With Jonathan Gruber Comments, Fox Searches For Its Next Benghazi

One hundred and two weeks away from the 2016 presidential elections, Fox News anchor Jon Scott this week wondered out loud if the current controversy surrounding MIT economist Jonathan Gruber and his inapt comments that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) “was written in a tortured way” to appease “the stupidity of the American voter” would still be relevant in 2016. In fact,  Scott wondered if Gruber and his comments would be a “fixture” in the next presidential campaign.

Correct. Scott wanted to know whether comments Gruber made in 2013 about a law signed in 2010 for which he provided data and a microsimulation model to the Obama administration in 2009 would play a crucial role in elections held in 2016. That's how committed Fox News is to the Gruber kerfuffle: Fox is projecting (fantasizing about?) the story's implications two years down the road.

Fox News has a long history of championing stories in a purely partisan manner and pushing any news events that might cause problems for the Obama administration. Watching Fox News, of course, is to often glimpse into an alternate universe where stories deemed unimportant by most news pros are blown up to be blockbuster events, and where conversely, embarrassing stories for conservatives are quietly set aside. (See rancher Cliven Bundy's racist meltdown in April. )

After the fourth or fifth day of incessant, breathless Gruber coverage on Fox, it became increasingly clear the channel had bigger plans for the story than simply using it to embarrass President Obama, or to whip up more right-wing anger over Obamacare.

Short answer: Fox is looking for another Benghazi. It's looking for another programming tent pole that the channel can build an audience around and can return to for weeks and months, and apparently for years, to undermine the president. Fox is searching for a themed forum where it can interview a cavalcade of Republicans who will dutifully engage in deeply enraged rhetoric about what a scandalous scandal Gruber's utterances were and how they confirm every deeply held suspicion about Obamacare.

Being outraged has served as a signature for the far-right movement for nearly six years. It also fuels Fox News' entire business model: Fox News makes a pile of profits each year overreacting to imagined Obama scandals, like the Gruber one.

Just as importantly, note that the Gruber production, like Fox's long-running Benghazi production, clearly overlaps with strategies being employed by the Republican Party. From a recent report in The Hill: “Republican lawmakers are doubling down on controversial comments from ObamaCare consultant Jonathan Gruber amid an explosion of interest from conservative media.”

Here's the other concrete way Republicans are looking to use to Gruber story, and specifically Fox News' chronic over-hyping of the story: To convince the Supreme Court specifically Chief Justice John Roberts, to dismantle Obamacare by approving a legal challenge the court will hear this session.

Writing in Commentary, Jonathan Tobin stressed [emphasis added]:

What the White House should be most worried about is not the way Gruber's candor is playing on the cable news channels but in Roberts' mind. The open talk about the lies that led to the legislation's passage might be enough to convince the chief justice to go along with conservatives who rule against the government and bring the ACA crashing down long before the GOP is able to finish the job.

This week, Bill O'Reilly stressed the same scenario

Here's what's going to happen, Leslie, and this is the first time this has ever been said on national television. The Supreme Court is following this Gruber thing. And now, they have to rule on various parts of ObamaCare. And now, they're gonna strike it down because in the back of their mind is “Aha! You guys weren't honest. And now we're gonna have to correct that wrong.”

My opinion, but you wait and see.

In other words, Fox's Gruber coverage might give five conservative Supreme Court justices the public relations cover they need to undo the landmark law.

And boy, is Fox working overtime to create that cover. From November 10 and November 13, Fox News devoted at least 57 segments to scandalizing  Gruber's statement in its renewed effort to delegitimize the passage of health care reform, according to Media Matters research. PolitFact then reported that between November 10 and November 18, Fox News had mentioned Gruber's name nearly 800 times on the air, compared to 79 mentions on MSNBC and 27 on CNN.

The Gruber blizzard is reminiscent of the 20-month Benghazi storm that raged at Fox, during which time the channel's evening programs aired nearly 1,100 segments on the Benghazi attacks and their aftermath.

Why the lack of corresponding Gruber coverage outside of the anti-Obama news bubble? Was it all just more liberal media bias; the same supposed bias that Fox claimed kept reporters from uncovering the hard truths about Benghazi? No, the Gruber story mostly drew shrugs because, as New York Times economics correspondent Neil Irwin explained, the economist's comment illustrated the “completely commonplace” way that “Congress makes policy of all types.”

Added Vox's Ezra Klein:

"Everyone -- literally, everyone -- who makes or covers policy in Washington is familiar with Gruber's complaint: Congress constantly tries to appease both the Congressional Budget Office and voters by designing policy in unnecessarily complex ways, and selling it in ways that obscure the tradeoffs. Both parties do this every single day, all of the time.

 In other words, Gruber's comments weren't covered as breaking news because they didn't represent breaking news. But Fox isn't in the news business. Fox is in the phony outrage business. Fox is in the GOP propaganda business. And with its Benghazi production finally shelved after a solid two-year run, Fox is out shopping for a new brand of outrage and hopes to turn Gruber into a right-wing reality star.