Monday, December 12, 2011

The Republican Primary Campaign in Iowa Is Right at Home on Fox News

There’s a reason Fox News is beginning to look like a meet-the-candidate pancake breakfast in Council Bluffs, Iowa.

“You don’t win Iowa in Iowa, you win it on this couch,” is how the Republican commentator Dick Morris put it on “Fox & Friends” on Wednesday. Mr. Morris said that the Republican debates and Fox News had forged a national primary that “imposes itself on Iowa.”

It’s certainly obvious in Iowa that candidates are investing a lot more time in television interviews than they are on the campaign trail. It’s a safe bet: a recent New York Times/CBS News poll of likely Iowa Republican caucus participants showed that 37 percent said they get most of their information from Fox News, that’s compared with 27 percent who cited broadcast news and a mere 2 percent who said they relied on MSNBC.

Accordingly, caucus and primary voters have a voice on Fox News. All the networks, broadcast and cable, are closely covering the campaign, but Fox News practically owns and operates it: its viewers are seeing the world through the eyes of a Tea Party activist in Davenport, or a small business leader in Ames — my own private Iowa.

And that responsibility gives Fox News an oddly bipolar feel these days. Long, detailed interviews with candidates and considered discussions of the pricklier primary issues like immigration and Medicare are woven into the cable channel’s customary brisk, blistering brio and hyperbole — all those flashy news alerts about President Obama waging “class warfare,” updates on an elderly robbery suspect known as the Geezer Bandit and the liberals’ “war on Christmas.”

Actually, not even the 2012 campaign can crimp the cherished Fox News holiday tradition of mixing persecution and poinsettia. This week, a Fox News reporter stopped Gov. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, an independent, demanding to know why he used the word “holiday tree” instead of “Christmas tree” in a lighting ceremony invitation. Mr. Chafee, who looked at the camera with the pleading congeniality of a Soviet dissident stopped by the K.G.B., tried to explain the separation of church and state and noted that he had used the same neutral wording as his Republican predecessors, to no avail. “What holiday is it?” the reporter asked as Governor Chafee walked away. “What holiday is it, Governor?” (Even Jon Stewart’s mockery doesn’t seem to dim the channel’s ire.)

Fox News is known for ambush interviews, but it doesn’t have to lie in wait for Republican candidates. Many news organizations took a telling clip from a recent interview that Mitt Romney gave to the Fox News anchor Bret Baier in Florida that showed the usually imperturbable former Massachusetts governor looking rattled and jumpy when asked about health care. The full interview was long, thorough and even more tense — Mr. Baier also pressed Mr. Romney on his changing views on amnesty for illegal immigrants with the polite insistence that candidates used to face from single-issue voters in Iowa kaffeeklatsches.