Cable news is more than open to debates

Times Staff Writer

Back in October, Fox News gleefully announced that it would be presenting the first debate of the 2008 campaign, a face-off between the Republican presidential contenders set to be held this month in Columbia, S.C.

In the end, Tuesday’s forum at the University of South Carolina will be the third of the season, following on the heels of two debates on MSNBC. (Fox News has now dubbed its event the “First-in-the-South” Republican debate.)

“I think it always bothers you a little bit not to be first, but things change so quickly,” said Marty Ryan, executive producer of Fox News’ political programs. “When we signed the deal with the South Carolina Republican Party, I said to the chairman, ‘You know, we’ve now put a marker on the calendar that everyone is going to be looking at.’ ”


The accelerated pace of the 2008 campaign has not only triggered a race between states eager to host the first primaries. It’s also prompted a scramble by the television networks for a part of the political action, leading to a slew of nationally televised debates months before the first ballots are cast.

After Fox News revealed the details of its debate in South Carolina, MSNBC declared it would hold its own forum there with the Democratic candidates three weeks earlier. Not to be outdone, CNN tried to get ahead of the pack by scheduling two debates in New Hampshire in early April -- only to have to postpone them until June because of a lack of candidate participation. Before the year is out, there are expected to be as many as 20 televised debates.

“The jockeying between the networks to have the first debates is sort of similar to the jockeying happening between the states to have the first primaries,” said Jenny Backus, a Democratic consultant who helped organize MSNBC’s South Carolina forum last month. “There’s an enormous amount of interest among not only the media, but also the voters, to start this process right away.”

For the cable news networks, the events offer an opportunity to attach their brand to one of the dominant stories of the next 18 months. CNN (which is co-sponsoring two debates with the Los Angeles Times in 2008) boasts about its political team in ads that declare “CNN = Politics.” MSNBC has already turned over much of its schedule to political programming, aiming to become the destination for election coverage. And Fox News is in discussions to produce as many as eight more debates in various states throughout the course of the campaign.

“We think they play to our strong suit,” Ryan said. “They give a great boost to the news organizations involved.”

Brit Hume, managing editor of Fox News’ Washington bureau, who will be moderating Tuesday’s debate, said that big political events provide opportunities to woo new viewers.

“In 2000, we had a tremendous number of people who turned to us during the Florida recount, and a lot of them were still there when the news died down,” he said.

Of course, back then Fox News was still an upstart cable channel lagging behind industry leader CNN. For the last five years, it has been the top dog in cable news and is increasingly the target of Democratic critics, who accuse the channel of having a conservative bias.

This year, liberal activists have protested Fox News’ hosting of Democratic debates, resulting in the scuttling of a Nevada forum the network was going to moderate in August. The fate of another Democratic debate Fox News is scheduled to hold in September with the Congressional Black Caucus Political Education and Leadership Institute is up in the air now that top candidates Hillary Clinton, John Edwards and Barack Obama have all said they will not attend. And the Democratic National Committee has said that Fox News will not be included in the party’s six officially sanctioned forums this year.

Hume, who dismisses the notion that the channel’s news coverage is slanted, is philosophical about the flap.

“It’s good politics for some of those politicians to try to take on Fox News, which is regarded in the left wing as something approaching the forces of evil,” he said, adding that he was hopeful the black caucus debate would still take place. “If they won’t be part of it, so be it.”

The network has received a decidedly warmer response from the GOP; Katon Dawson, chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party, said Fox News had done “a tremendous job” organizing Tuesday’s forum. Still, pulling off a successful event is no easy task, especially with such a crowded field.

“It’s very difficult with 10 candidates on the stage,” Hume said. “Everybody has to have a say, and people have to have a certain right to respond. Just trying to get a sense of whether you’re giving roughly equal time, you can work your way halfway into a straightjacket.”

Hume, who will be joined by “Fox News Sunday” anchor Chris Wallace and White House correspondent Wendell Goler in posing questions to the candidates, was still working out the exact format of the debate late last week. He said his aim was to generate a lively discussion without getting in the way.

“There’s a fine line between being aggressive and effectively prompting the candidates and being intrusive,” Hume said. “We’re not the story. We don’t have any grand ideas about our role here.”

For all the resources Fox News and the other networks are pouring into the early debates, it remains unclear how much of an appetite voters actually have to watch political forums right now. MSNBC’s first debate between the Democratic candidates on April 26 drew 2.26 million viewers -- a sizable audience for cable but just a third of the number that tune into a network evening newscast on any given night. MSNBC’s GOP debate at the Reagan Library a week later drew just 1.76 million viewers.

Hume attributed the lower ratings for the Republican forum to the current political climate.

“I think Republicans are a little down and averting their gaze,” he said, adding that Fox News’ debate would likely garner more viewers. “It’s not like they can go watch Bill O'Reilly while we’re on.”