The Palin Bus Tour And Fox News' Ethical Morass

Blog ››› ››› SIMON MALOY

When it comes to Sarah Palin's White House intentions, do Fox News executives know something that we don't?

In the past week alone, they've issued two separate statements confirming that the former half-term governor's contract with the news network remains unchanged. That would seem to indicate a certain level of confidence from the network brass that Palin is not going to seek the Republican nomination for the presidency. Either that, or Palin is coyly stringing them along with the pack of the journalists chasing her along I-95.

Given the network's treatment of former contributors -- now candidates -- Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, the former scenario seems the more likely. Both had their contracts with Fox News suspended once they crossed an as-yet undefined threshold of "seriousness" about running, but long before they actually became candidates. Assuming they're applying the same standard, it's reasonable to think that Palin has at least given them some reassurance that her highly publicized bus tour/family vacation to the early primary states has nothing to do with a potential run for the presidency.

But that raises a number of ethical issues:

Palin keeps hinting that she's running. Palin has been determinedly evasive when answering questions about whether or not she'll run, but she's also offered plenty of hints that a candidacy is in the works. She told reporters on May 30 that "there is still a lot of time for folks to make up their minds and jump in and get their campaigns together. The field isn't set yet. Not by a long shot." She spent today in New Hampshire attacking Mitt Romney, who was in New Hampshire today to formally announce his 2012 candidacy (Palin insisted the timing was "coincidental").

So Palin, in her capacity as a Fox News employee, is signaling that she will seek political office. Her bosses, however, are signaling that she won't. What's more, Fox News is paying Sarah Palin as she drives across the country dropping hints about running for higher office.

Fox News personalities are promoting Palin's brand and potential candidacy. Ever since Palin announced her PAC-funded bus tour, she's received plaudits from her Fox News colleagues who are talking up the Palin "brand" and openly speculating about her 2012 chances. That's problematic in and of itself, but the repeated public statements from Fox executives -- the ones that make the editorial and programming decisions -- that Sarah Palin is not, in their eyes, a potential candidate makes clear that they have no problem treating her both as a candidate and an employee.

Is Fox News applying the Santorum/Gingrich standard to Palin? On May 31, ThinkProgress' Alex Seitz-Wald reported that "there is some evidence to suggest Palin and Fox have a mutually beneficial relationship that the skirts the ethical guidelines it has imposed on other 2012 candidates." In the first few days of the bus tour, Palin has given exclusive access to the bus and herself to Fox News colleague Greta Van Susteren. Politico reported that Palin "will also do an interview with Sean Hannity on his Fox News show, to air Friday."

Fox News, of course, has been tight-lipped regarding the threshold an employee must cross to be considered a candidate. And that is the problem. There is no way to determine if they are holding Palin to the same standard that they held Santorum and Gingrich. What is clear is that Palin benefits from her contract with the network, and Fox News stands to benefit from Palin's candidate kabuki. The longer she remains in that candidate gray area, the more money she makes, and the more "exclusive" interviews Fox News gets.

The fact that Fox News has served as a stable for so many 2012 GOP contenders is bad enough, but Palin's newly launched bus tour has made startlingly clear the ethical mess in which Fox News is currently mired.

Fox News Channel
Sarah Palin
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