The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward just published a story revealing that Fox News CEO Roger Ailes dispatched a Fox News defense analyst to deliver a personal request to Gen. David Petraeus. Ailes sent K.T. McFarland to Kabul, Afghanistan, with the message that Ailes wanted Petraeus to run against Barack Obama for president.
The notion of a news network soliciting candidates for political office is a repulsive perversion of the role journalists play in society. Ailes heads a network that pretends to be “fair and balanced” while brazenly campaigning on behalf of the Republican Party and conservative policies. But taking that a step further into the jurisdiction of GOP candidate recruitment is a violation of the core tenets of journalistic ethics.
In the audio that Woodward posted, McFarland can be heard discussing particulars of a Petraeus candidacy including the possibility of it being run by Ailes himself, and bankrolled by Rupert Murdoch. Murdoch has already contributed untold millions of dollars to GOP campaigns via free airtime and unconstrained support from Fox anchors, contributors, and guests. Their advocacy was so overwhelming this year that it resulted in a stunned electorate on the Republican side who believed, due to Fox coverage, that their victory was in the bag.
The conversation between Petraeus and McFarland was rife with ethical breaches on the part of McFarland. For instance, she began her message from Ailes saying “What I’m supposed to say directly from him to you, through me, is first of all, is there anything Fox is doing, right or wrong, that you want to tell us to do differently?” No self-respecting reporter would ever take orders from an interview subject on how to shape the coverage of their news. And it’s an even worse offense when it comes from the head of the operation.
What’s more, McFarland’s behavior should disqualify her from appearing on Fox as an analyst. How can she be trusted to be objective after gushing that she and “everyone at Fox love” the General? That bit of sycophancy notwithstanding, McFarland did return from Kabul and appeared on Fox with praise for Petraeus as “one of the greatest generals in American history.”
Petraeus responded to McFarland by expressing his distaste for certain criticisms of the Afghan war effort, which he said may have just been attributable to the headlines. So McFarland accommodated him by saying that it was “easy to fix” because she sits next to the woman who writes them. For McFarland to promise to insure more flattering headlines in articles about the general would be cause for termination from a reputable news organization.
Then McFarland hit Petraeus with Ailes’ advice that he reject any appointment offered by the President other than Chairman of the joint Chiefs of Staff. She said that Ailes specifically singled out the CIA as a post Petraeus should not accept. Her characterization of the machinations of the White House involved some sort of plot to dump Petraeus at the CIA where he wouldn’t be heard from and would not pose a threat to Obama’s reelection. Again, where do McFarland and Ailes get off politicking like this?
Despite the advice of Ailes, Petraeus told McFarland that he regarded the CIA and intelligence as a growth industry where he felt he could make a significant contribution. Obama later did offer him the job, but he was not as silent in that role as he might have hoped. The disclosure of his marital infidelity ended his career at the CIA and much of the speculation about his future.
When Woodward contacted Ailes to get his response to the McFarland/Petraeus tapes, Ailes admitted that he sent McFarland on this mission, but attempted to play down the candidate recruitment aspect of it:
“It was more of a joke, a wiseass way I have. I thought the Republican [primary] field needed to be shaken up and Petraeus might be a good candidate.”
Anyone who believes that dodge is sorely in need of a transfusion of healthy skepticism. It is highly unlikely that Ailes sent McFarland to Kabul to tell Petraeus a joke. He clearly wanted the General to run for president, just like he also wanted Chris Christie to do so after Petraeus declined. It was Ailes’ objective, and that of Boss Murdoch, to bring about the defeat of Obama.
But it is also notable that Ailes felt it was his right and/or duty to shake up the GOP primaries. News people are supposed to report the news, not make it. Where does this sort of chicanery end? If Ailes thought the debate over the budget should be shaken up, might he send a hooker to the hotel room of the House Budget Committee chair? If he thought the Supreme Court ruling on ObamaCare needed a jolt of excitement would he plant some cocaine on a wavering justice? If he needed additional ammo with which to attack Obama, would he manufacture a phony controversy about the President being responsible for the murders of U.S. diplomats in Benghazi? Oh, wait a minute, Ailes actually did that last one already.
The revelations contained in Woodward’s story affirm that Ailes is a Machiavellian scoundrel and that Fox News is a rogue operation. Their intrusion into the political process debases journalism by breaching all standards of ethical conduct. And they debase democracy as well by exploiting their power and wealth to manipulate political outcomes. Roger Ailes has now provided verification for every criticism of his villainy that has been directed at him. And Fox News continues to lack any moral standing to be considered a legitimate news enterprise.
[Addendum 12/20/12] The media has largely ignored this story, an omission that has now been noticed and pointedly analyzed by Woodward’s former partner, Carl Bernstein, in an article for The Guardian.