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    Fox News coverage fair and balanced -- really

    BY Tim Goodman
    09/02/2004

    This being the Republican National Convention and Wednesday being the night when the Republicans' most fiercely Republican figurehead -- Vice President Dick Cheney -- was set to speak, there was only one place to be:

    Fox News.

    It was the right and just viewing choice. This is like a birthday party in Vegas -- on the company dime -- for Fox News. Called by some a news channel for Republicans because of its alleged conservative bias, Fox News sitting ringside for a night of Cheney throwing elbows could only be considered an orgasmic confluence of events (perhaps only trumped in its giddiness by a second-term coronation).

    It was all that and more, of course, because of Democratic Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia taking his coat and not just turning it, but twisting it like a wet shower towel and welting up some serious backside on John Kerry and his fellow Democrats. It was far and away the defining moment of Wednesday's long night of people waving placards.

    Somewhere this very morning, in a Democratic strategy session, someone is probably saying this: "Well, here's an idea, guys. How about not making Zell Miller mad again?"

    Could this have been better manna for Fox News? How could this night have gone any better -- a head-on collision between Ted Kennedy and Michael Moore, perhaps? John Kerry photographed walking out to pick up a copy of Mother Jones wearing pink flip-flops?

    It's unimaginable. And, frankly, Miller was a real gift for Republicans because Cheney just completely stiffed his speech, as expected. Even Brit Hume, the de facto head anchor of Fox News, said it was "without pyrotechnics," a speech that paled not only next to Miller's but next to pretty much every other Republican's (Miller is a Republican now, correct?) save for that of Jenna and Barbara Bush.

    And yet, Cheney's and Miller's speeches, disparate as they were, did make for fine political television -- albeit for completely different reasons. Miller was like gold not only because it's unheard of to sell out your own party in front of a national television audience, but also because he put on an old-school stem-winder in the process.

    Let's be clear here -- ol' Zell had a burr in his hindquarters and a national stage upon which to whine about it. You could see the metal crank coming out of the back of his suit. And once going, he barely took a breath.

    You don't see that level of ranting every night. And half of America could be excused if they reached in their wallets and wired money, believing (not completely incorrectly) that they had stumbled upon some late-night televangelist.

    In journalism we have a word for what Miller did: Thanks!

    But that doesn't mean Cheney didn't offer up a different kind of gift -- one of subtlety and ... oh, forget it. He was as boring as a poker game in a managed care facility. Sure, even Fox News pundits less-than-transparently but oh-so-diplomatically said the vice president did his job, but they quickly rushed in to wake up their viewing audience.

    And yet, here's the real beauty of watching Cheney in this kind of setting: He's a man who can pretty much scare the bejesus out of anyone. No matter your political affiliation, there's got to be bipartisan agreement that Cheney isn't going to waste a lot of his life on nonsense like laughing or hugging. He's the Ice Man. It's clear he'd rather, say, play puppet master than toastmaster. He's a behind-the-scenes guy -- which made his 33 minutes on national television all the more, um, eerie.

    And yet, it was oddly riveting, too. Because Cheney has exactly three emotions (one more than Gillian Anderson of "The X-Files," if you're keeping track at home), and they are "disappointing smirk," "Cheshire-cat grin" and "dour glumness, not to be confused with angry, stoney silence."

    Who knew that was telegenic? You can have your Arnold Schwarzenegger pandering, your Rudy Giuliani hectoring and your Zell Miller robotic ("Zellbot"?) ranting (patent pending, Southern accent included), but those looking for something a little more in the vein of "spooky" will opt for Cheney every time. Those might have been the least passionate, least motivating 33 minutes in prime-time, but when they make the next Jason Bourne movie and Matt Damon is busy, your stand-in is ready.

    With all of this to work with, it's a miracle of journalistic self- control that Fox News didn't simply implode. And yes, the words "journalistic" and "Fox News" appeared in the same sentence.

    Isn't it a bit tired and hackneyed to keep up the whipping while everyone else seems to get a free pass in the cable world? Let the channel without a hint of bias cast the first stone. Everybody else can just watch C-SPAN and shut up.

    Really, if you take away the obvious conservative goons at Fox News -- Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly -- the first three nights of convention coverage have been relatively even-handed. Now, maybe that's because everyone expected cheerleading. And there's no doubt that Hannity loves his little skirt and pom-pons (and come on, O'Reilly would flip his shtick to PBS if the money was there), but the post-speech roundtables differ little from those on CNN or elsewhere.

    Other than Fox News dragging out the historical dustbin of old Republicans (Newt Gingrich, Jack Kemp, Dan Quayle, etc.), there wasn't the hoped for in-studio chants of "U-S-A! U-S-A!"

    No, on Wednesday night, it was a Democrat who spewed the hot-headed bile, and Fox News covered it like, well, like news, instead of a sign from God. Kind of disappointing, actually.

    E-mail Tim Goodman at tgoodman@sfchronicle.com.

    by Tim Goodman on 9/2/04.