The president's favorite cable guys.

Published July 2, 2001 9:02AM (EDT)

Rant: Fox trot

Why do inside-the-beltway conservatives have such a soft spot for foreign media moguls? Back in the early '80s Ronald Reagan's administration consciously shuffled the media deck when it let it be known its No. 1 read in the morning was the Washington Times. The public proclamation plucked the quirky, factually challenged daily from obscurity, and no doubt pleased its owner, the Korean-born Rev. Sun Myung Moon, who claims to be the son of God and who operates the right-of-right Washington Times at a monumental loss.

Twenty years later Bush's administration is paying homage to another new kid in town, Rupert Murdoch's Fox News Channel. "Most of the television sets in the Bush White House are tuned to Fox News; it's the network of preference in this administration," according to a recent company profile in the New York Times Magazine. Indeed, during his first press conference, Bush made a point of taking his first question, after the traditional wire service question, from FNC's Jim Angle.

Yet a couple of striking differences mark those two back-scratching relationships. First, whereas the Washington Times wore its conservative stripes with pride, as an eager participant in the Reagan revolution, FNC refuses to this day to own up to its conservative slant. In fact, it seemed that half of the New York Times' 8,000-word article was spent trying to get Fox chief Roger Ailes, a longtime Republican political activist, to cop to the channel's obvious political bias. As he has for years, Ailes adamantly refused, clinging to FNC's Orwellian slogan of "fair and balanced."

Second, the Washington Times was able to turn its White House access into a respectable stream of healthy, if often minor, news scoops. Since Inauguration Day though, FNC has essentially come up empty on the exclusive front.

In the Times piece, FNC anchor Brit Hume seemed to take pride in the news channel's ineptitude. "We're getting a fair shake in the Bush administration," he said. "Not gettin' any goodies, but a fair shake."

But that's precisely FNC's problem. Because if you're going to kiss as much Republican ass as FNC does, you ought to get some goodies in return. Or does FNC consider being able to book Spencer Abraham on four hours' notice to be a goodie?

Maybe FNC is just starstruck by the new administration, a willing participant in an unbalanced courtship. It's clear that FNC is doing all the heavy lifting, broadcasting a virtual P.R. operation for the Bush White House whether it's ridiculing environmentalists, bad-mouthing energy price caps or questioning the motives of Sen. John McCain. What does FNC get in exchange? Access to senior-level White House aides who tell Murdoch's reporters virtually nothing of substance. Granted, TV reports in general, and TV's political reports in particular, simply crib from major newspapers and rarely break news themselves. But if the conventional wisdom is true -- that Bush and his staffers live and breathe FNC, that its signal is omnipresent in every West Wing office -- shouldn't FNC cash in with some scoops?

No doubt Ailes and company would use their empty, rattling bin of exclusives as further proof that FNC is not really a conservative operation. But Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, which examines the media from the left, released a report Monday that finally puts that FNC charade to rest once and for all. It details, for example, how among the guests booked on FNC's signature "Special Report With Brit Hume" between January and May 2001, 71 percent were avowed conservatives, compared with 33 percent of the guests booked during the same time frame on "Wolf Blitzer Reports."

Despite the news channel's assertions of being "fair and balanced" FAIR notes that its panel discussion on "The Real Reagan" featured only those who were his friends and political aides. Among the other tidbits in the report are details of how journalists up for jobs at FNC have been quizzed about their political affiliations. For instance, according to a New York magazine article, National Public Radio's Mara Liasson (FNC's supposed in-house liberal) assured Ailes before being hired that she was a Republican. And FNC anchor Tony Snow, a former speechwriter for George Bush Sr., "at the 2000 Republican convention in Philadelphia -- ostensibly present as a journalist covering a news event -- jump[ed] onstage to give a speech to the Republican Youth Caucus after organizers asked him to fill in for a speaker who couldn't make it."

Despite the game of pussyfoot among mainstream media observers who shrink from calling a spade a spade -- last year the New York Times quickly ran a correction after one of its headlines identified FNC as a "conservative cable channel" -- any high school graduate who watches FNC for one day could grasp exactly where the news channel is coming from. The only real puzzle is why FNC executives so strenuously deny their political heritage. What's up with the self-hating handwringing? ("We are not conservatives!") And why is FNC so afraid to come out of the conservative closet and live a free and open markets lifestyle?

Again and again, FNC's Ailes has insisted the operation isn't conservative, it just looks that way because mainstream outlets are so liberal. But just look at last Thursday's lineup on General Electric's CNBC, which welcomed back the Bill and Hillary Clinton-hating writers from the Wall Street Journal's editorial page for some uninterrupted conservative spin dubbed "The Editorial Board." Chatting in round-table form, the assembled guests spent an hour questioning Sen. Jim Jeffords' integrity, belittling energy price caps as "a stupid act" and dismissing the proposed patients' bill of rights as nothing more than an attempt to "allow people to extract money from the health care industry."

