THIS is what happens when your news network gets overly politicized. First, leading presidential candidates say you're a propaganda tool for the other side and decide they don't want to play in your sandbox. The next thing you know, Angelina Jolie -- "the best woman in the world," according to Esquire magazine,- is allegedly dis-inviting you from her movie premiere.
It's become unfashionable in most media circles to stick up in any way for Fox News Channel, so it's not surprising that the decision by Hillary Rodham Clinton, John Edwards and Barack Obama to nix an upcoming Democratic primary debate, a joint production of Fox News and the Congressional Black Caucus, has generally been greeted with deafening silence among editorial writers and other professional fulminators.
So it needs to be said: The Democrats are dead wrong not to debate on Fox News. And it's hypocritical for the supposedly nonpartisan media to stand by and do nothing while a TV network -- even one with an obvious rightward tilt whose fairness and balance deserve every bit of the scrutiny they're getting -- is trashed by mega-million-dollar political campaigns in the heat of a White House primary battle. When politicians, one of whom may very well be the next president of the United States, start using their platforms to lob missiles at news-gathering organizations they don't like, it's hard to see how that's much different than President Nixon's infamous "enemies list."
Yes, yes, this columnist realizes he's nothing more than a deluded lackey for Fox News chief (and former Nixon advisor) Roger Ailes -- although when this column accurately pointed out Fox News' softening ratings last year, Slate's Mickey Kaus and conservative bloggers suggested I was carrying water for CNN.
But first, some background on the debate controversy. After Ailes was quoted making the world's millionth lame Obama-Osama joke (maybe the network's speechwriter took the day off), moveon.org and other liberal activist groups went medieval this past spring and helped put the kibosh on an August debate that Fox News was to cosponsor with the Nevada State Democratic Party.
The activists have since turned their sights on the Congressional Black Caucus event, scheduled for Sept. 23 in Detroit. Edwards pulled out of that debate, calling Fox News a "propaganda" tool of the GOP, and the Clinton and Obama camps followed suit, as did the Christopher Dodd and Bill Richardson campaigns.
(As for Jolie, who was the memorable beneficiary of a long journalistic wet kiss from CNN's Anderson Cooper last year, her handlers reportedly stiff-armed Fox News from the premiere of her new film, "A Mighty Heart"; distributor Paramount Pictures later said the failure to include the cable network was "an honest mistake").
A Fox News spokeswoman told me Thursday that the network is "moving ahead" with plans for the debate (the network declined to make Ailes or another executive available for comment). But if it happens, the event may be as about as well attended as a Viewer Appreciation Party for MSNBC's microscopically rated Tucker Carlson. The only candidates to confirm publicly that they'll appear at the Fox News event are Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) and Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (D-Ohio) -- not exactly the heavyweights in this bout.
Through a campaign spokeswoman, Jonathan Prince, Edwards' deputy campaign manager, e-mailed me a statement: "There's just no reason for Democrats to give Fox a platform to advance the right-wing agenda while pretending to be objective. If there was any uncertainty as to Fox's objectivity, it was put to rest when they attacked Democratic candidates, Democratic constituency groups and the Nevada Democratic Party when their last proposed debate was canceled for lack of support." (Representatives for the Clinton and Obama camps confirmed to me that their candidates wouldn't appear on the Fox debate but declined to say more on the record.)
Debates are supposed to serve as an agnostic forum for the candidates, but of course politics corrupted that lofty ideal a long time ago. Back in 1988, the nonpartisan League of Women Voters disgustedly pulled out of sponsoring the presidential debates, arguing that the campaigns tried so hard to manipulate the process they were perpetuating "fraud" on American voters.
What's happening with the Fox News debate is the latest stop in that sorry journey of behind-the-scenes manipulation of what viewers see and hear.
"The Fox boycott is a demonstration of the grass-roots anger at Fox among Democratic activists," Jeremy D. Mayer, associate professor of public policy at George Mason University, told me. "We've never seen anything like it in the past because while many Republicans believed that the mainstream media was biased against them, they never felt that one network was so much worse than the others that a targeted boycott made sense."