Sunday, May 27, 2007

For Democrats, Debate on Fox Reveals Divide

The New York Times
For Democrats, Debate on Fox Reveals Divide

WASHINGTON, May 26 — Four years ago, the leaders of the Congressional Black Caucus began looking for a television outlet to co-sponsor and broadcast a presidential debate to address the concerns of minority voters.

Only one news channel made an acceptable proposal, and an unlikely channel at that: Fox News, in what some Democrats viewed as an effort to associate itself with a group that could help it make good on its claim of presenting “fair and balanced” news coverage.

But now that relationship is being shaken by the decision of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, and former Senator John Edwards of North Carolina to shun the debate, a move that has exposed fault lines among two major constituencies of the Democratic Party. While the withdrawal by the candidates frustrated members of the black caucus, it mollified liberals who had objected to the involvement of Fox News, whose programming includes some of the most conservative and pro-Republican commentary on the air.

The sensitivities surrounding the issue were evident this week when a spokeswoman for Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, who is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, said Mr. Richardson would not participate in the debate, which is scheduled for September. But only a few hours later, the spokeswoman phoned the reporter to say that she had misspoken, and that Mr. Richardson had yet to decide. In the interim the reporter had sought a response from the caucus on Mr. Richardson’s apparent withdrawal.

Meanwhile, members of the caucus have been pushing back, with press secretaries for caucus members getting “talking points on how to cast the debate in a positive light,” as one staff member explained it.

The caucus is bent on salvaging what remains of the debate, and of a relationship that has produced other benefits. Not only has Fox given over precious air time for the debate, but an examination shows that its parent company, News Corporation, has also taken other steps to reach out to the group’s constituency, including making campaign donations to the caucus and its members and creating internship programs at predominantly black colleges.

By design or not, News Corporation also gained currency among black and Hispanic leaders by helping orchestrate a campaign to increase the participation of minority viewers in the television ratings system, a task it entrusted to a consulting firm with strong ties to Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton. Mrs. Clinton, in turn, has established a relationship with Rupert Murdoch, the chairman of News Corporation, who, for example, held a fund-raiser for her last year during her Senate re-election campaign.

But the fragility of those alliances, and Fox’s efforts to cultivate them, was cast into the open last month, when Mr. Edwards, Mr. Obama, and Mrs. Clinton announced that they would not participate in the latest debate co-sponsored by Fox and the caucus.

Mr. Edwards, at least, cited what many Democrats had long said privately but had been unwilling to say aloud, given Fox’s large megaphone: that the network is neither fair nor balanced, but tilts right. Neither Mr. Obama nor Mrs. Clinton chose to characterize Fox in withdrawing.

Still, the relationship between the black caucus and Fox News remains beneficial enough to both sides that the caucus continues to insist the show will go on in September, even if the candidates who remain are unlikely to capture either the public’s imagination or the nomination.

While Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware said this week through a spokesman that he would be there, he may not have much company; representatives for two other Democratic candidates, Senator Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut and Representative Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio, did not respond to messages asking whether they were in or out.

Despite a fierce debate within the 43-member caucus over whether to sever ties with Fox News, those representing the caucus in its dealings with Fox have thus far held firm. The network itself has apparently urged the caucus to do just that. There was, for example, a meeting for caucus press secretaries attended by representatives of News Corporation and Fox News, where talk turned to how to publicly present the merits of the debate. (Also working in Fox’s favor is that the debate is to be held in Detroit, the home city of Representative Carolyn Cheeks Kirkpatrick, the caucus chairwoman.)

Democratic advocates, meanwhile, especially with those affiliated with, have sought to drive a wedge between the caucus and Fox News.

But all of these machinations may ultimately prove moot. “If the candidates are not going to participate, then you don’t have a debate worthy of viewership,” said Representative Charles B. Rangel, one of the most prominent members of the caucus, whose district includes Harlem. “They made the decision for us, and for Fox.”

A Fox News spokeswoman declined to comment for this article, or to make available anyone else at the channel, including Roger Ailes, the chairman and chief executive of Fox News.

