The messy debate about media bias that has permeated coverage of the 2008 presidential campaign was given a thorough -- and, at times, combative -- airing at a Television Critics Association Q&A with Fox News Channel personalities Monday.
Appearing with Karl Rove and Howard Wolfson -- former advisor to Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) and the network’s newest liberal voice -- Fox News host Chris Wallace took critics to task for repeatedly questioning Karl Rove’s credibility for refusing a subpoena by a House Committee investigating Rove’s role in the conviction of former Alabama governor Don Siegelman on bribery, conspiracy and mail fraud.
“I’m struck by what I think is a double standard in the questions that particularly Karl is being asked here,” Wallace said. “I don’t understand why it is that if Congress and the White House are having a fight over executive power, that should any way constrain an independent news organization’s decision about whom to have on its payroll. I question whether if it were a conservative Congress that had subpoenaed James Carville, let's say, whether you’d be asking CNN why they’re [employing] James Carville.”
Wallace’s remark was greeted with loud disagreement from multiple critics in the room who asserted that they would be asking the same questions if the political roles were reversed.
“You would,” responded Wallace. “I wonder.”
Wallace went on, again defending Rove, who patiently fielded questions about the House subpoena (he said he asserted no privilege and it is “a longstanding battle over the principle of executive privilege and the ability of the president to receive senior advisors and for those senior advisors not to be at the beck and call of Congress for testimony”) and his relationship with the campaign of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
“The fact is,” Wallace said, “that NBC News just hired [Republican strategist] Mike Murphy, who, with all respect to Karl, has a much closer relationship with John McCain than Karl does. I’ll be curious to see whether you ask NBC about the fact that they’ve hired Mike Murphy and whether that’s a wise hiring of an interesting Republican analyst or whether that somehow compromises the journalistic integrity of MSNBC.”
Rove said he has “no official role” with the McCain campaign. And John Moody, Fox News’ executive vice president, said any news coming out of the McCain campaign is more likely to come from Carl Cameron, the Fox News correspondent who covers McCain, than from Rove.
But Moody found himself on the defensive over recent antics on the network’s morning show, Fox & Friends, which displayed Photoshopped images of The New York Times reporter Jacques Steinberg and his editor, Steven Reddicliffe.
“It was regrettable,” Moody said.
Later Moody added that he “wished” Fox & Friends “hadn’t done it. They didn’t ask me first.” But he said the incident will not result in any official standards adjustments at the show.
Moody called Fox & Friends a mix of news and entertainment but conceded that some of the “humor” on the show may not appeal to some viewers.
“Some of the humor gets edgy,” he added, “and some people don’t think it’s funny.”
Wallace, for instance, recently took the morning show to task for its sustained criticism of presumptive Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.).
He defended the culture at Fox News that allowed him to publicly criticize colleagues.
“I would be very surprised if an MSNBC reporter went on Keith Olbermann’s show to tell him to knock it off,” Wallace said, adding that MSNBC’s coverage of the presidential campaign “went so far over the line in terms of being in the tank to Barack Obama that it lost a lot of credibility.”
He singled out Olbermann for blurring the line between pundit and dispassionate observer for his conflicting roles as Countdown host and election-coverage anchor.
“The fact is that there is a firewall on Fox,” Wallace said. “You have the straight news reporters anchoring the election coverage and not someone like Keith Olbermann, who was delivering 10-minute screeds against President Bush, telling him to ‘shut the hell up,’ telling Hillary Clinton to get out of the campaign -- which I think is fine if he wants to say those things, let him say them. It’s an interesting show. I sometimes watch it myself. But then don’t go on and anchor the coverage as a so-called objective anchor. There’s a reason why Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity don’t anchor the election coverage. Our feeling is that opinion makers should live with their opinions and the journalists should cover the news.”
Remembering Tony Snow
The panelists also remarked on the passing of longtime Fox News host and former White House press secretary Tony Snow, who died Saturday after a long bout with cancer.
"It was an honor to serve with Tony Snow and to become his friend,” Rove said. "When I heard the news, I was devastated. I knew it was coming because in the past several weeks, none of the news we got was good. He was a sweet person. He was a great guy. He was great to work with. He set a great tone."
And with regard to some of the mean-spirited stuff that has surfaced on blogs about Snow, Rove said, "I haven't seen any of it, and I have no intention of seeing it. I knew what a civil, decent, patriotic, thoughtful human being he was."
Wallace was on vacation on Saturday when he heard the news. He canceled his vacation and came back to Washington, D.C., to anchor a special tribute edition of Fox News Sunday, the show Snow started.
"He was a remarkable person," Wallace said. "He was a very important journalistic voice. He revolutionized the job of presidential press secretary."
For the latest news and video from the TCA press tour, click here.