Or look at Friday night's special from ABC News, that supposed liberal bastion. It handed over an entire hour to in-house conservative activist John Stossel for the latest in his flimsy series of "investigative" programs about the dangers of a liberal lifestyle. This time, in "Tampering With Nature," environmentalists and teachers who preach the dangers of global warming to kids were in Stossel's sights.

Only problem was that Stossel, who last year was forced by his ABC bosses to apologize on the air for essentially making up evidence to prove his pet theory that organic foods aren't safe, didn't simply interview the children. According to their angry parents, he asked and re-asked and re-asked again leading questions until he got just the right sound clip for the program.

Once again ABC News, with more Stossel egg on its face, had to run interference, and it forced him to cut the heavy-handed classroom segment.

Of course, whenever confronted with the charge of conservative bias, FNC executives reflexively point to the Bush DUI story the channel broke just days before the election last year. The revelations that Bush had been ticketed in Maine when he was 30 years old for drunken driving stalled his campaign momentum as more undecided voters, particularly women, went instead for Vice President Al Gore on Nov. 7.

If FNC was in the bag for Bush, it never would have unearthed the story, right? Well, yes, except it was a local FNC reporter at the Portland, Me., affiliate who broke the story. It's interesting to ponder what would have happened if honchos at FNC headquarters had stumbled across that Bush land mine -- because it's not at all clear they would have gone with the story. So closely aligned was FNC with the Bush campaign, it's almost inconceivable the network would have done anything to damage Bush's White House chances. With Bush's cousin John Ellis working as an FNC analyst and calling the election for Bush in the wee hours of Nov. 8, FNC actually did everything in its power to make sure he won.

Just look at how FNC's big feet reacted to the potentially crippling DUI news dug up by a scrappy local reporter who didn't realize FNC journalists answered to a higher, GOP calling. On the night of Nov. 2, FNC quickly rounded up a panel of pundits to access the DUI damage.

Morton Kondracke of Roll Call: "A footnote."

John Fund of the Wall Street Journal: "A blip."

Mara Liasson of NPR: "Yes, I agree with that. I think it's a blip."

Amazingly, most of that night's "Fox Special Report With Brit Hume" wasn't even devoted to breaking the DUI scandal but, rather, to analyzing one more time how Ralph Nader was going to create political havoc for Gore.

The next day, a Friday, FNC was playing up the Bush camp's angle that Gore's campaign leaked the DUI information as a dirty trick. That's why FNC's Snow, citing "rumors" that the Clinton administration may even have been involved, suggested the episode might create a sympathy surge for Bush and "backfire" on Gore. (There has never been any evidence that the Gore campaign or the Clinton White House was in any way connected with releasing the DUI information.)

FNC's Paula Zahn wondered out loud how long Maine Democrats had "sat on the story" in order to create the most havoc near Election Day. It turns out that the only ones who sat on the story were editors at a local Maine newspaper who knew about Bush's arrest record for months but chose not to report it.

It was a weekend of damage control, plain and simple. FNC's idea of covering the story was to contain it. That's a far cry from its muckraking days during the Clinton years -- when former FNC correspondent Jeb Duvall, according to his account in the New York magazine article, was once met by a news producer who "came up to me, and, rubbing her hands like Uriah Heep, said, 'Let's have something on Whitewater today.'"

Suddenly, with a Republican in the White House, FNC has lost its collective investigative itch.

-- Eric Boehlert

Poll watch: Congress rises as Bush falls

Republicans have been wringing their hands over the president's recent dip in public opinion polls, but Bush's election has been great for the much-maligned institution of Congress. According to the latest Gallup survey, conducted June 11-17, federal lawmakers have earned an average approval rating of 52 percent since the beginning of the year.

That's within the range of public-approval figures that have set off alarm bells at the Oval Office in the past week, but for Congress it's a historic high. If the numbers hold up for the rest of 2001, it will be the first year that more than half of Americans have approved of the way Congress is doing its job since Gallup began recording the figures in 1974. Recent poll numbers have already set another record for Congress, which has scored five straight months (December 2000 through April) of approval ratings at 50 percent or higher for the first time ever. Its approval ratings dipped to 49 percent in May before climbing back to 51 percent in June.

There is an interesting wrinkle in the numbers that might have enterprising congressional challengers chasing soccer moms again in the next election. Women were considerably less likely to give Congress their thumbs up. While 55 percent of men in the June poll approved of the job Congress is doing, only 47 percent of women approved.

The Gallup poll has a three-point margin of error.