The partnership between Fox News and the caucus began in earnest in 2003, when the news channel responded to the caucus’s request for a broadcast partner for its debates for the 2004 presidential election. (Technically, the caucus was sponsoring the debate through an affiliate group, the Congressional Black Caucus Political Education and Leadership Institute; the use of the institute gives the caucus itself some distance, even though several prominent caucus members are on the institute board.)

Fox’s proposal included broadcasting the debates in prime time, giving the caucus a say in selecting moderators and covering much of the production cost, said one former caucus staff member close to the negotiations. The Fox proposal beat out at least one other offer, made by Black Entertainment Television, the former staff member said.

Months after joining forces with the caucus, Fox News created internships for students at Morgan State University, a black college in Baltimore, in the Congressional district of Representative Elijah E. Cummings, who was then chairman of the caucus.

In June 2003, its political action committee, known as News America-Fox, made a $1,000 contribution to Mr. Cummings’s political committee.

The Fox group later made contributions of at least $1,000 each to other caucus members, including Representatives Sheila Jackson-Lee of Texas, and Gregory W. Meeks and Edolphus Towns of New York. The political arm of the caucus itself received a $5,000 contribution from the Fox group, in May 2006. And on the Web site of its foundation, the caucus lists News Corporation among several dozen corporate sponsors.

Though Howard Dean and Senators John Kerry, John Edwards and Joseph I. Lieberman appeared in 2003 at the Fox-caucus debate, the absence of the leading candidates this time around, including Mr. Edwards, underscores the change in the political climate.

Among the reasons Democrats have been willing to take on Fox News more stridently than before is the galvanizing of the left around its opposition to the Bush White House, especially its handling of the Iraq war. Meanwhile, Fox’s viewership declined last year, perhaps emboldening Democrats who may no longer see it as having quite the reach it once did, especially with Congress now in the control of the Democrats.

In this atmosphere, some Democrats have begun to question the news channel’s motives for courting the caucus.

James Rucker, executive director of a group that has tried to mobilize opposition to the partnership between Fox News and the caucus, said that the news channel was using its association with the caucus to inoculate itself against criticism that its coverage of Democrats in general and blacks in particular was biased.

“This is Fox’s brilliance,” said Mr. Rucker, whose group is known as the Color of Change. “In ’03, they made a brilliant investment. On the one hand, they got to be aligned with the brand of the Congressional Black Caucus. On the other hand, they got to proceed with business as usual.”

Mr. Meeks acknowledged that Fox, in partnering with the caucus on the debates, seemed to be trying to do a little image-building. But he said at least Fox was willing to sponsor the debate, when no other network would.

“Fox was trying to at least give the appearance they could be what their slogan is: fair and balanced,” he said. “I would have to give them their due.”

Mr. Meeks said that he had yet to decide whether to advocate canceling the debate. Fox’s supporters within the caucus have moved quickly to close ranks, even taking the unusual step of sending a letter to candidates seeking the Democratic nomination, urging them to participate in the debate and noting “the importance to African-Americans and others to hear from you.”

While 26 members of the caucus signed the letter, it is also notable who did not, including Representative Maxine Waters of California, a prominent and powerful member of the group.

Asked about the debate in a brief telephone interview, Ms. Waters said only, “I’m opposed to it.”

It is perhaps telling that the last of three candidates to spurn the debate was Mrs. Clinton. Her top communications adviser, Howard Wolfson, helped run News Corporation’s campaign seeking more black representation in the Nielsen television ratings. He did so in his capacity as a partner in the Glover Park Group, the consulting firm hired by News Corporation.

For now, at least, the caucus and Fox News can count on having at least one participant, Mr. Biden. Luis Navarro, Mr. Biden’s spokesman, said in an interview that Mr. Biden would be there because the caucus represented “an important base” and Fox offered an unparalleled forum for a candidate “to hold the Bush administration’s feet to the fire on their handling of Iraq.”

Raymond Hernandez reported from Washington, and Jacques Steinberg from New York.