Roger Ailes, pictured in November, is chairman and chief executive of FOX… (Bob Kim / Getty Images )
Just a little more than a week ago, military affairs journalist Tom Ricks outraged the right-wing faithful by saying that Fox News Channel obsessed on the terrorist attack on Benghazi, Libya, in part because the station “was operating as a wing of the Republican Party.”
Oh the rudeness! The gall! The sheer outrage it took for one of America’s most honored reporters on military affairs to suggest, while a guest on Fox News, that Fox News was not quite on the up-and-up.
One could engage in endless arguments about just how slanted Fox’s coverage is. Multiple studies have clearly shown the outlet tilts sharply right while rival MSNBC tilts sharply left. Yet fairness remains in the eye of the beholder.
Still, a certain coziness between Fox News and the Republican Party became decidedly harder to deny this week, with the Washington Post’s revelation that the network’s top exec, Roger Ailes, sent an emissary in the spring of 2011 to try to coax Gen. David H. Petraeus into the 2012 Republican presidential campaign.
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Fox managed to pull off a trifecta of conflicts with the episode -- with former Republican Party operative Ailes sending his valentine to Petraeus via K.T. McFarland, a Fox News on-air contributor, who in turn told the American commander in Afghanistan that Ailes might quit Fox to run such a campaign. And that campaign just might be bankrolled by Rupert Murdoch, who owns the conservative network. That’s a clean sweep of suggested influence peddling from a commentator, up through a news boss and on to the corporate chieftain.
Imagine if NBC News boss Steve Capus had sent his Pentagon correspondent, Jim Miklaszewski, to lobby for Petraeus or another top general to launch a Democratic challenge to President Obama and, just for good measure, suggested the lucky general might benefit from campaign contributions galore from Comcast Chief Executive Brian Roberts.
Conservatives would be in a tizzy -- calling for cancellation of licenses for NBC affiliates, demanding a full congressional investigation and insisting on the firing of all those involved. And they would have a pretty good point.
But at Fox News -- which at one point had Republican presidential prospects Rick Santorum, Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee all on the payroll -- the blurring of political and news lines has become the routine.
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The Washington Post scoop, from storied investigative reporter Bob Woodward, described the message commentator McFarland (a former Republican national security aide) was to relay from Ailes to Gen. Petraeus: Demand President Obama appoint you chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. If he refuses, resign and launch a presidential campaign. The Post obtained a digital recording of the conversation.
Petraeus demurred and said he would consider an offer to head the CIA, which came his way within weeks. He resigned that post Nov. 9 after the reports of his extramarital affair with biographer Paula Broadwell.
McFarland didn’t stop her rhapsodizing about the general. She said she had been skeptical about America’s chances of success in the war in Afghanistan. But with Petraeus, whom she dubbed “one of the greatest generals in American history,” she said the U.S. could win. She also swooned about the general online, calling him a “brilliant general and tactician” and “an inspirational leader.”
McFarland and friends at Fox didn’t bother telling their audience that she was also part of a quiet push to get the general to run against Obama.
In a telephone interview Monday, Ailes told the Post too much had been made of his overture to the general. “It was more of a joke ... ” he said. “I thought the Republican field [in the primaries] needed to be shaken up and Petraeus might be a good candidate.”
Like good bosses everywhere, he pinned the overkill on his underling, McFarland, telling the Post she had taken his idea too far. “It sounds like she thought she was on a secret mission in the Reagan administration,” Ailes said. “She was way out of line.... It’s someone’s fantasy to make me a kingmaker. It’s not my job.”
The Post’s media blogger, Erik Wemple, detailed numerous previous episodes in which the Ailes insisted he had sworn off politics -- only to apply influence within his party and the government.
It’s not as if Ailes strays far off the corporate reservation when he goes political. News Corp. boss Rupert Murdoch has given millions to Republican candidates. And he likes to chatter about his likes and dislikes, as in the recent presidential race when he cheered Mitt Romney for attacking Obama’s comments about who deserves credit for the success of American businesses. “At last Romney attacks, looks better. Keep it up!” said one Murdoch tweet.
I looked on the Fox News website Tuesday afternoon for how it might have covered Ailes' obvious conflict of interest. I didn’t find any articles on the subject. There was this headline, though: “Roger Ailes Receives Award for Excellence in Journalism.”
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