
Nevertheless, Chadderdon has been dialing it back in recent months, making polite excuses when bookers call to inquire about her availability. Plus, she has adopted a personal policy of not going on Hannity’s show after he was condescending to her on the air last summer.
“When the hit was over, I ripped off the microphone and started screaming at the producers,” Chadderdon recalls. “They ignored me and said, ‘Thanks for coming’ and hung up.”
Fox News did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
Peter Fenn knows what it’s like being the cable news version of Sisyphus — pushing the political boulder up the hill week after week. After regularly appearing on Fox for many years, Fenn says he started to pull away following the 2006 midterms. A few months prior to the elections, a “Hannity & Colmes” episode on which Fenn appeared alongside conservative pundit Ann Coulter was the mocked subject of a “Daily Show” feature called “Great Moments in Punditry as Read by Children.”
“After that, I thought this was getting ridiculous,” Fenn said. He continued to appear less frequently, until calling it quits after a show in May 2008 in which Michelle Obama’s patriotism was being served up for debate.
Beckel said he’ll persevere, even if it means taking blows from liberals who weren’t even born when he was fighting the good fight.
“There is a frustration when you are getting yelled at by people who weren’t even a gleam in their daddy’s eye when you were getting beat up by hard hats on Wall Street [while] protesting Vietnam,” he said.
He looks at the bright side.
“I get on Hannity every Monday night and say Obama is the greatest economic president since Franklin Roosevelt and watch Hannity’s jaw drop,” Beckel said. “And that is one of the great moments of my week.”