Sunday, December 03, 2006

Lou Dobbs and the Populist Crusade at CNN

This week's New Yorker has an excellent article on Lou Dobbs and the changing face of news programming at CNN:

Regular viewers of “Lou Dobbs Tonight,” on CNN, might be surprised at the venue that Dobbs chose for lunch not long ago: the Grill Room of the Four Seasons, a midtown bastion of the very same political and business “élites” that he denounces daily on his television program. The Four Seasons is the enduring commissary of the Old Guard, where Henry Kissinger waves to the former Citigroup C.E.O. Sandy Weill, there is limo-lock at the side door, and the regulars have their checks sent to the office. Dobbs’s Town Car left him at the door, on East Fifty-second Street, and the restaurant’s co-owner, Julian Nicolini, embraced him that day as warmly as when he welcomed, among others, Stephen Schwarzman, the chairman and C.E.O. of the Blackstone Group; Nelson Peltz, the C.E.O. of Trian Partners; Edgar Bronfman, Sr., the former chairman and C.E.O. of Seagram; and Mortimer Zuckerman, the real-estate developer and publisher of the News. Nicolini led Dobbs to one of five choice banquettes, and Dobbs settled in, looking very much at home.

Dobbs is sixty-one, and his chubby face has a rosy glow. His blond hair is lacquered in place, his black wing tips are impeccably buffed. Other club members having lunch that day—the Nobel Prize winner James Watson, Bronfman, Peltz, the movie producer Harvey Weinstein—stopped at the table to say hello. It is the kind of welcome that one might have expected for an earlier incarnation of Lou Dobbs—the Harvard-educated anchor of CNN’s “Moneyline,” which in the nineteen-nineties served as a sort of video clubhouse for corporate America. But, in the past four years or so, Dobbs has been reborn as a populist—a full-throated champion of “the little guy,” an evangelical opponent of liberal immigration laws. His hour-long program, which airs at six, features Dobbs in a role that combines Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan. On the air, he boomingly assails the upper management of corporate America for its “outrageous” greed, pay packages, and corruption, its opposition to increasing the minimum wage, its hiring of “illegal aliens,” its ties to “Communist China,” and its eagerness to send American jobs overseas.

The new Lou Dobbs often surprises those who recall the old Lou Dobbs of “Moneyline.” Daniel Henninger, the deputy editor of the Wall Street Journal editorial page, wrote, “Old admirers are aghast. It’s as if whatever made Linda Blair’s head spin around in ‘The Exorcist’ had invaded the body of Lou Dobbs and left him with the brain of Dennis Kucinich,” a reference to the left-wing Ohio congressman and former Presidential aspirant. After an angry altercation on the show with James Glassman, a former New Republic publisher and current conservative supply-sider, Glassman said of Dobbs, “How did he transform from a business sycophant to a raving populist?” Glassman’s answer was that Dobbs had begun to “demagogue these issues.” (In questioning Glassman’s economic theories on his program, Dobbs accused him of talking “like a cult member.”) As if to answer such critics, Dobbs has recently published a book whose title is almost as long as the menu at the Grill Room: “War on the Middle Class: How the Government, Big Business, and Special Interest Groups Are Waging War on the American Dream and HOW TO FIGHT BACK.”
Read the whole thing. Dobbs is a Harvard-educated business journalist whose populist agenda is relatively new. His updated schtick is a big hit among viewers who like to watch someone who's fighting for 'em. Dobbs' CNN story is a classic case of the Fox-ification of cable news journalism. CNN's traditional journalistic culture is objective. Top anchors on the network are torn between the ratings-driving populism of "Lou Dobbs Tonight" and the traditional values of unbiased reporting stressed since the network's inception.

I'm a regular viewer of the show (
and I blog about Dobbs from time to time as well). As the article points out, Dobbs' exclusive crew of correspondents are perfectly deferential. They reliably trumpet the Dobbs line on segments like "Broken Borders" or the "War on the Middle Class." One of the show's main draws for me is Dobbs' firmness on the immigration crisis, although I don't go so far in my views. I'm much more of a free trader, and I'm less concerned with the economic arguments against illegal immigration than with cultural breakdown associated with the open borders movement. Still, I like Dobbs' indignation with his guests, and his easy dismissal of evidence dissonant from his perspective. He's pretty fresh to watch!

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