MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow last night unloaded on the “Fox primary” playing out on TV sets around the country. The gist: The candidate favored by Fox News has a big leg up on the rest of the field in the Republican primary. And based on recent appearances, Fox appears to be treating Mitt Romney (hardball warehouse interview with Bret Baier) more harshly than Newt Gingrich (smiling, treacly interview with Sean Hannity).
What do we have for evidence of an anti-Romney bent? Videotaped evidence. Bret Baier went on air with Bill O’Reilly to announce that Romney had griped to him about the warehouse interview after the cameras had gotten their last footage of Mitt, Bret, and canned goods. “He thought it was overly aggressive,” Baier told O’Reilly about Romney’s reaction.
Maddow spotted something amiss here. Television talent doesn’t commonly circle back on air and dish about about what some big shot said as he was walking to the restroom:
That’s not an anchor reflecting on how the interview went. That’s the anchor giving you the behind the scenes, backstage dirt that the candidate probably thought was off the record. And doing it on TV, sort of spilling the beans. Bret Baier informing the entire Fox News audience that behind the scenes, when he was doing something he probably thought was unreportable, Mitt Romney’s a real whiner.
Maddow wisely inserts the appropriate qualifiers to refrain from accusing Baier of violating contractual terms (that’s what the courts consider an off-the-record agreement between a source and a reporter). And neither Fox News nor the Romney campaign responded to inquiries today about whether the Baier-Romney post-interview chat was a private one.
ABC’s Jon Karl says there’s no ambient understanding that once the filmed interview is over, the candidate’s remarks move to an off-the-record basis: “The only hard and fast rule is that you’re on the record unless it’s explicitly said you’re not.”
And Maddow, when asked about this whole matter, made clear that she wasn’t hung up on ground rules:
Gov. Romney *may* have believed he was speaking off the record. As a practical matter, it’s a gray area in broadcast interviewing as to whether off-camera but on-site comments by a guest are understood by both sides to be on the record and reportable. I don’t think it’s a matter of ethics — Mr. O’Reilly’s program and FNC are certainly within journalistic bounds to broadcast anything they like about FNC guests.
But their choice to broadcast those negative, behind-the-scenes, off-camera details is not a sign of the network having a generous disposition toward that particular guest. Everyone’s looking for signs of FNC showing a generosity toward one or more of the GOP candidates — since that means “winning the Murdoch primary”. The Baier/O’Reilly discussion was a striking sign of Mitt Romney not doing well in that primary at all.