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Crossing the Line?

November 21, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


TERENCE SMITH: In the days following September 11, Roger Ailes, the chairman of Fox News Channel, volunteered advice to White House adviser Karl Rove on how the president should respond to the attacks.

The revelation comes in the new book, Bush at War, by Bob Woodward.

BOB WOODWARD: After 9/11, Ailes was concerned and he wrote out a message to Karl Rove, the chief political adviser to the president, about the necessity of doing something very strong, if need be, harsh to deal with this.

Rove took it down to the president and said, “This is a communication from Roger Ailes.” Its significance, first of all, is that Roger Ailes was Bush’s father’s media guru.

TERENCE SMITH: Is that an appropriate role for a journalist– no longer a media guru but now a journalist — to be playing?

BOB WOODWARD: I say in the book in the role as head of Fox News, he shouldn’t do it. He’s not supposed to do it. There’s supposed to be a dividing line.

TERENCE SMITH: The Fox chairman, who declined to be interviewed for this report, contends his letter did not cross that line.

In a statement Ailes defended his actions: “Bob Woodward’s characterization of my memo is incorrect. In the days following 9/11, our country came together in nonpartisan support of the president. During that time, I wrote a personal note to a White House staff member as a concerned American, expressing my outrage about the attacks on our country. I did not give up my American citizenship to take this job.”

Whatever the note’s contents — Ailes has declined to release it — the revelation has again sparked debate over the objectivity of the Fox News Channel, and more broadly, the sometimes cozy dealings between journalists and the subjects they cover.

MARVIN KALB, Shorenstein Center: In Washington, D.C., There’s much too much coziness between the journalist and the official.

TERENCE SMITH: Marvin Kalb of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center says the relationship is nothing new.

MARVIN KALB: Walter Lippman would write to the president of the United States and give him marching orders as to what he thought the next best thing the president should do. “Do it.”

Scotty Reston, James Reston of The New York Times, did not do it in that way, but had a very close relationship with leading officials and presidents in a number of administrations.

Mr. Ailes has had a very close relation with a number of Republican presidents. I doubt this is a letter — despite what he said in the Washington Post — I doubt this is a letter that he would have sent to [Democratic President] Bill Clinton.

TERENCE SMITH: Unlike Lippman and Reston, Roger Ailes, before taking the helm at Fox, was a political adviser and strategist. He served the first President Bush, as well as Presidents Reagan and Nixon.

TUCKER CARLSON, CNN CROSSFIRE: Roger Ailes is the editorial chief of fox news, and this gives the appearance of partisanship. This is sucking up to power.

TERENCE SMITH: With barely concealed glee, Fox’s chief competition, CNN, made the Ailes letter a hot topic of conversation.

ARTHEL NEVILLE, CNN TALKBACK LIVE: Does that shed new light on, “we report, you decide,” Jack?

UNIDENTIFIED GUEST, CNN TALKBACK LIVE: “Fair and balanced?” We better leave that alone.

TERENCE SMITH: The two networks are locked in a heated battle for cable ratings supremacy. Fox News Channel’s opinion-heavy, sometimes brash format, has won it legions of loyal viewers who have catapulted the channel to the top of the cable news ratings race.

On CNN, which Ailes once derided as the “Clinton News Network,” one panelist turned the tables on the network.

ARMSTRONG WILLIAMS: Your former president of CNN, Rick Kaplan, was a golfing buddy of the president, spent many nights in the Lincoln bedroom, was a close confidante of the president. And if you’re going to hold Roger Ailes to that standard, then you should hold your former boss to the same standard.

TERENCE SMITH: Bob Woodward says Ailes was caught up in the emotion of the moment.

BOB WOODWARD: In the wave of patriotism and the feeling… and Ailes has said publicly he was up eleven days straight. There’s a kind of exuberance. If you can take your mind back to September of last year, I think we probably all did and said things that we might not do in another time. I mean, that was an extraordinary moment in history.


MARVIN KALB: Well, my question, then, to Bob Woodward would be: In that same time of high emotion, did you write a similar letter to the president? I think the answer is no.

TERENCE SMITH: For his part, author Woodward says the Ailes was ill advised but not a capital crime.

BOB WOODWARD: I don’t think this is a journalistic felony. I think if might be a parking ticket or a misdemeanor, something ideally that should not be done in a kind of behind-the-scenes way.

TERENCE SMITH: Marvin Kalb disagrees.

MARVIN KALB: When you begin to even appear to be getting into bed with a politician, you are running a severe risk of losing your own integrity and your own quality as an independent journalist.

TERENCE SMITH: The story of the Ailes letter takes up barely a paragraph in the Woodward book, but the controversy it has sparked illustrates the sensitive nature of the relationship between the media and any administration.