With Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee all making moves indicating they may run for president, their common employer is facing a question that hasn’t been asked before: How does a news organization cover White House hopefuls when so many are on the payroll?
As Fox’s popularity grows among conservatives, the presence of four potentially serious Republican candidates as paid contributors is beginning to frustrate competitors of the network, figures within its own news division and rivals of what some GOP insiders have begun calling “the Fox candidates.”
The matter is of no small consequence, since it’s uncertain how other news organizations can cover the early stages of the presidential race when some of the main GOP contenders are contractually forbidden to appear on any TV network besides Fox. (See: Poll shows rocky road ahead for Obama)
C-SPAN Political Editor Steve Scully said that when C-SPAN tried to have Palin on for an interview, he was told he had to first get Fox’s permission — which the network, citing her contract, ultimately denied. Producers at NBC, ABC, CBS, CNN and MSNBC all report similar experiences.
At issue are basic matters of political and journalistic fairness and propriety. With Fox effectively becoming the flagship network of the right and, more specifically, the tea party movement, the four Republicans it employs enjoy an unparalleled platform from which to speak directly to primary voters who will determine the party’s next nominee.
Their Fox jobs allow these politicians an opportunity to send conservative activists a mostly unfiltered message in what is almost always a friendly environment. Fox opinion hosts typically invite the Republicans simply to offer their views on issues of the day, rather than press them to defend their rhetoric or records as leaders of the party. (See: Bill O’Reilly popular, Rachel Maddow unknown)
Fox, in an e-mail to POLITICO, indicated that once any of the candidates declares for the presidency he or she will have to sever the deal with the network.
That fact alone has sparked buzz in political and media circles, particularly as it applies to Palin, a major ratings draw. Can she remain on Fox’s payroll if, while not formally a declared candidate, she’s visiting early primary states and assembling a presidential campaign in 2011? Or will Fox at least relax its exclusivity provision to let the candidate appear on other cable or broadcast networks? (See: Gaga, Colbert get political)
Fox said it doesn’t relax exclusivity provisions.
“All contributors are exclusive to Fox News. On occasion, they will make appearances on other networks — when they have books to promote — and in those cases their contributor agreements are suspended during that period. Fox News has made rare exceptions for various contributors in terms of appearances on other networks, but instances are few and far between,” Fox News said in a statement.
All of the four potential candidates either declined comment or did not respond to inquiries on whether they will adhere to their Fox contracts if they explore a presidential run.
The idea of the four prospects — and especially the former Alaska governor — facing media questions only on a network that both pays them and offers limited scrutiny has already become a matter of frustration in the political and journalistic community — and not just among those the intensely competitive Fox is typically quick to dismiss as jealous rivals.
“It is all new territory,” said Scully, who’s widely respected for his evenhandedness. Palin “will not do any other interviews. We’ve never had to deal with this before.”
So far this year, none of the four GOP contenders on the Fox payroll have appeared on any other television news outlet except Gingrich, who has appeared twice on ABC and three times on NBC since January. ( See
“We have tried to book many of them, but they have always refused, saying they are exclusive to Fox,” said one rival network staffer.
But it isn’t just competitors that are uneasy about the arrangement; there are figures within the network who, as the early jockeying for 2012 begins, are growing increasingly uncomfortable with the specter of paying candidates they’re supposed to cover.
Fox insiders, speaking anonymously about what is a sensitive topic for a network worried about outside perception, said no word has been conveyed from the corporate brass to reporters about how to treat what are, for now at least, their colleagues.
Angst is building among news-side employees who want to know when, if ever, the four Republicans will have to cut ties with the network.
“We’re acutely aware of this” stuff, said one Fox insider of the quandary.
“The cold reality is, nobody at the reporter level has any say on this,” added another source familiar with the inner workings of Fox. “They’re left in the lurch.”
Of particular concern to some at the network is what the situation means when it comes to dealing with candidates who are not employed by Fox.
Even before the midterm elections, top Fox figures are fielding complaints from aides to the non-Fox hopefuls that the arrangements are unfair to their candidates.
“I wish we could get that much airtime, but, oh yeah, we don’t get a paycheck” was what one aide told a Fox employee, according to a source familiar with the conversation.
While they won’t talk about it on the record — no one wants to offend a news outlet with a potentially outsize role in determining the next GOP nominee — officials with some of the other campaigns in waiting are plainly annoyed at the advantage they see the four potential GOP candidates have with Fox.
“The longer they can remain ‘undecided’ about running, the longer they can stay at the network and get paid,” carped a top aide to one potential GOP candidate.
This aide noted that all of Palin’s recent comments about why she may enter the presidential race have come within the cozy confines of Fox — and suggested that the network would have much to gain in retaining its exclusive access to the Alaskan for as long as possible.
“She’s definitely putting a toe in the water, and that’s great for Fox,” said the aide.
Jim Dyke, a veteran GOP strategist who isn’t affiliated with any 2012 candidate, predicted that the issue would gain steam after the midterms, when the so-called invisible primary begins in earnest.
“As it becomes clear somebody is looking at running, Fox gets into a bit of a box because doesn’t it become an in-kind contribution if they’re being paid?” Dyke asked.
The notion of a politician taking a paycheck from a news organization before mounting a presidential bid isn’t totally new. Pat Buchanan hosted CNN’s “Crossfire” in the 1990s in between GOP primary campaigns and certainly used the national platform to his advantage in the years before Fox News achieved its current status.
Buchanan, in an interview, said the rule should be: “As soon as you come close to declaring or declare, you’re gone.”
In the 1996 campaign, the populist Republican made his final appearance as a “Crossfire” host in February 1995 and then announced his candidacy the next month.
But Buchanan, now a paid MSNBC contributor, said, “We’re in a dramatically different era now.”
Roger Ailes, Fox News chairman and CEO and Buchanan’s old colleague from the 1968 Richard Nixon campaign, now has every incentive to keep Palin exclusive to the network for as long as he can, said Buchanan.
“He knows he’s got a real stable of talent and that people are attracted to Fox News in part because that’s where they can see Sarah Palin,” Buchanan said. “So I would think he would want to keep them there.”
Buchanan said the Fox reporters had no choice but treating those on the payroll as if they weren’t. “If you’re an objective journalist, you bring [the candidates] on and ask them tough questions.”
While the commentators who have their own Fox programs have largely offered friendly forums for the four contributors, some of the reporters who have covered the group have not. When Palin appeared in Iowa recently, for example, political correspondent Carl Cameron reported that she had failed to meet with local officials and didn’t solicit any advice from Republicans in the state — basic steps traditionally taken by presidential candidates.
What worries some in the political and media community, though, is that behind Palin’s incessant attacks on what she calls “the lamestream media” is a strategy to de-legitimize traditional news outlets so as to avoid ever facing any accountability beyond Fox.
Part of Palin’s thinking could be seen in her advice to Delaware GOP Senate nominee Christine O’Donnell — offered, naturally, on Fox.
“Speak through Fox News,” Palin urged the much-maligned tea-party-backed candidate.
And, speaking earlier this month in Louisville, Ky., Palin said: “What would we do without Fox News, America? We love our Fox News, yes.”
While having candidates with Fox contracts may be an ideal media strategy for the primaries, the GOP may suffer in the general election if its candidates avoid speaking to the mass audiences of the Big Three networks.
“Most people see that in order to win, you need a strong, devoted core, but you also need something beyond that in the general election,” said Paul Levinson, a professor of communication and media studies at Fordham University and author of “New New Media.” “So they could be hurting themselves.”
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