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In the Crossfire

Fox chief too cozy with White House?

Jim Warren, Chicago Tribune deputy managing editor: "As journalists we work a different side of the street than the folks on the government side do."

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Bob Woodward reports in his new book, "Bush at War," that Fox News Channel Chairman Roger Ailes sent a communication to the White House after the September 11, 2001, attacks advising President Bush on public perception of his actions.

Ailes' message raises the question: Should news executives weigh in on issues with the government, or does it hurt their credibility?

Mike Gallagher, a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host, and Jim Warren, the Chicago Tribune's deputy managing editor, joined "Crossfire" hosts Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala to debate the issue.

CARLSON: In his latest book, reporter Bob Woodward reveals how Roger Ailes, the head of Fox News Channel, tried to influence Oval Office decisions in the days following September 11. The question at hand was when and how to retaliate for the terrorist attacks?

Woodward reports that Ailes sent this profoundly back-channel message to the White House. [According to the book], "The American public would tolerate waiting, and would be patient, but only as long as they were convinced that Bush was using the harshest measures possible. The support would dissipate if the public did not see Bush acting harshly."

Woodward said the message was passed on by the president's top political adviser, Karl Rove. Quoting again from the book, "Roger Ailes, former media guru for Bush's father, had a message. Rove told the president. It had to be confidential because Ailes, a flamboyant and irreverent media executive, was currently the head of Fox News Channel, the conservative-leaning television cable network that was enjoying high ratings. In that position, Ailes was not supposed to be giving political advice."

BEGALA: The Washington Post ran excerpts from Mr. Woodward's book in its Sunday edition. Mr. Ailes put out a written response [Monday]. He says, "Bob Woodward's characterization of my memo is incorrect. In the days following 9/11 our country came together in a nonpartisan support of the president. During that time, I wrote a personal note to a White House staff member as a concerned American expressing my outrage about the attacks on our country. I did not give up my American citizenship to take this job."

CARLSON: Now, Mike Gallagher, before we even get into the meat of this, I want to know what you make of this whiny, pompous line, "I did not give up my American citizenship to take this job."

Isn't that exactly the kind of ludicrous straw man that liberals use to great effect? This idea [that] if you criticize Roger Ailes, [that] you're somehow trying to take away his citizenship as an American?

GALLAGHER: Well, no, I mean that's what is so ludicrous about this controversy, Tucker. ... I can't believe that we're sitting here at CNN, founded by the mouth of the South, Ted Turner, and we're bellyaching about Roger Ailes writing a note to the president of the United States. You don't think Ted Turner, with any of his loony views, ever tried to share an opinion with the White House that he was chummy with? Come on, Tucker.

CARLSON: Now, Mike, here's the problem. And without even defending or attempting to defend Ted Turner, which I would never do, here is the distinction. Ted Turner is not running CNN. Ted Turner is not in our editorial meetings. Roger Ailes is the editorial chief of Fox News, and this gives the appearance of partisanship. This makes it look like Roger Ailes is sucking up to power.

GALLAGHER: Come on. Rewind then and go back to Bob Woodward's boss during the height of his Watergate glory days, which he seems to be trying to re-create, by the way. His boss was Katharine Graham, the Washington, D.C., socialite and friend to many U.S. presidents. You don't think Katharine Graham ever expressed an opinion to a president that she was buds with? Come on, Tucker. He does have a right. ...

BEGALA: Let me bring Jim Warren into this. I'm not a friend of Roger Ailes or a fan of the Fox News Channel, but what is wrong with a president in crisis receiving information or advice from any American who wants to offer it?

WARREN: I think the tip-off right here with Ailes is it that it had to be kept confidential. Why is that? Why would Roger Ailes or Rove be embarrassed by public disclosure of this counsel of Roger Ailes? It is obvious why.

As journalists we work a different side of the street than the folks on the government side do. Especially when it comes to the temptations that we face, the temptation particularly in Washington to be beguiled by power. The temptations especially when it comes to access -- to gain a little access and [to] get something in return.

Those are the sorts of things that all too many folks in Washington, I think, tend to trip over. I don't know Mr. Ailes personally, and I'll stipulate to the fact he's been an entrepreneurial, if not a genius, a very smart guy. He's got his competitors on the run.

But the fact is when it comes to marketing that channel, he markets it as a journalistic Switzerland. An island of neutrality and de-liberal Sodom and Gomorrah of you guys at CNN and MSNBC. ...

GALLAGHER: It is working because it is true. ...

BEGALA: Excuse me, Mike. Let me suggest an alternative theory as to why he wants to keep it silent. I'm not a journalist. I don't have a background in journalism; I don't really understand and know all the rules. I know you do. You are a career journalist.

But I used to be an adviser to a president and know a lot about advising a president. This is the most ... stupid advice I've ever seen offered to a president. They killed 3,000 of our people. Did he really think that Bush was going to fold up? Was any American out there saying, "Gee, Mr. President, don't avenge 3,000 people slaughtered?" It's the dumbest thing I've ever seen in my life. ...

GALLAGHER: You guys have a field day jumping up and down with Roger Ailes and Jim sitting there all somber about what journalists do or don't. You see, Jim, the American public gets it. We understand that there has been a liberal agenda foisted upon us by the main street press for all these years.

So finally a news channel comes along that doesn't suppress or stifle conservative voices, and you guys can't stand it. You can't figure the formula out.

WARREN: Mike, despite your reluctance to discuss your views on it and being so low profile, let me say this goes beyond ideology. It is not a matter of left or right; it is a matter of making a mistake of becoming an actor in the political process.

Here is the problem for the hard-working folks at Fox -- the grunt producers and other folks. The problem is, say, you send a note, and then Roger Ailes gets a call back from Karl Rove, and maybe even the president saying, "Roger, thanks so much for that." You then open the door to that call somewhere down the line, maybe benign, "Hey, can you get so-and-so on your Sunday morning talk show?" or maybe more significant.

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