BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. - There’s a new attack dog at Fox News Channel, and, no, it’s not recently hired contributor Karl Rove.
It’s Chris Wallace, the onetime mild-mannered moderator of NBC’s “Meet the Press,” now host of “Fox News Sunday,” who bared his fangs at the liberal media during a panel this week to promote the top-rated cable news channel’s upcoming election coverage.
To set the scene, sitting right next to Wallace was Bush’s brain himself. And next to Rove was Howard Wolfson, Hillary Clinton’s lead spokesman during her recent presidential campaign and another new addition to the Fox News team.
And next to him was John Moody, the channel’s executive vice president and author of those bare-knuckle morning memos made notorious by filmmaker Robert Greenwald in his anti-Fox News video, “Outfoxed.”
For a half-hour the TV critics had been peppering Rove with questions. Several were requests for political analysis and revealed Rove’s always-interesting mind at work. Here, for instance, is what he had to say about The New Yorker magazine’s notorious cover featuring a cartoon of fist-bumping Obamas:
“I don’t understand why (New Yorker editor) David Remnick put this on the cover. I mean, you have 3 percent of the American people to 8 percent of the American people who think he’s a Muslim, which he’s not.
“This is not healthy for the system. I don’t think it’s particularly healthy for the right (wing) blogosphere to harp on this.
“The voters who are up for grabs in this election - if somebody goes out and makes this kind of sustained argument, (they) are going to respond badly to it, that is to say, they’re going to reject it and reject John McCain.”
But the critics also pressed Rove on two other subjects: Why did he ignore a subpoena last week to appear before Congress? And what exactly is his role with the McCain campaign?
Regarding the subpoena, Rove said it was a matter “between the White House and Congress.” As for McCain, “I play no official (campaign) role, no ongoing role, but, yeah, I do get phone calls.” That didn’t sound very clear, so I followed up with Moody.
“Is Mr. Rove on the honor system regarding his conversations with Steve Schmidt and other people high up the McCain campaign?” I asked. (Schmidt is a Rove protege.) “Have you discussed a certain line that he won’t cross?”
“I don’t think Karl would cross an ethical line like that,” Moody said - and laughter was heard throughout the room.
That seemed to irk Wallace, with whom I’d had a nice one-on-one conversation before the session. (Among other things, he confirmed that his 90-year-old dad, Mike, who had not been feeling well, was much improved and “talking with producers about doing stories” on “60 Minutes” again.)
“The fact is that MSNBC has just hired Mike Murphy, who, with all respect to Karl, has a much closer relationship with John McCain than Karl does,” Wallace said. “I’ll be curious to see whether you ask NBC about the fact that they’ve hired Mike Murphy, and whether that somehow is a wise hiring of an interesting Republican analyst or whether that somehow compromises the journalistic integrity of MSNBC.”
In his next breath, Wallace chastised the group for probing into the subpoena business. “I don’t understand for the life of me ... why that in any way should affect how an independent news organization decides to conduct its business.”
And with those words, Wallace, in effect, declared to Bill O’Reilly and anyone else at Fox who has been taking jabs at MSNBC lately: I’ve got your back.
In our earlier conversation, Wallace ripped the other news channels for being “in the tank for Obama” and added, “I think people are taking a second look at Fox, especially given how extraordinarily biased the coverage has been from our main competitors, CNN and MSNBC,” he said. “Especially MSNBC.”
After the panel session, however, Moody was quick to acknowledge that Fox does have an MSNBC problem. In recent months Keith Olbermann’s “Countdown” has all but closed the gap with “The O’Reilly Factor” among viewers ages 25 to 54.
“We’re aware of the demographics,” Moody said. “I have a 22-year-old and a 19-year-old. They don’t watch their news on television, but they’re very well-informed. You say to them ‘Watch Fox,’ and they say, ‘What’s that?’ When that happens, you know you’ve got a problem.
“We’re trying to find that audience. You mentioned MSNBC. You can make the case that people like to hear messianic ranting. I’m not sure that qualifies as news. Nonetheless it’s counted in the ratings, and we’ll figure out how to adapt to that.”
But what about Comedy Central, which many young people watch and which also rips on Fox News constantly? Isn’t Moody worried about the long-term brand damage there? Here he departed the no-spin zone: “Bring it on, keep talking about us, and make sure you spell it right and don’t mispronounce it.”
To be fair (and balanced), Fox News has been trying to get younger. It gave 40-something host Laura Ingraham a tryout recently during its 4 p.m. hour. And it will undoubtedly find a demographically pleasing replacement for Brit Hume, who announced this week that he won’t be anchoring “Special Report” after the election.
Fox News should also get a nice boost this fall with Clintonites tuning in to watch Wolfson. His hiring is the latest sign that some Democrats have not forgiven the other networks for what they saw as an infatuation with Barack Obama.
Clinton herself went on O’Reilly’s show, while her rival’s avoidance of the channel became so conspicuous that Wallace started an “Obama Watch” until the candidate finally agreed to go on “Fox News Sunday.”
When I asked Wolfson what his colleagues thought of him joining Fox News, he said that they had monitored the cable news coverage throughout the campaign along with him, “and we quickly came to the conclusion that Fox’s coverage was outstanding.”
“It was comprehensive, and it was fair. We didn’t always like what was said about us. But we always felt that we had a fair hearing when we had a concern or a complaint.”