Democrats Cancel Fox Debate After Ailes Speech

Botched Obama Joke Leads to Withdrawal; Edwards Hits Back

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WASHINGTON (AdAge.com) -- Roger Ailes' March 8 speech castigating former Sen. John Edwards for dropping out of a Fox News-sponsored presidential primary debate seems to have had an effect.
Roger Ailes' joke about Barack Obama is being cited by Democrats as their reason for pulling out of a planned presidential-primary debate on Fox News.
Roger Ailes' joke about Barack Obama is being cited by Democrats as their reason for pulling out of a planned presidential-primary debate on Fox News.
The Nevada Democratic Party has followed the lead of Mr. Edwards, canceling the debate in its entirety and laying the blame at the feet of the Fox News Chairman-CEO -- but they're saying it was a joke, not the debate comments, that pushed them to this point.

Botched joke
Despite the turmoil surrounding the speech, the official reason given by the party for withdrawal was a botched joke in which President George W. Bush confuses Illinois Sen. Barack Obama with Osama bin Laden.

Either way, in a potential indication of problems ahead in the campaign between Fox and Democrats, the Nevada party announced the decision late Friday. Party officials were already under strong pressure from liberal bloggers and MoveOn.org over its choice of Fox, which is seen as a tool of the Republican Party in those circles.

Nevada Democratic Chairman Tom Collins and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said in a letter to Fox that their original selection of the channel as host reflected the party's desire "to reach out to new voters."

"To say the least, this was not a popular decision. But it is one that the Democratic Party stood by. However, comments made [Thursday] night by Fox News President Roger Ailes in reference to one of our presidential candidates went too far. We cannot, as good Democrats, put our party in a position to defend such comments."

The real reason
But that comment, according to Mr. Reid and Mr. Collins, had nothing to do with Mr. Ailes slamming Mr. Edwards (though not by name), and everything to do with the Obama joke.

Mr. Ailes, receiving an award at the Washington First Amendment dinner put on by the Radio and Television News Directors Association foundation, reacted to Mr. Edwards' day-old decision to skip the debate because of Fox's involvement by warning Democrats about blacklisting any media.

"If you are afraid of journalists, how will you face the real dangers in the world?" Mr. Ailes asked. "Any candidate for high office of either party who believes he can blacklist any news organization is making a terrible mistake about journalism. And any candidate of either party who cannot answer direct simple, even tough questions from any journalist runs a real risk of losing the voters."

Before getting to that theme, Mr. Ailes offered a few joking headlines, and one mentioned Sen. Obama, a Democratic presidential hopeful.

"It is true that Barack Obama is on the move. I don't know if it's true that President Bush called Musharraf and said, 'Why can't we catch this guy?'"

Democrats pointed to the joke as the immediate reason for dropping the debate, but there had been extensive and continuing pressure on Nevada Democrats to drop Fox long before the joke was delivered.

Fox issued a statement late Friday decrying the move.

"News organizations will want to think twice before getting involved in the Nevada Democratic Caucus, which appears to be controlled by radical, fringe, out-of-state interest groups, not the Nevada Democratic Party. In the past, MoveOn.org has said they 'own' the Democratic Party. While most Democrats don't agree with that, it's clearly the case in Nevada," said David Rhodes, VP-Fox News.

Fox also contended the joke was on President Bush, not Sen. Obama.

Wherever the joke was directed, the incident showed the extent of some Democrats' ire over Fox News Channel's coverage and raised the possibility that Fox could be covering a campaign in which the channel itself is an issue.

Edwards hits back
Evidence of that was immediately offered by the Edwards campaign, which launched a new fundraising appeal based on Mr. Ailes comments.

John Edwards
John Edwards Credit: Nancy Kaszerman
"Enough is enough. It's time to send a clear message to Fox News and their allies that their right-wing talking points and temper tantrums won't go unchallenged anymore -- when it comes to what Democrats should do in the Democratic primary, we'll decide -- no matter what they report," wrote deputy campaign manager Jonathan Price.

"Fox News has already proven they have no intention of providing 'fair and balanced' coverage of any Democrat in this election.

"In recent weeks they have run blatant lies about Sen. Obama's background. And Fox was only too happy to give Ann Coulter a platform to spew more hate a few days after her bigoted attack on Sen. Edwards and the gay community.

"Now it's time for Democrats to stand together and send a clear message to Roger Ailes, Fox News and all the rest of them: Bias isn't balance, but turning tables is fair. The truth is, Fox News can 'report' whatever they want. And when it works for us, we'll deal with them on our terms. But this campaign is about responsibility and accountability, and we need to send the message to Fox that if they want to be the corporate mouthpiece of the Republican Party more than they want to be an impartial news outlet, they shouldn't expect Democrats to play along."

In a postscript, Mr. Price suggested Mr. Ailes shouldn't be chastising anyone about not participating in debates, citing a comment Mr. Ailes made in 1988, while still a GOP political consultant, that no more than one debate is really needed.

"So please send Roger Ailes a message: Hypocrisy isn't fair, and it isn't balanced; it's just hypocrisy -- and we've had enough of it from you."
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