Fox News rallies behind Wallace, attacks Clinton

››› ››› ROB DIETZ, RYAN CHIACHIERE, BRIAN LEVY, KURT DONALDSON & ANDREW SEIFTER

Fox News dedicated its coverage of an interview of President Clinton by Chris Wallace to portraying Wallace as the victim, while depicting Clinton as having a "complete meltdown," an "angry explosion," a "volcanic reaction," and as going on a "tirade" during the interview.

In the days following a taped interview between Fox News host Chris Wallace and former President Bill Clinton, which aired on the September 24 edition of Fox News Broadcasting Co.'s Fox News Sunday, Fox News dedicated wall-to-wall coverage to the interview, portraying Wallace as a victim of an overbearing Clinton.

For example, Fox News hosts and guests referred to Clinton's behavior during the interview as a "complete meltdown," an "angry explosion," a "volcanic reaction," and a "tirade." On the 9 a.m. ET hour of the September 25 edition of Fox News Live, Weekly Standard editor William Kristol compared Clinton's remarks in the interview to the angry reaction of many Muslims to controversial remarks by Pope Benedict XVI, stating: "[I]t's like the way they've attacked the pope, you know -- they want to put certain questions out of ... bounds," such as "[a]re you [Democrats] tough enough -- do you have the right understanding in fighting radical Islam and fighting the jihadists?" One hour later, on the 10 a.m. ET hour of the September 25 edition of Fox News Live, Fox News political analyst Tammy Bruce said that Clinton "has gone over the edge" and declared: "I know that Bill Clinton's probably been told by a number of women to stop touching them, but never necessarily by a man." During an interview with Wallace on the September 24 edition of Fox News Weekend, Fox News correspondent Brian Wilson remarked: "It was amazing to see him come alive, practically come out of the chair and get in your face when you started talking about this topic." The interview with Wilson was one of four that Wallace participated in on Fox News after his interview with Clinton. During the September 25 edition of Fox & Friends, he said that interviewing Clinton "was like being on the -- at the bottom of a mountain and suddenly seeing an avalanche come down."

Moreover, in defending Wallace, Fox hosts and guests repeatedly suggested that Clinton's accusation of Wallace and other Fox hosts -- that "you people ask me questions you don't ask the other side" -- was unwarranted:

  • During an interview with Wallace on the September 24 edition of Fox News Live, co-host Eric Shawn applauded Wallace for "standing up" to Clinton and said that since Wallace has been journalist for 30 years, he "would ask these questions were [he] at Fox News, ABC News or BET, because the questions are real about his legacy." Shawn then suggested that Clinton was "just trying to just spin it around as a PR puff piece."

  • Similarly, when Shawn interviewed Fox News contributor Liz Trotta on the same program, Trotta stated: "I think it was unfair to try to pin a reporter to the wall that way." Shawn responded: "And Chris Wallace, I mean, this guy is a professional who has been in this business for three decades. He comes from a glorious legacy of a family in the broadcasting business, and those, to me, were completely legitimate, right-on questions ... that the American public wants to know the answers to."

  • On the September 24 edition of The Big Story Weekend, radio host Joe Pagliarulo asserted that Wallace is "an awesome journalist" who is "not leaning in one way or the other in any interview I've ever seen." Similarly, on the September 25 edition of Fox News Live, anchor Jane Skinner stated of the Wallace-Clinton interview: "I mean, it turned oddly personal. And if you're going to talk about somebody doing a hit job or doing Fox's bidding, et cetera, et cetera, Chris Wallace is certainly not the guy. As you know him, has a great reputation."

  • On the September 25 edition of Fox & Friends First, co-host Steve Doocy asserted that "Wallace is someone who ... comes from a network background who rides the middle of the fence, who asks equally tough questions on each side."

But as Media Matters for America has documented, in numerous interviews with senior Bush aides, Wallace has repeatedly failed to ask pressing questions regarding the Bush administration's efforts to pursue Al Qaeda in the eight months prior to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks -- and in the years since.

Fox News' coverage also included several outright falsehoods. For example, Trotta claimed that "in the summer of '98, when he [Clinton] decided to lob a few missiles in the Sudan, you know, he had just given his grand jury testimony. That was absolutely paramount in everybody's mind. Even the 9-11 Commission cites that the Monica Lewinsky scandal was very much on his mind and controlling events." In fact, the 9-11 Commission concluded in its report that it "found no reason to question" Clinton officials' claims that the Clinton administration's response to Al Qaeda's August 7, 1998, dual attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania was based "solely on national security considerations," as Media Matters has noted. The September 25 premiere of the new Fox News program The Live Desk, also advanced falsehoods about the Clinton and Bush terrorism records, as Media Matters documented.

