The liberal Fox News couldn't handle

Commentary: Why a lefty analyst fit in on "Factor"

Meet the man who turned some of Fox News Channel’s biggest fans into its harshest critics.

When on-air analyst Marc Lamont Hill was fired by Rupert Murdoch himself last Friday, the news was probably overshadowed by the all-out war being fought by the cable news channel and the White House. But when the CEO of News Corp. publicly pink-slips a guy at a shareholders meeting in response to a question from an activist shareholder, it’s worth noting.

The question came from Cliff Kincaid of Accuracy in Media, which together with another conservative-leaning media watchdog, David Horowitz, had called on Fox News repeatedly from their respective blogs in recent weeks to dump Hill. Ordinarily, these men were ardent supporters of Fox News, but Hill’s amply documented roots in radical leftist politics were too much for them to take.

Nevertheless, their insistence on Hill’s ouster underscores a naivete about the true nature of his role at Fox News.

It’s not difficult to understand what Hill’s detractors found so objectionable about him. He wasn’t exactly discreet about his sympathies for polarizing fringe figures such as Assata Shakur, a Black Panther activist who was convicted of murdering a police officer. Her face adorned the wallpaper on Hill’s Twitter page. More recently, he was on record criticizing President Barack Obama for not standing by Van Jones, a fellow radical expelled by the White House after Fox News exposed his own leftist credentials.

Once Jones’ past was uncovered, perhaps it was only a matter of time before Hill too was a goner. The black Columbia University professor was always an odd addition to the amen corner in rotation at Fox News, where he went toe to toe dozens of times with Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck and Greta Van Susteren.

Which begs an obvious question: How does such a left-winger get a toehold at a conservative hothouse like Fox News? To hear Kincaid or Horowitz tell it, you would think he was getting a special soapbox to spout his radical views unchallenged.

Quite the contrary. A perusal of Hill’s on-air work (aggregated on his own YouTube channel) reveals a nuance these media watchdogs either don’t understand or aren’t conveying: Hill strictly served as a foil for conservative opinion, nothing more. What better way to dramatize the passion of Fox News' resident bloviators than to provide a punching bag for them to verbally pummel?

So does it matter whatsoever what Hill’s politics are when he was just a straw man for the anchors to knock down? The substance of his views are besides the point; you could argue the further left he stood, the more dramatic the impact.

In achieving Hill’s removal, it’s unclear what protocol Kincaid and Horowitz are suggesting Fox News follow. Perhaps they see some imaginary point along the left flank of the political spectrum the network should never cross to recruit sparring partners, a marker longtime in-house liberal Alan Colmes apparently stood outside.

Or maybe Fox News should not give so much as a millisecond of airtime to any expression of liberal ideology; Hill is far from the first liberal Kincaid has targeted, having blasted at Kimberly Guilfoyle, Harold Ford and Robert F. Kennedy in recent years.

If Kincaid and Horowitz had the ability to choose Fox News' next liberal, who would they select? Good luck finding a willing centrist masochistic enough to get comfy at Fox News. Though Kincaid chalks up Hill's employment there as the channel's failure to vet him, a more likely explanation is they have to take what they can get.

It should be noted that Hill was no tomato can; he held his own in the fights Fox anchors so clearly spoiled to have with him, particularly over their insistence that there was no racial dimension to everything from Obama's health-care town halls to coverage of Michael Jackson's death. He was often called upon to be something of an unofficial spokesman for Obama and/or the entirety of black America to Fox's predominantly white audience.

Fox News probably understands what its critics do not: A debate delivers the theatrics that deliver ratings. O’Reilly knows this. Opposite O'Reilly on air, Hill seemed less like meat thrown to a lion than a ball of yarn for a kitten; though O’Reilly can be a pretty savage beast, he pawed much more than he clawed at the professor. Trading playful jabs at each other, these men shared an ideology that united them across any political divide: good showmanship.