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Rove on Fox: It's Fair to Say He's Mellowed

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 17, 2008

Karl Rove, who has spent his career denigrating Democrats, was on the Fox News set last Monday when he was asked a point-blank question: Should Eliot Spitzer resign?

Pronouncing the situation "very sad," Rove said he wasn't in the business of telling the New York governor what to do. He deflected a question about whether Republicans are held to a different standard than Democrats in sex scandals, saying Spitzer's problem was that he "made his reputation as a prosecutor" whose targets included prostitution rings.

No one would accuse the newly minted pundit of being balanced, but to the surprise of some critics, he has been generally fair-minded in his commentary. The man long derided by the left as "Bush's brain" is trying to move beyond his attack-dog reputation.

"I'll never be able to fully shed it, because I am a partisan," Rove says in an interview. "But I'm doing the best I can to focus on my role in giving insight. . . . I'm not a journalist. I don't spend my days calling people up in the Clinton campaign or the Obama campaign. I've got more experience than the average reporter, I just don't have as much inside information as the average reporter." Still, he adds, "I know it's shocking, but I actually do have Democrat friends."

The former White House strategist, who granted few interviews as a presidential adviser, is fashioning a lucrative second act. He writes columns for Newsweek and the Wall Street Journal. He is working on a book about his life and modern political history. He has spent all but two weeks this year on the road, speaking to such groups as Texas cattle raisers.

But it is his role at Fox, the network most favored by the Bush administration, that is disarming some detractors. Slate said the "mild-mannered" Rove "has merely offered clarity, concision, humility, good humor, good posture, and dispassionate analysis." New York Times columnist David Carr called him "one of the best things on television news right now . . . graceful, careful and generous."

Nonetheless, says Rove, "I'm a little bit nervous about it." At first, "I wasn't into the rhythm of it." He understands cable's demand for yes-or-no answers but says that "life is more complex sometimes than a binary choice."

Are these appearances lightening Rove's image as a ruthless plotter? "I frankly don't care if it does or it doesn't. . . . My life is not going to be defined by whether or not people know the real me."

Fox features other prominent conservatives, led by Newt Gingrich and Dick Morris, but also has its share of Democratic consultants, such as former members of Congress Harold Ford and Geraldine Ferraro.

Sometimes Rove himself is in the news. Last month, CBS's "60 Minutes" reported a charge by a Republican lawyer in Alabama, Jill Simpson, that Rove asked her in 2001 to dig up dirt on former governor Don Siegelman, who is now in prison. Asked about this the next day by Fox's Bill Hemmer, Rove assailed CBS and said that "I have never asked this woman to do anything."

In his analyst's role, Rove has offered occasional advice to Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, but he has also taken some swipes. Clinton, he said, was "way over the top" when she mocked Obama's high-flying rhetoric. Obama's speechifying, he said, is "wearing thin" and "changing from inspiring to insipid."

Rove also acknowledged that McCain could be hurt by a lack of news coverage while the Democrats slug it out. And he offered a state-by-state analysis that put Obama ahead of McCain in the electoral college -- hardly a Republican talking point.

Rove disputed a Politico report that he is an informal adviser to McCain, saying he merely has "chitchat" with friends in the campaign. He says he got a call from the Arizona senator after McCain clinched the GOP nomination, and Rove donated the legal maximum $2,300 to his campaign.

On one subject, of course, Rove can never be objective, and that is George W. Bush and his own service in the administration. He won't discuss his conversations with his longtime friend, but says: "I'm a fierce advocate for the president and his policies." Asked on Fox about Bush's role in the campaign, Rove said McCain doesn't have to distance himself from the president but "needs to run as his own man."

John Moody, Fox News's senior vice president, says Rove was hired because "he's probably the most quoted, talked-about political strategist of his age. I only worried that someone with his work experience might be too good at keeping secrets when he was on the air. . . . Are we getting a Republican spin? Of course. But that's what he's there for. There's no attempt to conceal that."

Online Salvation?

In an age of growing layoffs, plunging revenue, declining circulation and just plain bad karma, it would be nice to find a glimmer of hope for the newspaper business.

Well, here's one: If you count the Web, readership is actually growing. Online newspaper sites drew 59 million monthly visitors during the third quarter of 2007, an increase greater than the 2.5 percent drop in print circulation last year (though there's some overlap between the audiences).

The Web growth, as the Project for Excellence in Journalism notes in its annual report, comes as the number of Americans who went online for news "yesterday" grew to 37 percent of Internet users, up from 30 percent in 2005.

One reason it matters: Newspapers were the only part of the media world that made problems in the health-care system one of their top 10 print stories, the study says, and were five months ahead of other outlets in focusing on cracks in the economy. And on a percentage basis, their front pages carried nearly three times as much foreign news in which Americans were not directly involved as cable news did.

News consumption has been dropping elsewhere. The three nightly network newscasts were down 5 percent last year, to 23 million. Time's circulation fell 600,000, to 3.4 million, and Newsweek by 500,000, to 2.6 million. The picture was brighter for the cable news channels, where the prime-time audience grew 4 percent for Fox News, 2 percent for CNN and a whopping 32 percent for MSNBC.

The cable outlets had notably different priorities. MSNBC last year devoted 28 percent of its time to politics, compared with 15 percent for Fox and 12 percent for CNN. MSNBC and CNN also spent more time on the Iraq war (18 and 16 percent, respectively) than Fox (10 percent). Fox, by contrast, spent roughly twice as much time as the others on crime, celebrity and the media.

The Murdoch Threat

In his debut as Portfolio magazine's media columnist, former New York Times editor Howell Raines takes on the publisher who fired him, Arthur Sulzberger Jr.

"Any tendency toward schadenfreude on my part has been offset" by his status as a Times pensioner and because a takeover of the Times -- perhaps by Rupert Murdoch -- "would be a disaster" for "trustworthy reporting," Raines writes. He argues that Sulzberger's response to competition from Murdoch's newly acquired Wall Street Journal "seems way too relaxed," and that Sulzberger has left the Times Co. vulnerable to a takeover bid by dissident investors who have bought 19 percent of its common stock.

Raines recalls a conversation with Murdoch in 2002 after the Times had rushed out a lifestyle section called Escapes to preempt the Journal's debut of the Personal Journal section. In a newspaper war, Murdoch said, "You ought to hit them where they live. Go after hard business news and beat them on their strength."

Now, warns Raines, Murdoch "plans to do to the Times what he was advising me to do to the Journal."

Prostituting the Media

In the wake of the Eliot Spitzer debacle, where have "Today," "Good Morning America," "Nightline," "Larry King," "Tucker," "Anderson Cooper 360" and all these other shows found the call girls (and pimps) who have come on to talk about the world's oldest profession? Is there a hooker-booker agency somewhere that lines up the ladies?

Howard Kurtz hosts CNN's weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

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