From the 10 a.m. ET hour of the September 24 edition of Fox News' Fox News Live:

SHAWN: Chris, good for you for standing up. He accused you of "doing Fox's bidding," and that's a quote, and of, quote, "a nice little conservative hit job." And Chris, you have been a journalist for 30 years. I think you would have asked these questions whether you were at Fox News, ABC News, or BET because the questions are real about his legacy. Or is he trying to just spin it around as a PR puff piece?

WALLACE: You know, here's the interesting thing about this: He did a bunch of interviews over the course of this last week. He talked to [CNN's] Larry King for about a half an hour. He did Tim Russert [host of NBC's Meet the Press], Keith Olbermann [host of MSNBC's Countdown], [NBC's] Meredith Vieira on the Today show. I've looked at all these interviews. I was the only one to ask him about his record fighting Al Qaeda. I have to say, particularly after the controversy over ABC and the docudrama, The Path to 9/11, I find that astonishing. Not that I asked it, but that none of the others did ask it. And, you know, I didn't think it was going to be inflammatory. I thought he'd, you know, handle it for 30 seconds, we'd move on. He accused me of having a smirk at one point. Frankly, I was in wonder at this kind of tidal wave of emotion on his part.

SHAWN: Was he -- finally, do you think he's just, really defensive because he knows you got him on something, and this is an outstanding issue of his administration.

WALLACE: I don't think I got him on anything, honestly, Eric. I think I just asked him a question that's a legitimate public-policy question. You know, there have been books written about it. There's a new book out called The Looming Tower (Knopf, August 2006), written by a liberal journalist, Lawrence Wright. It's one of the top, best sellers in America right now. You know, it's a legitimate issue. Could he have done more during his eight years in office. And for some reason, this became a conservative hit job.

SHAWN: Well, we expect the tough questions from you, Chris Wallace, no matter who the subject is or the interviewer is. We thank you so much for your insight on your experience with the president.

WALLACE: Yeah, I was going to say, he should have seen the email I got two weeks ago when I was questioning Secretary of State [Condoleezza] Rice, that I was too tough on her. I guess it's all part of the job.

[...]

SHAWN: Well. Well. We know he has an anger. We've seen it before.

TROTTA: You can see the whites of his blue eyes.

SHAWN: Chris really got -- touched his buttons, boy.

TROTTA: Well, you know, it's unfair. It's unfair. In answer to your major question, yes, I think it was a meltdown. I think Clinton's temper is legendary.

SHAWN: Yup.

TROTTA: And I think he felt that here at Fox, which he regards as the belly of the beast, the right-wing headquarters, right? I think here at Fox, he thought, "This was the place where I can really pick up some votes and really defend myself," because he's clearly concerned about what's going to -- you know, what people are going to say in the first paragraph of his obituary. So -- but, more than that, I ask you, have you ever seen the Clintons not blame everybody -- somebody else for their problems?

SHAWN: Oh, that's interesting.

TROTTA: I mean, it's -- it's a -- it's we've heard "right-wing conspiracy" before his from his wife, we're probably going to hear it again. But just to get back to the point, I think it was unfair to try to pin a reporter to the wall that way. He clearly knows that the reporter can't be angry unless he's going to do a [former CBS Evening News anchor] Dan Rather, and that doesn't work out too well.

SHAWN: Dan Rather did it to President Bush's father [inaudible].

TROTTA: That's right, and look where he is now, but --

[laughter]

SHAWN: Whoa, ouch! You know what really gets me --

TROTTA: Go ahead.

SHAWN: -- what gets me about this? He called this a nice little conservative hit job. And Chris Wallace, I mean, this guy is a professional who has been in this business for three decades. He comes from a glorious legacy of a family in the broadcasting business, and those, to me, were completely legitimate, right-on questions --

TROTTA: Absolutely.

SHAWN: -- that the American public wants to know the answers to.

TROTTA: But let's not lose sight of what's also -- he was talking about the former counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke and his book on and on and on. I mean, he must have sold more books for Richard Clarke than Richard Clarke did. But the thing is, if you read the Richard Clarke book, he doesn't give Clinton a pass. If anything, he says that he even went to him, begged him a few times, "Let's go hit Osama. Let's kill him," and got nowhere. That's in the book.

SHAWN: So is this more Clinton spinning --

TROTTA: Of course.

