We didn't think it was possible, but this time, we actually gave Fox News too much credit.
We expected that the exclusive hourlong interview that anchor Brit Hume did Monday night with Gen. David Petraeus and Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, would actually be a journalistic affair. That seemed especially necessary given the pre-interview criticism Petraeus and Crocker had come under for giving their big post-congressional hearing exclusive to a news source widely seen as a shill for the Bush administration and an apologist for the war in Iraq.
Well, we were wrong. Indeed, the hour could not even fairly be described as an interview. It was an advertisement, an opportunity for Petraeus and Crocker to reprise their testimony unchallenged.
Hume started the hour fairly enough, asking Petraeus just to give a synopsis of what he told Congress earlier Monday. But then it was a solid 15 minutes before Hume actually asked his next question. So, based on a transcript of the interview provided by CQ Transcripts Wire, we did a quick bit of figuring. In those 15 minutes, 2,600 words were spoken. Of those 2,600 words, Hume got in seven prompts -- calling them questions would be silly; they were just attempts to clarify for the audience what Petraeus was talking about, or nudge Petraeus in directions more favorable to his own position -- and spoke a total of just 55 words.
After a commercial break, Crocker got similar treatment for 10 minutes of his own. In fact, it wasn't until after the second commercial break (and by now we were halfway through the hour) that Hume got ready to ask his first truly penetrating question.
"Gentlemen, in both your testimony today, you indicated that there had been this bottom-up reconciliation which was sort of unpredicted and much welcomed, but it seemed to be mostly in Sunni areas. And the situation with the Shia seem -- and the possible misbehavior, difficulty, problems with Shia militias, and so on," Hume began.
And when, with the end of Hume's question still hanging, the camera panned to the faces of Crocker and Petraeus, both looked to be bracing themselves for the blow surely coming. Would Hume ask whether the Sunni reconciliation had come solely because of fear of the majority Shiites? Or whether Shiite partisans dominate the Iraqi army and police force, turning them into sectarian militias and leading to the conclusions of the Jones report, which said that the national Iraqi police force should be disbanded altogether?
Instead, Hume wanted to talk about the new boogeyman of the right and Fox News: Iran. He blamed the Iranians for the aforementioned Shiite "misbehavior" and problems with Shiite militias, saying, "With Iranian influence [that's] always something you worry about when it comes to the Shiites," then going on to ask,
"You indicated that Iran would be a big winner, in its own eyes at least, if this all went badly in Iraq. Why should we not believe that as progress is made with the Sunni, that progress is made militarily, that Iran could simply rachet up its interference in Iraq to the point where it would in the end spoil whatever progress is being made?"
At one point, Hume went so far in presenting pro-war propaganda that Petraeus actually had to walk the anchor's statements back. In fact, the general actually looked shocked when Hume said to him, "You've suppressed the insurgency by al-Qaida to a considerable extent."
"Well, we still have concerns about sectarian violence on either side, some still carried out by al-Qaida when they can," Petraeus responded. "They are less active. They are off balance is the way I think we'd like to describe it, but still dangerous."
Even that couldn't slow Hume down. He'd just been handed an opportunity to further an administration talking point, that the war in Iraq is an inextricable part of the war on terror and specifically on the perpetrators of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
"Would you -- you -- you said today -- I think the phrase you used, correct me if I'm wrong, about al-Qaida was -- when I guess you were asked the question about who is the principal enemy there -- you said al-Qaida was -- I think you called it the wolf closest to the sled," Hume asked.
Then it was:
"Would you say that we wouldn't be in the situation we are in today, in terms of sectarian violence in Iraq, generally, had not al-Qaida been present and active there?"
Has "this, in an ultimate sense, turned out to be, more than anything else, a war with al-Qaida?"
In a courtroom, they'd call that leading the witness. At Fox, though, it's just "fair and balanced."