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.

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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."

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