Rewriting history

Ever eager to prove it's fair and balanced, the Fox News Channel brags that it broke the Bush DUI story in 2000. Warning: You've entered the spin zone.

Topics: Rupert Murdoch,

Under continued scrutiny for the way its newscasts are tainted by a plainly partisan slant, some inside the Rupert Murdoch-owned Fox News Channel are fighting back, insisting FNC doesn’t go easy on Republicans. A favorite talking point has become how it was the Fox News Channel that first broke the embarrassing news, during the closing week of the 2000 campaign, that George W. Bush had been arrested for drunken driving in 1976 when he was 30 years old — an arrest Bush had never come clean about.

Fox News CEO Roger Ailes crowed about the Bush DUI scoop in a recent Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal, where he fended off criticism of FNC’s news standards. And this week, FNC’s chief political correspondent, Carl Cameron, made the same point to the New York Observer, which noted that he “was the reporter who broke the Bush D.U.I. story.” Said Cameron: “My relationships with Republicans in the 2000 campaign didn’t stop Fox from reporting the D.U.I. story that Karl Rove said cost George Bush the popular vote.”

The problem is that both Ailes and Cameron have had to rewrite history to make their DUI claim stick, because the tale of who broke the story is not as simple as they’d like to spin it. And the notion that the FNC crew — Ailes, Cameron, Brit Hume, Tony Snow, Bill O’Reilly, etc. — was hounding the Bush camp at the end of the election campaign and asking hard questions about Bush’s drunken-driving past is pure fantasy. Plus, once the DUI story leaked out, FNC reporters, anchors and guests spent days spinning furiously on Bush’s behalf in an attempt to downplay the story.

The truth is that it was a resourceful 27-year-old reporter at a local Fox affiliate, WPXT-TV in Portland, Maine, who uncovered the DUI story, not the Fox News Channel in New York or Washington, the partisan national network that’s the focus of Robert Greenwald’s new documentary, “Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism.” Nobody associated with “Outfoxed” or elsewhere participating in the media debate has suggested that local Fox news teams in places like Bakersfield, Calif.; Birmingham, Ala.; or Boise, Idaho operate under Republican marching orders as they cover arsons, car crashes and zoo openings. So it’s not that unusual that an enterprising reporter, operating off the FNC reservation as it were, could play a starring role in the DUI story. Not surprisingly, Ailes and Cameron are now conveniently trying to pretend that it was Sean Hannity’s “Fair and Balanced” Fox News, those bold seekers of the truth, who unearthed the damaging dirt on Bush that almost cost him the election.



Here’s how the DUI story came to light in 2000. Covering a local arson trial at the Portland county courthouse on Nov. 2, reporter Erin Fehlau was tipped off by a local cop that a judge and attorney had been overheard discussing a long-ago drunken-driving conviction against Bush on file in Kennebunkport, Maine. Fehlau soon spotted the attorney in question, a Democratic activist, and asked him about the DUI rumor. He gave Fehlau the docket number of Bush’s arrest record and Fehlau did the rest — obtaining a copy of the arrest record, confirming the story with the secretary of state’s office and interviewing the officer who had arrested Bush.

Only after Fehlau nailed down the story did Cameron and the FNC team enter the picture. As a reporter with the Bush campaign, it was Cameron’s job to get a comment or confirmation from the Bush team. At 6 o’clock that night, he got confirmation and Fox News aired the story.

But if Fox News was proud of its scoop, as it suddenly professes to be, the FNC team in New York and Washington sure had a strange way of showing it: They immediately set out to dismiss or dismantle it.

  • Fox host O’Reilly: “It is a non-issue in my opinion. The DUI incident has no relevance to the campaign.”
  • Fox anchor Hume: “My sense is that there’s no indication it hurt anybody or helped anybody in the polling. I think it’s a wash.”
  • Fox correspondent Cameron: “A lot of people are saying, ’24 years ago? We knew the governor has already disclosed his alcohol problem. What’s the big deal?’”
  • Fox guest Matt Drudge: “We’re talking tonight about a story about a guy pulled over for driving too slow with a little too many beers. This is amateur chump stuff.”
  • Fox guest Mara Liasson: “I think it’s going to have little effect on George W. Bush’s chances for the White House. It’s not a bombshell.”
  • Fox guest Mort Kondracke: “I think this is a minor story.”
  • Despite Fox’s uniform optimism, exit polling later indicated that the drunken-driving revelation did severe damage to Bush’s campaign, halting any momentum he’d built down the stretch and allowing Vice President Gore to virtually run the table on tossup states come Election Day.

    When not dismissing its supposed scoop, the FNC team was busy trying to deflect the confirmed account of Bush’s drunken driving onto Gore.

  • Snow: “I guess David Maraniss has in his book that [Gore] smoked [marijuana] more than 200 times. And one would presume maybe he got behind the wheel one of those times?”
  • Fox reporter Jim Angle: “And one of the speculations, of course, is whether Gore himself has ever been arrested.”
  • Snow: “The Gore campaign said it had nothing to do with it, didn’t know about it. Does everybody buy that?
  • Fox guest Rush Limbaugh: “It is the Gore campaign. They’re behind it.”
  • Despite the conspiracy theories, there was never any evidence to support the idea that the Gore campaign played any role in leaking the DUI story.

    But defenders of Murdoch’s empire might insist, if Fox News was truly in the bag for Bush, couldn’t it have just sat on Fehlau’s report? Not really. According to press accounts, she had already gone with the story locally. And as the Boston Herald noted, a handful of other reporters in the area got wind of the rumor the same day she did and were chasing it down. (Inexplicably, although a Portland Press Herald reporter had uncovered the Bush DUI story three months earlier, he was told by his editor that it was a nonstory.)

    So the truth is that Fox News knew other news organizations had the story and had no choice but putting its locally produced story on the air. Which means one of journalism’s great what-ifs remains unanswered: What if Ailes’ Fox News Channel — and not one of Fox’s local affiliates — had discovered exclusively, just days before the 2000 election, that Bush had been arrested for drunken driving? Would Fox News then have aired that damaging report?

    Anyone willing to make a bet?

    Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

    More Related Stories

    Featured Slide Shows

    • Share on Twitter
    • Share on Facebook
    • 1 of 11
    • Close
    • Fullscreen
    • Thumbnails

      Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

      Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
      Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

      Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

      Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
      Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

      Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

      Here by Richard McGuire
      A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

      Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

      Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
      The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

      Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

      The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
      This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

      Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

      NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
      For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

      Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

      Over Easy by Mimi Pond
      When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

      Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

      The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
      You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

      Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

      Shoplifter by Michael Cho
      Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

      Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

      Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
      This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

    • Recent Slide Shows

    Comments

    0 Comments

    Comment Preview

    Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

    You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>