By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 3, 2008
ST. PAUL, Minn., Sept. 2 -- At a secret meeting with Barack Obama three months ago, Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes says, he tried to clear the air with the Democratic senator by saying that his organization was determined to be fair but would not be "in the tank" for Obama's campaign.
During the sit-down in a Waldorf-Astoria hotel suite in Manhattan that included Rupert Murdoch, the network's owner, Obama expressed concern about the way Fox was covering him. "I just wanted to know if I'm going to get a fair shake from Fox News Channel," Ailes recalled him saying.
"Senator, you're the one who boycotted us," Ailes says he replied. "We're not the ones who boycotted you. Nor did we retaliate for your boycott."
The meeting appears to have eased tensions between the two camps, which began when all the Democratic candidates, complaining that the network favors Republicans, refused to hold any primary-season debates on Fox. After resisting invitations for months, Obama now plans to appear on Bill O'Reilly's prime-time Fox program on Thursday, the night that John McCain delivers his acceptance speech at the Republican convention here.
Ailes said in an interview Tuesday that he would never have discussed the matter publicly had Vanity Fair not published an account of the earlier portion of the meeting, in which Murdoch sat on one side and Obama and advisers David Axelrod and Robert Gibbs on the other. The article, based on a forthcoming book about Murdoch by Michael Wolff, says Obama told the Australian-born mogul that he didn't want to waste time talking to Ailes if Fox was going to keep attacking the senator and his wife and portraying him as suspicious and foreign.
Asked for comment about the meeting, Murdoch adviser Gary Ginsberg said both Ailes and Murdoch "had a really cordial and constructive conversation" with Obama.
"They had a frank discussion, aired concerns on our side, and we're happy we were able to air our concerns," said Obama spokesman Bill Burton.
Ailes, who joined the meeting in progress and spoke to Obama for 20 to 25 minutes, disputed the article's assertion that the candidate had "lit into" him. He called Obama "a very charming guy" who is "very smart" and was "gracious" throughout the meeting.
Underneath all the politeness, each side clearly wanted something. Ailes was interested in smoothing relations and having Obama appear on his network, and the senator from Illinois hoped to neutralize a potential adversary and improve his treatment on the nation's top-rated cable news channel.
Upon joining the meeting, Ailes shook Obama's hand and sat down next to him. As Ailes recalls it, he responded to Obama's concern about fairness by saying that "there are opinion shows and there are news shows." Some of the criticism, Ailes told him, has come from conservative commentator and co-host Sean Hannity -- whom he likened to MSNBC's more liberal pundits Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews.
Hannity has led the media pack in repeatedly playing videos of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama's controversial former pastor, and questioning his association with William Ayers, a member of the violent Weather Underground in the 1960s. In a recent interview with Glamour magazine, Obama said Fox News and others went after his wife, Michelle, "in a pretty systematic way. . . . If you start being subjected to rants by Sean Hannity and the like, day in and day out, that'll drive up your negatives."
"If you're asking me if we're going to be in the tank for you, like MSNBC and CNN, the answer is no," Ailes recalls saying. Executives at the rival cable networks say it is Fox's political coverage that has been unfair.
According to Ailes, a onetime adviser to Republican presidential candidates, when Obama asked what issues Ailes was concerned about, he replied, "The sovereignty and security of the United States of America, period." Obama, he said, responded by talking about his love of country and his plans to end the Iraq war.
The talk turned to "The O'Reilly Factor," and Obama said he would appear on the show before the election. Ailes says he told the senator that there would be no "embarrassing or underhanded stuff" in the interview and that if he had any overall concerns about Fox's treatment in the future, he should call Ailes directly.
Murdoch has a history of mending fences with political adversaries whom his news outlets have strongly criticized, from former British prime minister Tony Blair to Sen. Hillary Clinton. An executive familiar with Murdoch's thinking, who declined to be identified discussing private conversations, said Murdoch sought the meeting because he is fascinated by Obama but that the two still have serious policy disagreements.
Asked to assess the sit-down, Ailes said: "I wanted him to understand that we're a real journalism organization and we're going to cover what's there. We're not out to get him. . . . Neither of us was overly aggressive but neither of us blinked."
Howard Kurtz hosts CNN's weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."