SHAWN: -- that we've seen -- that we had for many years?

TROTTA: I mean, it's more of "depending on what is is."

SHAWN: Or does he -- or did he really strike a nerve?

TROTTA: I mean, in the summer of '98, when he decided to lob a few missiles in the Sudan, you know, he had just given his grand jury testimony. That was absolutely paramount in everybody's mind. Even the 9-11 Commission cites that the Monica Lewinsky scandal was very much on his mind and controlling events. So, I mean, we can't really accept this from Bill Clinton

From the September 24 edition of Fox News' Weekend Live:

WILSON: Joining us now with no discernible smirk on his face is Chris Wallace from Fox News Sunday. Chris, I was anxious to see this interview because we talked about it yesterday. It was amazing to see him come alive, practically come out of the chair and get in your face when you started talking about this topic.

WALLACE: You know, he said at one point that I had a smirk. What it really was was wonder because -- two points. First of all, all I did was ask him a question that I said a lot of viewers -- and, in fact, a lot of viewers had sent me, which was, did you do enough to connect the dots and go after Al Qaeda? And then, it just all spilled out. And the other thing is that -- you're a big man. He's even bigger, and he came forward in his chair, as you can see there. Sometimes he was sitting there with his finger and tapping the notes on my legs and some of my questions, and it's like a mountain is coming down on you. So it wasn't a smirk. It was more wonder at what I was seeing.

WILSON: Now, I noticed that in the -- you see whole the interview, you tried to bring him back to the Global Initiative Summit on several occasions, and he would hear nothing of it. He wanted to finish talking about this issue.

WALLACE: Well, that -- as you pointed out, there were ground rules. Fifteen minutes -- half on the CGI, the Clinton Global Initiative, half on anything else. We started out -- the first two questions I asked him were about philanthropy and his efforts to raise money. And I wanted to mix it up. I didn't want it to just be seven and a half on this, and seven and a half on that. So then I asked him -- and I thought a very non-confrontational question -- could you have done more, and he went off on this. And I kept on trying to bring him back because I was trying to observe the rules, the ground rules. He would hear nothing of it. And at that point, I realized the script's off. You want to talk about this, let's talk about it.

From the September 24 edition of The Big Story Weekend:

JULIE KIRTZ [Fox News correspondent]: It's classic Clinton -- he's animated and focused; he wags his finger, he gets angry as he defends his record on fighting terrorism. It's touched off when Chris Wallace asks him during the interview if he thinks he did all he could while he was in office to get [Osama] bin Laden.

[...]

JULIE BANDERAS [host]: So, Joe, you're referring to the Clinton spokesperson that said that Chris Wallace is out to get the president? Is that the point you're trying to make?

PAGLIARULO: That's -- exactly. That's the problem here. Chris Wallace is a many-times award-winning journalist. He's an awesome journalist. He's not leaning one way or the other in any interview I've ever seen. And here is the same language that's coming out that Hillary Rodham Clinton used during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, that there was a right-wing conspiracy. Clinton said it today, his spokesperson said it today, and you're not reacting to that.

From the September 25 edition of Fox & Friends First:

KIRAN CHETRY (co-host): Well, that was the tame part because he -- he got even more angry, and he actually started, sort of, jabbing his finger in the air quite close to Chris Wallace's face, accusing Chris Wallace of doing a conservative hit job on him. And Chris Wallace blogged about it actually in the DC Fishbowl online, and he said, "I felt as if a mountain was coming down in front of me." He said he felt it was a pretty fair -- and he didn't think it was going to be that inflammatory of a question at all. He said he got a lot of viewer emails asking about it, and so, he wanted to pose it. And he said that -- that the president just really, the former president, really just took offense to it.

[...]

BRIAN KILMEADE (co-host): But this is what I thought. I thought it was like walking into a bar and saying, "Excuse me, could I have a beer?" And the guy going, "Get out. I've had enough of you." It was almost as if -- what are you talking about? It was almost as if he was just poised to act. And when Chris Wallace sat there dumbfounded -- I don't think he looked nervous; I don't think he looked arrogant -- I think Chris Wallace was sitting there just amazed that this was -- this volcanic reaction was coming through.

[...]

DOOCY: Bill Clinton, absolutely ahead of time, was going into that -- he was going to get Chris Wallace, and Chris Wallace -- and it was very artful what the former president did. Because when Chris Wallace asked that question, which, certainly in light of the 9-11 anniversary just a couple of weeks ago, he asked a news-related question. But, instead, Bill Clinton attacked the reporter, which is very effective, which is -- which politicians do, and he changed the subject -- and the former president didn't have to answer the question.

