The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward has dropped a nice little headline for the world’s media nerds. “Fox News chief’s failed attempt to enlist Petraeus as presidential candidate.” Turns out that Roger Ailes, who runs Fox News, was terribly impressed with the political credentials of Gen. David Petraeus. So in the spring of 2011, Ailes entrusted Fox News analyst K.T. McFarland to pass along a message from Ailes to Petraeus while the general was stationed in Afghanistan: If the president offers you the chairmanship of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, grab it; if not, bag the military and run for president. I might even quit and join your campaign.
This is no flimsy allegation here, either. Woodward scored a 13:46 audio excerpt of the chat between Petraeus and McFarland. It yields several discrete lessons about Fox News.
Lesson 1: Fox News is corrupt.
The top executive at a cable news network passed along unsolicited advice to a general — boosterish, adoring advice. Mind you, the person to whom he passed along this boosterish, adoring advice was at the center one of the country’s most stubborn and critical news stories. No need to consult Poynter.org to determine whether this was a colossal conflict of interest. Don’t get too breathless about this spasm of Ailes political activism, however: It’s not the first time..
Lesson 2: Fox News is corrupt.
The audio of the conversation between McFarland and Petraeus is a must-hear, if only because you can hear the Fox News analyst telling Petraeus: “Everybody at Fox loves you.”
Wonder how that adoration might affect Fox News coverage of the good general. Here’s a notion, from a McFarland piece:
I spent 90 minutes with General Petraeus at his office in Kabul last week. He is truly a asset to our country. Petraeus is a brilliant general and tactician. He’s an inspirational leader. And finally, he’s also got that indescribable something “extra.” His earnest demeanor and intensity make everyone around believe in him and want him to succeed, including all of us here at Fox News.
Bolded add-on inserted for purposes of retroactive accuracy.
Lesson 3: Fox News is corrupt.
Ailes’s craving for the respect and admiration of a military hotshot like Petraeus emerges with Memorex clarity in this recording. For instance, McFarland tells Petraeus that she has a request “directly from [Ailes] to you: First of all, is there anything Fox is doing right or wrong that you want to tell us to do differently.”
Unpacking the depravity in that one is a multi-part process.
No. 1: Real journalists don’t act as supplicants, no matter how wonderful and powerful may be the official they’re interviewing. Real journalists publish their journalism and move on to the next story. If people have problems with or plaudits for the work, they can send an e-mail.
No. 2: Note the promise in McFarland’s proffer. She invites the general to “tell us” to adjust coverage in whatever way he may see fit, in effect soliciting an order from a general. What an affirmation of journalistic independence.
No. 3: To which individuals has Ailes “indirectly” advanced this offer?
Lesson 4: Fox News is corrupt.
The counterarguments against the allegations of corruption above aren’t hard to summon: Ailes is a former Republican operative, so he’ll always have a hand in the game. A journalist buttering up a source in an off-the-record interview is common practice. Hey, all journalists need feedback.
Now, try to fashion an excuse for the offer that McFarland advanced in this exchange:
Petraeus: I actually thought in a sense sort of the editorial policy of Fox had shifted. Now, that…
McFarland: On the online or on the news channel?
Petraeus: Well, I only watch the—I mean, it’s your stories that are online here. But it just struck me it was almost as if because they’re going after Obama, they had to go after Obama’s war as well, actually. And I told that to Bret [Baier] when he was out here. That, again, some of it was headlines….
McFarland: The headlines are easy to fix because the lady who does that is the desk next to mine….
There’s an idea: Invite the general to edit your headlines.
Lesson 5: Fox News is corrupt and nasty.
To listen to the exchange between McFarland and Petraeus is to come away with the distinct impression that McFarland was under specific and binding orders from Ailes. She repeatedly invokes Ailes’s name, his advice and his interest in the career of Petraeus. The mandate to return to Ailes’s New York office with a mouthful of feedback from Petraeus rings from these words of McFarland’s: “So what do I tell Roger when he says…?” She continues spelling out the rules of engagement — how she was supposed to present the advice, and how she was supposed to report back.
Given that dynamic, have a look at how Ailes responded when Woodward asked about the advice-giving mission:
In a telephone interview Monday, the wily and sharp-tongued Ailes said he did indeed ask McFarland to make the pitch to Petraeus. “It was more of a joke, a wiseass way I have,” he said. “I thought the Republican field [in the primaries] needed to be shaken up and Petraeus might be a good candidate.”
Ailes added, “It sounds like she thought she was on a secret mission in the Reagan administration. . . . She was way out of line. . . . It’s someone’s fantasy to make me a kingmaker. It’s not my job.” He said that McFarland was not an employee of Fox but a contributor paid less than $75,000 a year.
Such noble and classy details there from the head of Fox News. Woodward nails you sullying your employer and the industry of journalism, and you tar the messenger. That’s outrageous enough that it could dog someone as untouchable as Roger Ailes.