Bush job approval

  • 50 percent, NBC News/Wall Street Journal, June 23 to 25
    Down from 56 percent, April 21 to 23

  • 53 percent, CBS News/New York Times, June 14 to 18
    Down from 57 percent, May 10 to 12

  • 50 percent, Pew Center, June 13 to 17
    Down from 53 percent, May 15 to 20

  • 55 percent, Gallup, June 11 to 17
    Steady at 55 percent, June 8 to 10

  • 59 percent, Fox News, June 6 to 7
    Steady at 59 percent, May 9 to 10

  • 55 percent, ABC News/Washington Post, May 31 to June 3
    Down from 63 percent, April 19 to 22

  • 54 percent, Bloomberg, May 29 to June 3
    Down from 56 percent, April 3 to 8

    -- Alicia Montgomery

    Daily line

    "We're not unconcerned. We're not so inflexible or blind that we're like Stepford wives and husbands marching like lemmings over a cliff. What we're doing now is recalibrating."
    -- Mary Matalin, top aide to Vice President Cheney, discussing the White House staff's response to Bush's problems in the polls

    Bush buzz

    It wasn't too long ago that Bush's advisors were being hailed as a White House dream team, the perfect supporting cast for an inexperienced chief executive. Now, with the polls turning against their boss, Bush's aides -- along with Republicans in Congress -- seem to be turning against one another.

    The White House blame game began in earnest over the passage of the patients' bill of rights late Friday. Bush communications chief Karen Hughes let it be known that she was always against using a veto threat as leverage in negotiations over the bill, claiming that the president would be backing himself into a corner. Nick Calio, White House legislative director, advocated the veto threat strategy, and is now in line to take the blame for its apparent failure. Calio is also taking heat for dropping the ball when Sen. Jim Jeffords, I-Vt., was first considering a party switch.

    Americans' lack of confidence in Bush's environmental policy has led to finger-pointing among Republicans as well, with congressional GOP members leaving Bush in the lurch on key energy votes last week out of concern for their own green credentials. Hughes reportedly spotted the president's problems with this issue early on, and encouraged Bush to appear at a string of outdoorsy events hyping his enthusiasm for conservation. But that strategy has yet to pay dividends: Public opinion polls show that Americans continue to distrust Bush on the environment, feeling that he is too close to the energy industry.

    Meanwhile, Bush advisor Karl Rove has come under fire for overplaying his role as the president's right-hand man. Republicans believe that he has had too much to say about Bush's policy decisions on everything from fetal stem cell research to munitions testing on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques. Rove's meeting with Intel Corp. officials at a time when he held more than $100,000 worth of the company's stock and Intel was seeking government approval of merger plans has drawn friendly fire as well. Republicans are concerned that Bush will be seen as running a White House with the ethics deficit that the GOP attributed to the Clinton administration.

    Public tussles among Republicans are not limited to the White House. On Capitol Hill, the effort by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., to mobilize House support for the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform plan has the Republican leadership calling him a bully. McCain has been pressuring freshman representatives whom he had stumped for to follow through on their campaign promises to support aggressive reform legislation. House Speaker Dennis Hastert has accused McCain of intimidation. Those in McCain's camp shoot back that GOP leaders have been twisting arms in the party in an effort to block meaningful reform. Consequently, Republican moderates in the House have two terrible options on campaign finance reform: Anger the party leadership or alienate the popular McCain.

    All the GOP infighting and the power switch in the Senate have heartened Democrats, who feel as if they can now set the agenda without much regard for Bush's priorities. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., has said that he's willing to fight Bush's threatened veto of the Senate version of patients' rights legislation, and that the House Republicans' version of the bill is simply insufficient.

    Democrats are also looking to deflate the president's victory on tax cuts. As upper- and middle-income Americans get their first post-cut paychecks, Democrats are telling the public that Bush has endangered the surplus by being fiscally irresponsible. Republicans counter that the assertion is little more than Democratic spin.

    And don't miss Cheney heading back to work on Monday with his new "pacemaker plus." The vice president and his doctors say that this latest procedure to correct problems with Cheney's heart won't interfere with his job at all.

    If Cheney wants to keep his health, he should probably stay out of the White House pool. The Bush administration is seeking millions of federal dollars to fix rusty plumbing and cracking sidewalks, complaining that the pool is dangerously dilapidated.

    Monday schedule: The president holds a White House event to promote mentoring programs.

    -- A.M.

    This day in Bush history

    July 2, 1999: Gov. George W. Bush filed his financial disclosure statement with the Federal Elections Commission, disclosing over $15 million in assets. Bush earned $14.9 million after selling his interest in the Texas Rangers baseball team, a hefty return on a $606,000 initial investment. The report also showed that despite his public declarations of ambivalence toward the presidential race, Bush began selling off large portions of his stock portfolio in the previous year, a move widely considered necessary preparation for a White House run. With the proceeds from the stock sales, Bush purchased between $7 million and $14 million in Treasury bills.

    Burning Bush

    Links to the Web's best sites for hardcore Bush watchers.

    Send questions, comments and tips to bushed@salon.com.

    Bushed! contributors: Eric Boehlert, Karen Croft, Gary Kamiya, Kerry Lauerman, Daryl Lindsey, Alicia Montgomery, Fiona Morgan, Scott Rosenberg, Jake Tapper, Joan Walsh, Anthony York

    Take a look at the previous edition of Bushed!

  • By Salon Staff

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