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Choice of Messenger Is an Issue in Its Own Right

An exclusive interview on Fox News is criticized as spin control, while the network says it's simply the result of persistence and stature.

February 16, 2006|Matea Gold | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — For days, the White House press corps has pounded the Bush administration, demanding to learn more about Vice President Dick Cheney's accidental shooting of a hunting companion Saturday.

Cheney finally addressed the incident Wednesday, but the forum in which he chose to do so -- in an exclusive interview with Fox News host Brit Hume -- quickly became another source of contention.

Fox News executives cast the scoop as the result of persistence and the growing clout of the top-rated cable news network.

"We've been after the vice president since Sunday, as everyone has, and our efforts paid off," said John Moody, Fox's senior vice president for news editorial. "I think he wanted to make sure he got a fair interview and a good interview -- good in the sense of thorough -- and Brit is sort of the preeminent journalist in Washington right now."

However, some Democrats and competing broadcasters charged that Cheney chose to speak only with Fox News because of a perception that the cable channel is sympathetic to the Republican administration. They called for the vice president to hold a news conference with the rest of the media.

"Now that he feels forced to talk, he wants to restrict the discussion to a friendly news outlet, guaranteeing no hard questions from the press corps," said Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.) in a statement.

On CNN, commentator Jack Cafferty called the interview "a little bit like Bonnie interviewing Clyde.... I mean, running over there to the Fox network -- talk about seeking a safe haven."

The interview came after days of sniping between the White House press corps and White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan over why news of the hunting accident wasn't released earlier to the national press. Supporters of Cheney called it a non-issue that was only of interest to the press itself.

Southern California talk radio buzzed about the Fox News interview, which liberal KTLK-AM (1150) host Johnny Wendell called akin to a "groupie in the front row of a Justin Timberlake concert." Even conservative Bill Handel, host of KFI-AM's (640) top-rated morning show, faulted the vice president for only speaking with Fox News and "taking the path of least resistance."

While Fox News is known for its outspoken conservative commentators, network officials reject the idea that partisanship creeps into its coverage.

"What we try to do is not shut out any points of view," Moody said.

Cheney "wouldn't have come to Brit Hume if he wanted a softball interview," he added, calling the criticism sour grapes. "Look, we're not the only news network in the country, and when you aren't getting the big interview and when you aren't winning, you have to think of a reason why."

Hume also dismissed the suggestion that politics played into Cheney's decision to speak with him. After airing the interview on his show, "Special Report With Brit Hume," Hume said that a rival network crew had approached him outside the White House earlier in the day and asked if Fox News got the exclusive because the channel is "associated with conservative causes."

"I said, nah, I didn't think that was the reason," Hume recounted on the air Wednesday evening. "I thought it was probably because he wanted to go with the news channel with the largest audience."

Indeed, for the last four years, Fox News' audience has outstripped that of second-place CNN, which now averages about 900,000 viewers in prime time to Fox News' 1.9 million, according to Nielsen Media Research. The top-rated channel still lags behind the broadcast networks, whose evening newscasts command 7 million to 10 million viewers a night. But on several recent occasions, Fox News has drawn audiences that rival those figures.

In 2004, the cable channel beat out all the other networks during the Republican National Convention and came close to matching third-ranked CBS News on election night. Last month, more than 6.4 million people tuned in to Fox News to watch President Bush's State of the Union address, the largest audience garnered by any cable show that week.

Fox News sought to make the most of its exclusive on Wednesday, airing excerpts of the interview throughout the afternoon. During an appearance on "Studio B With Shepard Smith," Hume previewed the highlights of Cheney's comments, even as he questioned whether the public was as upset as the White House press corps about the administration's handling of the incident.

"If my e-mail is any guide and the things I'm hearing from just people in the street that you talk to and people that you know, I don't think much of the nation feels particularly deprived that they found out about this on Sunday afternoon or Sunday evening instead of Saturday night or Sunday morning," Hume said.

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Times staff writer Martin Miller contributed to this report.

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