How Fox News is fueling the Common non-controversy

Joe Pompeo

As far as trumped up non-controversies go, the rapper Common's appearance Wednesday at a White House poetry reading was the perfect set piece to rile a few cable news personalities.

But it quickly turned out to be a dud in the political arena.

George W. Bush versus the Dixie Chicks this was not. Nor will it live on as Obama's Sister Souljah moment. And it is hardly poised for the legendary status of say, Dan Quayle's anti-"Murphy Brown" speech of 1992.

Indeed, among the pool of potential 2012 Republican presidential candidates, it appears Sarah Palin was the only one to take the bait on the latest president-meets-pop culture media mashup.

"You know, the White House's judgment on inviting someone who would glorify cop killing during Police Memorial Week, of all times, you know, the judgment--it's just so lacking of class and decency and all that's good about America with an invite like this," Palin told Greta Van Sustern on Fox News Wednesday night.

(Common is among those who have vocalized their support for Mumia Abu Jamal and Assata Shakur, two convicted cop killers. Activists have long questioned the fairness of their trials. This week also happens to be National Law Enforcement Memorial Week.)

Why did the Common commotion fizzle out politically? Perhaps because present and prospective lawmakers are simply preoccupied with more important matters at the moment. Or maybe some who would normally jump at any chance to skewer the president were willing to give Obama a pass now that Osama bin Laden has exited the world under his watch.

The media, on the other hand, were not about to be deprived of the type of uproar that can boost ratings and send pageviews soaring. (The Cutline is guilty as charged.)

It began with a single post on The Daily Caller, the first to draw attention to Common's participation in the poetry reading organized by First Lady Michelle Obama. The conservative website ignited the blaze by noting that the Chicago-born rapper--real name Lonnie Rashid Lynn, Jr--"is quite controversial, in part because his poetry includes threats to shoot police and at least one passage calling for the "burn[ing]" of then-President George W. Bush."

From there, the furor migrated over to the airwaves of Fox News, where the right-wing outrage of pundits like Sean Hannity helped fuel a vigorous churn of blog posts, online video embeds--and retorts from talking heads on the left, like Comedy Central host Jon Stewart.

"Remember, like, a week ago, the president released his birth certificate and celebrated his newfound citizenship by having someone shoot Osama bin Laden in the face? It felt like ... maybe we'd finally put all these ginned up and ridiculously overblown non-controversies ... to rest, to focus on things that matter. ... Well, I hope you enjoyed that period of our time," Stewart said on Wednesday night's "Daily Show," in a rant that Mediaite called an "Epic Takedown Of Fox News For Pushing Common's W.H. 'Controversy'."

Of course, the White House event went off without incident. (Sample line: "I was dreaming I walked into the White House with love on my sleeve. And love for each and every one of you, reminding you to believe.") And so it seemed like it was finally time to put the whole episode to bed.

But alas, Common-gate was alive and well the next night, as Stewart and his frenemy Bill O'Reilly traded jabs Thursday on the subject.

"Predictably, some on the left condemned the coverage of Common on Fox News," said O'Reilly during his 8 p.m. hour. "On 'The [O'Reilly] Factor' we're not objecting to Common's style. ... What we object to is that Common is sticking up for two convicted police killers. There is no way around that. It is incredible that the White House would honor a man who has that on his resume, is it not?"

You can watch the video of O'Reilly's remarks below:

Stewart's take aired a few hours later.

"As you know, last night there was a poetry reading at the White House," he said. "The rapper Common, who was the subject of Fox News Channel's latest exercise in fits of hissy, he performed, to their chagrin--spoke out about communities trying to overcome a culture of violence to attain a more positive future. Of course that's how 'people' would interpret his performance. For those who huff only the heady mix of partisan hackery, character assassination and manufactured outrage known as Foxygen, Common's performance looked a little more like this."

And you can watch Stewart's punch line below:

So that's that, right? Wrong.

"I would like to debate you [Jon Stewart] about the Common situation because it's important," said O'Reilly on Thursday night's show. "With all due respect, I think Jon Stewart made a big mistake in trying to run down Fox News and defend Common, and I look forward to Mr. Stewart coming on 'The Factor' to discuss it."

Stewart has accepted the invitation--he's scheduled to appear on O'Reilly's program Monday night. Stay tuned.