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Chris Wallace, Caught Off Balance?

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 25, 2006

Fox News anchor Chris Wallace said that he was stunned when Bill Clinton accused him of a "conservative hit job" after he challenged the former president on his record in fighting terrorism.

"I thought it was a fair, balanced and not especially inflammatory question," Wallace said yesterday in recounting his "Fox News Sunday" sit-down with Clinton. "I even said, 'I know hindsight is 20/20.' But he went off. And once he went off, there was no bringing him back. He wanted to talk about it in detail. He wanted to conjure up right-wingers and conservative hit jobs and a theory involving Rupert Murdoch that I still don't understand."

Fox had agreed in advance that half the interview would be about Clinton's Global Initiative forum and half about other subjects. Wallace began with a couple of questions about the initiative before citing the 1993 U.S. military withdrawal from Somalia and several bombings connected to al-Qaeda in asking, "Why didn't you do more, connect the dots and put them out of business?"

In an impassioned, finger-wagging answer, Clinton told Wallace, a former ABC News correspondent: "You did Fox's bidding on this show. You did your nice little conservative hit job on me. . . . You set this meeting up because you were going to get a lot of criticism from your viewers because Rupert Murdoch is supporting my work on climate change. And you came here under false pretenses and said that you'd spend half the time talking about . . . what we did out there to raise $7 billion-plus over three days from 215 different commitments. And you don't care."

Murdoch, the billionaire conservative who owns Fox, has recently mended fences with the Clinton family, even attending a fundraiser for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.). Fox, which employs a number of high-profile conservative hosts, maintains that its reporting is straightforward but is viewed by many liberals and other critics as leaning to the right. Clinton's appearance was his first on "Fox News Sunday" in the program's 10-year history.

"We're fully aware of Fox News's and Chris Wallace's agenda, and President Clinton came in prepared to respond to any attack on his record," said Jay Carson, his spokesman. "When Wallace questioned his record on terrorism, he responded forcefully, as any Democrat would or should."

In the interview, in which Clinton also accused Wallace of having a "little smirk" on his face, the host said he had planned to spend half the allotted 15 minutes on the Global Initiative and that "I didn't think this was going to set you off on such a tear."

"It set me off on such a tear because you didn't formulate it in an honest way and you people ask me questions you don't ask the other side," Clinton said.

"Sir, that is not true," Wallace replied.

Asked about Clinton's complaint, a Fox spokeswoman pointed to Wallace's interview two weeks ago with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Wallace pressed her about the lack of prewar ties between Osama bin Laden and Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, but he did not ask about U.S. efforts against bin Laden before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Carson noted that the 2000 bombing of the U.S.S. Cole was officially linked to al-Qaeda after Bush took office.

"I don't think I was fanning the flames here," Wallace said. "It was all generated from within him."

Clinton has on occasion scolded other interviewers, most notably in a 2004 sitdown with ABC's Peter Jennings, who drew this response after alluding to Clinton's personal misconduct: "You don't want to go here, Peter. . . . Not after what you people did and the way you, your network, what you did with Kenneth Starr. The way your people repeated every little sleazy thing he leaked."

Wallace said the surprise is not that he asked Clinton about terrorism but that no other television interviewer did during a round of appearances last week. Clinton, Wallace said, remained "upset" and "angry" after the interview.

The 'Jewish' Question

How did having Jewish relatives turn into a gotcha question?

Virginia Sen. George Allen was clearly irritated last week when a WUSA-TV reporter, seemingly out of nowhere, asked at a televised debate whether his mother was Jewish. Allen dismissed the question as "irrelevant," but said a day later he had discovered that his grandfather was Jewish, and the following day that his mother had recently told him that she was raised Jewish as well.

Call it the oy vey factor: Was this yet another attempt by the media to catch a politician covering up some secret personal detail? Or was it the southerner in cowboy boots who invited scrutiny of his background by keeping the information under wraps?

It remains unclear why Channel 9's Peggy Fox posed the question to Allen during his debate with Democratic challenger James Webb. Was this a matter of pressing importance to the voters of Virginia?

