Democrats find new outlet in Fox News

Times Staff Writer

Just a year ago, Fox News Channel was considered a pariah in many Democratic circles. But it appears that the cable news network is no longer in the doghouse.

Consider this week: On Sunday, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) made a long-awaited appearance on "Fox News Sunday," a booking that host Chris Wallace had been seeking for more than two years. (The show airs on both the Fox broadcasting network and its sister cable channel.) On Wednesday, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) granted her first interview to Bill O'Reilly, a commentator viewed with antipathy by much of the left, in no small part because of his denunciations of the Clintons in the 1990s. And this coming Sunday, Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean plans to sit down with Wallace for the first time since November 2006.

Last year at this time, liberal activists pressured Democrats to stay off the news channel, which they termed a "Republican mouthpiece," successfully scuttling plans for two Fox-hosted debates. Obama and Clinton, wary of offending the party's base, largely steered clear of Fox News interviews.

These days, the candidates are not so standoffish.

"Fox has given Hillary Clinton better coverage than all the other cables," Clinton campaign Chairman Terry McAuliffe said during a radio interview last week with Fox News' John Gibson.

In recent months, both Democratic contenders have stepped up their appearances on the channel. In the first four months of 2008, Clinton did 10 interviews on Fox News, compared with just three in 2007. Obama has done eight interviews this year after appearing only twice last year.

"Both senators are very smart people," said John Moody, the channel's executive vice president of news editorial. "They're locked in a very tight battle, and they're realizing that coming on Fox News is a way to get themselves exposed to the greatest number of people who watch cable news."

This political season, Fox News has not enjoyed the kind of huge audience gains that rivals CNN and MSNBC have. But it remains the top-ranked cable news network, drawing 1.78 million viewers in prime time so far this year, up 11% compared with the same period last year. (CNN has averaged 1.18 million, up 52%, while MSNBC has drawn 734,000, up 47%.)

"I never really took it very personally that they didn't want to come on here before," said Brit Hume, the network's Washington managing editor. "It was a political play. There was a stage in the primary season when Obama would have been delighted to say, 'See, I'm defying Fox News.' At this point, not so much."

The rapprochement between the Democrats and the cable network comes as the focus of the primary race is shifting from party loyalists to the kind of swing voters who share Fox News' populist sensibilities. The channel is an especially desirable forum on the eve of Tuesday's Democratic primary in Indiana, in which Republican and independent voters can also cast ballots.

"It's a good vehicle to reach a lot of the kind of voters that both Sens. Clinton and Obama want to talk to right now: It's got a solid, blue-collar, middle-class, middle-of-the-road audience," said Democratic strategist Bill Carrick, who is not working for either candidate. "This thing about it being the network of just conservative viewers is just not really true."

A survey of 10,000 people last year by consumer research firm Mediamark Research found that 39% of Fox News' viewers described themselves as being very or somewhat conservative, 47% as middle-of-the-road or undecided, and 14% as very or somewhat liberal. By comparison, CNN's audience is 33% conservative, 47% middle-of-the-road and 20% liberal.

"I was very frustrated when we were the target of this boycott, but I always felt that eventually they would come around, because they need to reach out to our audience," Wallace said. "It has nothing to do with Fox News. It has everything to do with the people who watch Fox News."

The thaw between the network and the Democrats demonstrates the enduring strength of the channel, which has emerged as a political lightning rod in the last decade.

Critics complain that it leans to the right and parrots talking points from the Bush administration. Democrats were especially outraged after "Fox & Friends" anchors last year discussed a now-debunked report in a conservative magazine claiming that Obama had studied at a madrasa, an Islamic religious school, as a child. (The anchors later clarified that Obama said it was false.)

Network executives say there's a difference between the channel's daytime news programs and outspoken nighttime commentators, who they say serve as a counterweight to a liberal media establishment.

Bloggers who mounted the anti-Fox News campaign last year hoping to marginalize the network were dismayed by the major interviews Obama and Clinton granted the channel this week. Websites such as OpenLeft and Daily Kos were bombarded with incredulous postings.

"It legitimizes a right-wing network that is going to use that credibility to smear them in the general election," said Eli Pariser, executive director of MoveOn.org. "They're doing this because it helps them in the short term, but we all know it hurts them in the long term."

Pariser dismissed the renewed dialogue with Fox News as "a moment of weakness."

"The fight is not over," he said. "Fox will do plenty of things to remind the candidates and Democrats why they shouldn't be trusted."

Moody shrugged off such critiques, saying that, because of the channel's strength as a news organization, "we're starting to see people take another look at us."

The Democratic presidential hopefuls are now treating Fox News like a potential ally, not an antagonist. Obama's conversation with Wallace was notably genial, and Clinton was warm and seemed relaxed during her one-on-one with O'Reilly, even when he accused her of being a socialist. ("The O'Reilly Factor," which usually gets about 2 million viewers nightly, drew nearly 3.7 million Wednesday -- the most this year -- when he aired the first part of his sit-down with Clinton.)

It remains to be seen whether the Democrats' engagement with Fox News will cause a rift with the party's grass-roots supporters. On Wednesday, after airing part of his interview with Clinton, O'Reilly was visibly gleeful about what it meant for liberal activists.

"The greatest thing about this interview . . . is that it's emasculated all these far-left extortion types like MoveOn and the Kos, which threatened Hillary Clinton and threatened Barack Obama and all the other Democrats," he said.

When asked about the anxiety among liberal activists regarding the Fox News appearances, spokesmen for both Obama and Clinton said only that the network had long-standing requests to do the interviews, which fit into their schedules this week.

"Bill O'Reilly has a big audience, and Hillary Clinton is in the business of reaching out and talking to people, even if they don't agree with her all the time," added Clinton spokesman Mo Elleithee.

Frustrated by what they see as a pro-Obama slant in much of the media, Clinton backers such as McAuliffe and Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell have been particularly complimentary of Fox News of late.

The channel even ran a promo recently featuring McAuliffe lauding it as "fair and balanced."

Hume said he found the praise "hilarious," considering the fraught history between Democrats and the network.

"To some extent," he added, "it represents the scales falling from their eyes."

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matea.gold@latimes.com

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