< A Fox Presidential Primary?

Transcript

Friday, October 01, 2010

BOB GARFIELD: Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, what do those four names have in common? Well, for starters, they're all Republican politicians who are rumored to be eyeing the presidency in 2012, but that’s not all. They are also all current employees of FOX News, which for the upcoming election raises a host of issues, from conflict of interest to equal access for other news outlets. Politico’s Jonathan Martin says the situation is further complicated by the bipartisan ritual of candidates feigning uncertainty before officially entering the race.

JONATHAN MARTIN: FOX says they will sever ties with the candidates if and when those candidates declare for office. But, as folks in politics well know, there is a significant gray area in between the time when a candidate begins to think about running for office and actually declares for office. So I think the central question here, which FOX wouldn't answer for us and which the candidates wouldn't answer for us, is what happens in January, February of 2011, when some of these folks are visiting their early states, they're testing the waters and they're still on FOX’s payroll?

BOB GARFIELD: So there’s a number of ethical issues and just nuts and bolts of reporting issues attendant to this [LAUGHS] situation. One is that by terms of their contract -

JONATHAN MARTIN: Yeah.

BOB GARFIELD: - these four presumed candidates actually cannot show up on any other news venue. They can't be on ABC, they can't be on CNN. They've declined to talk to C-SPAN, for heaven’s sake -

JONATHAN MARTIN: Right.

BOB GARFIELD: - because they're absolutely exclusive to FOX. So how do you cover a presumed candidate, if you have no access to them?

JONATHAN MARTIN: Well, you have to either air their appearances at public events or you just have to pick up what they said on FOX, where they're getting little scrutiny because they're on the staff. In my reporting I talked to folks inside the network who were deeply uncomfortable with what is going on because it obviously puts them in a very tough position on the news side. They have to deal with those candidates or potential candidates that are not being paid by FOX, who are complaining about equal access and about what it means for the campaign. They're going to be running against candidates that are FOX employees.

BOB GARFIELD: There’s an - I think, an even more disturbing wrinkle, and that is that now presumed candidates are literally on the payroll, so not only do they have the benefit of FOX’s audience to campaign for free, they actually get paid to do so. At some point, does this amount to an in-kind contribution to a political campaign?

JONATHAN MARTIN: Well, that’s the word that came up when I was talking to one longtime GOP strategist who was not involved yet in the campaign, was “in-kind contribution”. There is no question that having that FOX news platform is perhaps the most coveted sort of pulpit for any potential GOP presidential aspirant. There is no better way to communicate directly, and with really little filter, too, to the kind of voters that are going to decide the next nominee of their party.

BOB GARFIELD: But what about the flip side of that question, what about the notion that FOX’s audience is already so hardcore -

JONATHAN MARTIN: Right.

BOB GARFIELD: - that by staying within the comforts of home, these candidates actually surrender access -

JONATHAN MARTIN: Yeah.

BOB GARFIELD: - to the audience that will make the difference in the election?

JONATHAN MARTIN: That’s a great question, and, and I think that, if one of them does win the nomination, they'll almost certainly have to broaden their media availability beyond FOX News to reach a broader audience. But I think what’s important is that for now, looking toward the primary, this is sort of a FOX primary.

BOB GARFIELD: Clearly, FOX News Channel is the sort of house organ of - they would probably say conservative thought, I would say the Republican Party, and maybe increasingly the Tea Party.

JONATHAN MARTIN: Right.

BOB GARFIELD: Has FOX boxed itself in to the point that they actually could lose accreditation as a bona fide journalistic organization?

JONATHAN MARTIN: In some ways they enjoy the scrutiny. It makes their point that somehow everybody else is biased and they're the ones that are only truly fair and balanced. So in some sort of odd way they actually benefit from those kind of attacks, and it just draws more conservative viewers to them. I think that they're bottom line driven, and if it seems like what they're doing, pushing the envelope, is hurting them financially, maybe then they'll sort of reassess. But until that point, I think they’re going to keep on doing it.

BOB GARFIELD: Okay. Jonathan, thank you so much.

JONATHAN MARTIN: Thanks so much, appreciate it.

BOB GARFIELD: Jonathan Martin is a senior political writer at Politico.