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Fox should have let Ricks speak

By Howard Kurtz, CNN
November 28, 2012 -- Updated 2327 GMT (0727 HKT)
Author Tom Ricks criticized Fox News on that network; his interview was ended abruptly.
Author Tom Ricks criticized Fox News on that network; his interview was ended abruptly.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A Fox News interview with author Thomas Ricks was cut short
  • Ricks said "Fox was operating as a wing of the Republican Party"
  • Howard Kurtz: Fox acted too self-protectively rather than allow a debate on its role
  • Kurtz says other cable anchors have shut down guests who question their networks

Editor's note: Howard Kurtz is the host of CNN's "Reliable Sources" and is Newsweek's Washington bureau chief. He is also a contributor to the website Daily Download.

(CNN) -- It was a remarkably short interview by cable news standards.

The moment that veteran military reporter Thomas Ricks, in an appearance on Fox News, begin to unload on Fox, he found his segment abruptly ended. Thank you, very much. Nice of you to drop by. Adios, amigo.

Some of those who love to dish it out, it seems, aren't very big on taking it.

Howard Kurtz
Howard Kurtz

The self-protective shield that some media organizations erect around their companies is hardly limited to Rupert Murdoch's network. But what happened with Ricks this week is a case study in sidelining a guest who dared challenge the premise of a story.

To be sure, anchor Jon Scott was polite and didn't interrupt Ricks, but he couldn't have hustled him off the set faster if he had used a vaudeville-style hook.

Watch: Should Fox have pulled plug on Tom Ricks for ripping the network?

Ricks, a longtime reporter for the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, has been making the rounds to talk about his latest book, "The Generals." (He appeared on "Reliable Sources" on Sunday, and I welcomed his criticism of the media.) Fox, not surprisingly, wanted to focus on an issue that it frames as a scandal: the Obama administration's handling of the fatal attack on American diplomats in Libya.

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Fox's angle was clear from Scott's setup: "Right now, pressure mounting on the Obama administration over its response to the deadly attack on our consulate in Benghazi."

But Ricks didn't pull his punches based on the venue. "I think Benghazi was generally hyped by this network especially," he said.

Scott pushed back, which he had every right to do: "When you have four people dead, including the first U.S. ambassador in more than 30 years, how do you call that hype?"

That's when Ricks, after explaining the difficulty of determining what happened in a firefight, went for the jugular: "I think that the emphasis on Benghazi has been extremely political, partly because Fox was operating as a wing of the Republican Party."

Petraeus and the press
Ricks on Broadwell's book

The interview was over, less than 90 seconds after it started.

Was Ricks being deliberately provocative? Perhaps he was, for controversy sells books. And maybe his criticism was overstated. But the fact remains that he was invited as a guest, was asked about the Libya attack and responded in a way that made Fox's relentless coverage of the controversy part of the story. And that was deemed unacceptable.

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Michael Clemente, Fox's executive vice president, told me that Ricks's conduct "felt like a stunt ... That was just bush league, especially for a veteran reporter." Ricks wasn't answering the anchor's question, says Clemente, and Scott, feeling "offended," decided that "I'm not going to give this guy any more airtime."

What's more, Clemente says, Ricks "apologized" to a Fox staffer on the way out.

Ricks denies this, saying he told the staffer, who accused him of being rude, that he "might have been a bit snappish" because he was tired from his book tour.

"This was in no way an apology," Ricks told me, "but rather an explanation of why I jumped a bit when the anchor began the segment with the assertion that pressure on the White House was building, which it most clearly was not."

As for the interview itself, "I was not picking a fight with Fox. I was answering their questions."

Watch: Why Matt Lauer is getting a bum rap on Twitter

Had Scott wanted to argue that his network was right to pound away at the administration's shifting stories on Libya, and that it was the rest of the media that was underplaying the matter, they could have had a substantive discussion. Instead, it was over before it began.

"You have a point," Clemente said. "It could have been a back-and-forth debate. But that's just not Jon's style. Jon is a more traditional anchor-reporter."

The episode reminded me of an uncomfortable clash in 2010 when Fox anchor Megyn Kelly repeatedly berated Kirsten Powers, a liberal contributor to the network, for challenging her constant harping on a minor scandal involving the New Black Panther Party. Kelly repeatedly interrupted her guest, told Powers she didn't know what she was talking about and at one point threatened to cut her mike. The difference is that Kelly later realized she had gone too far and told me she had apologized to Powers.

The anchor, of course, holds the power in such situations. In May, MSNBC's Tamron Hall was interviewing Tim Carney, a conservative columnist for the Washington Examiner. She asked about Mitt Romney's testy reaction to a reporter's question, the day after a report that the candidate had bullied another student in high school, when Carney tried to turn the tables.

"What you're doing here is a typical media trick," he said. "You hype up a story and justify the second-day coverage of the story."

Hall began lecturing Carney, saying "you don't have to answer a single question and you didn't have to accept the invitation to come on ... You're kind of in my house here," as if he were an unruly dinner guest.

As Carney tried to get a word in, Hall kept talking over him: "You're irritating me right now ... You're not gonna come on and insult me, you're not gonna come on and insult the network when you knew what we were gonna talk about. Done." And he was. The anchor went to another guest and Carney had been summarily dismissed for challenging MSNBC's handling of the story.

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What's at issue here is not that on-air personalities sometimes let their tempers flare; anyone spending many hours on the air (including me) may get a little peevish now and then. It's an attitude that one's own organization is so above reproach that a guest's criticism amounts to insulting behavior. And since anchors pride themselves on their aggressive questioning, they look small and defensive when they shut down the guest.

Not everyone fits this description, of course. In fact, Fox's Bill O'Reilly seems to relish the chance to repeat the swipes of anyone who takes him on, punch back and invite the offender on for a debate (which many decline).

Cable news can be a rough arena. But honest debate, even with puglistic guests, ought to be a two-way street.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Howard Kurtz.

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