Let’s say you run a major cable network with a partisan bent and the news of the day turns to a large protest in America’s most liberal capital.
This wouldn’t normally be a problem. You have a ton of resources and a staff that’s met the challenge of covering large crowds repeatedly over the last couple years — including those gathered by one of your own anchors.
But the challenge is different this time. Now we’re talking Madison, Wisconsin — tens of thousands of protesters whose views you abhor and whose goals you want to undermine. Your task this time is to highlight the dark underbelly of protest movements — the street violence and intimidation that sometimes mark public rebellions against the government.
Unfortunately for you, this particular protest, though enormous, is completely peaceful. What do you do?
Enter Mike Tobin, Fox News’ man on the ground in Madison.
His job for the past several days has been to stand among state workers and their allies protesting governor Scott Walker, and bring home to viewers just how nasty and dangerous these people are. Assisting him are Fox’s many anchors whose role is to play up the toughness of his assignment — not since Sydney Schanberg and Dith Pran chronicled the fall of Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge has a reporter put so much on the line to get the truth to the people.
What makes this all somewhat plausible is that the crowd really doesn’t like Fox News. It’s often hard to hear Tobin over chants of “Fox News Lies!” which makes the story about Tobin and the element in the crowd that wants to interrupt his broadcast. But that’s exactly the spectacle Fox wants. The resulting product is like a cable news version of professional wrestling. Lots of brushes with injury and intimidation, narrated breathlessly by broadcasters sitting ringside — but at the end of the day everybody goes home and sleeps comfortably.
“These are people who don’t respect diverse viewpoints,” Tobin told Geraldo Rivera. “They really trample over the First Amendment rights, the First Amendment obligations of a reporter…. I look in their eyes, there is hate in their eyes.”
Sometimes his reports are about the protesters’ incivility. Sometimes they’re about the danger they pose. Almost always, they’re about him. At least to some degree.
“This guy’s making threats now, says he’s going to break my neck,” Tobin reports during another live shot.
The seminal moment came last Friday, when Tobin claimed to have been punched by a rowdy protester.
“That guy just hit me,” Tobin said during a live remote broadcast.
From that point forward, his anchors have been extra solicitous of him, and the uncomfortable position he’s in. Sometimes it borders on lurid.
“Just update them on the assault that took place over the weekend,” pressed host Megyn Kelly.
It was here that Tobin had to admit he was never in any mortal danger.
“Assault’s kind of a big word,” Tobin demurred. “I got a couple of charlie horses and…”
“It is an unwanted touching,” Kelly corrected. “Actually, it’s a battery, technically, under the law.”
“Technically,” Tobin allowed, “but I got punched in the arm. It didn’t even leave a bruise.”
Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight, and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at email@example.com.