Fox, who is described on WUSA's Web site as "a Fairfax County native who married her West Springfield High School sweetheart," declined to be interviewed. In an e-mail, she says: "I would love to talk to you to tell you why I asked the question. But I am not the story. Senator Allen is. I will tell you I asked the question because I wanted to find out if he was hiding a heritage he really should be proud of (like most Americans are) because he felt acknowledging his roots could cost him votes.

"The question had been asked before and not answered. To me, it doesn't matter what religion someone is, but not being genuine does. The voters have a right to know if the candidates are who they say they are."

In an e-mail response to viewers, Fox also says: "I regret the way I worded the question and the way Senator Allen turned the spotlight onto the question itself without addressing the bigger political issue which could be relevant to the campaign."

But what is the "bigger" issue? When Allen threw the question back at her, demanding to know why it was relevant, she replied, "Honesty." Was Fox essentially accusing the candidate of lying?

In a way, the Allen campaign opened the door to Fox's question by not providing answers to the Jewish newspaper the Forward, which reported late last month that Allen's mother, Henrietta, a French Tunisian, was "likely" Jewish by birth. A week earlier, the senator's staff told Time's Mike Allen that they were not familiar with any Jewish background. The reporter says he suggested that they ask Allen if his mother has Jewish roots, "and the response was that he didn't think she does."

The senator's mother got dragged into public discussion because of speculation that Allen had picked up the word "macaca" from her. As the civilized world knows by now, Allen has apologized for using the word -- a racial slur in some cultures -- to describe an Indian American volunteer for Webb's campaign.

The press may well have overplayed the macaca gaffe -- there was no comparable frenzy over Webb saying three decades ago that the U.S. Naval Academy was "a horny woman's dream" -- but it was a self-inflicted wound that was captured on video and downloaded thousands of times on YouTube.com.

The Post last week quoted Allen's mother as saying she didn't tell her son she was Jewish until he asked about the "rumor" late last month. Why the senator didn't inquire earlier, since he's talked about his grandfather having been imprisoned by the Nazis, is an interesting question.

While politicians understandably resent journalists turning into genealogical detectives, they are rarely shy when it comes to scoring ethnic points. Allen has spoken on the campaign trail about having his "grandfather's bloodlines," namely "French Italian" and "one-sixteenth Spanish." Nor are they above trading on family connections or showcasing their spouses and children. Allen, of course, is the son of the famed football coach whose name he bears.

The list of prominent public figures who acknowledge their Jewish ancestry only after seeking or attaining public office -- John Kerry, Wesley Clark, Madeleine Albright -- is growing longer. Some appear to have made the cold calculation that it would not be a political asset.

And this goes beyond questions of Jewish heritage. When the Massachusetts senator, gearing up to run for president in 2003, said he had never claimed to be Irish, the Boston Globe reported that he had claimed Irish ancestry in a St. Patrick's Day message nearly two decades earlier.

Peggy Fox insists she is not the story. But journalists who appear on television and ask questions at televised debates -- particularly personal questions -- often become part of the story. By leaving out part of his biography for years, Allen gave her a big, fat opening. But for all the media furor, most Virginia voters probably care more about the Iraq war and the economy than the details of the senator's family tree.

Liberal Media?

The "mainstream media presents itself as unbiased, when in fact there are built into it many biases, and they are overwhelmingly to the left."

The man who made that comment is not some rabid right-wing critic but Thomas Edsall, a Washington Post political reporter for a quarter-century who recently accepted an early retirement offer.

In an interview with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, Edsall said he is pro-choice on abortion and does not think he has ever voted for a Republican presidential candidate. He said he believes that reporters vote Democratic by somewhere between 15 to 1 and 25 to 1.

Edsall, who now writes for the New Republic and has just finished a book called "Building Red America," also said that journalists have an inherent "suspicion" of the military, and he agreed "to a certain degree" with the argument that Fox News and conservative radio became popular because many people, in Hewitt's words, "got sick and tired of being spoon-fed liberal dross" by the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Washington Post.

In an interview, Edsall says the main problem is "an inability to empathize with the way many people in red states think and feel" but that it is "possible" for journalists to set aside their views and report fairly.

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