[...]

KILMEADE: And when Chris Wallace said, "Have you seen Fox News Sunday?" It's because Chris Wallace is not a partisan. It's not like you're talking to Sean Hannity or Alan Colmes.

CHETRY: Right.

DOOCY: Right.

KILMEADE: Chris Wallace is someone who -- who comes from a network background, who rides the middle of the fence, who asks equally tough questions on each side, and he's never been accused, as far as I know --

DOOCY: Right.

KILMEADE: -- of ever being a right-winger.

From the September 25 edition of Fox News' Fox & Friends:

WALLACE: And I planned to absolutely observe the ground rules -- asked him a couple of questions about his commitment to philanthropy. And then I asked, quite frankly, what I thought was a very non-confrontational, you know, a probing question but the kind we ask regularly on Fox News Sunday: "Why didn't do you more to try to get bin Laden and Al Qaeda?"

DOOCY: Fair question.

WALLACE: And he went off.

[...]

KILMEADE: Well, Chris, here is where it got a little personal. Listen with us.

CLINTON [video clip]: And you ask me about terror and Al Qaeda with that sort of -- sort of dismissive theme, when all you have to do is read Richard Clarke's book to look at what we did in a comprehensive, systematic way to try to protect the country against terror. And you've got that little smirk on your face. You think you're so clever.

But I had responsibility for trying to protect this country. I tried and I failed to get bin Laden. I regret it, but I did try. And I did everything I thought I responsibly could.

KILMEADE: Chris, that -- that's incredible. You sit like you sit for every single interview, which shows he didn't watch the show. But what is your -- what was your thinking then when you have a former president, who says you have a smirk?

WALLACE: When he talked about the smirk, what it was, was sheer wonder at what I was witnessing. It was a little bit - I've been trying to sort of put it into a comparison -- it was like being on the -- at the bottom of a mountain and suddenly seeing an avalanche come down. I mean, you can sort of see it there as he leans forward and as he starts tapping the notes in my lap and as he wags his finger at me. But let me tell you, first of all, he is a big man and that big head of hair and it's Bill Clinton, and he was -- no question about it -- he was right in my face.

KILMEADE: What did he say after?

WALLACE: I, you know, I was trying to make it sort of nice after. "Listen, Mr. President, I wasn't trying to provoke you. I just was asking questions like I'd ask -- as I do ask any newsmaker." He was -- there was no making up with him. He wanted -- he was angry, and -- and when he left, he chewed out his staff.

[...]

KILMEADE: Well, Wallace, you're unflappable. Good job.

[...]

BILL O'REILLY (Fox News host): Look, I said on 20/20 on Friday night, "Clinton had a successful presidency." Chris Wallace is the most fair guy in the world. He worked for ABC for 20 years. He's not a bomb-thrower. So, Clinton really didn't have any kind of impetus to do what he did. He's just frustrated.

DOOCY: You're right, but it -- but it was also, Bill, very personal.

[...]

O'REILLY: Now, Clinton took his anger out on the wrong guy. He should come on -- go after me. OK? Because I've said some pretty pointed things about Clinton in the past. Don't go after Wallace! Wallace doesn't do that.

From the 9 a.m. ET broadcast of the September 25 edition of Fox News' Fox News Live:

KELLY WRIGHT (Fox News reporter): Yeah, [anchor] Jon [Scott], you can see, former president Bill Clinton is defending his presidency -- became very combative during the interview with Fox News Sunday's Chris Wallace. In fact, at one point, Clinton accuses Wallace of carrying out a conservative hit job on him after he was asked about how his efforts to deal with Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. The former president gets angry and emphatically defends himself.

[begin video clip]

WALLACE: You think you did enough, sir?

CLINTON: No, because I didn't get him.

WALLACE: Right.

CLINTON: But at least I tried. That's the difference in me and some, including all the right-wingers who are attacking me now. They ridiculed me for trying. They had eight months to try; they did not try. I tried. So I tried and failed. When I failed, I left a comprehensive anti-terror strategy and the best guy in the country, Dick Clarke, who got demoted.

[end video clip]

[...]

WRIGHT: This morning as well, Wallace spoke with Fox & Friends, and he says, after the interview, he tried to reassure Mr. Clinton that he wasn't trying to provoke him, but was in fact, asking tough questions that he routinely ask of all of his guests, adding that Clinton was angry and even chewed out his staff upon leaving.

[...]

SCOTT (co-host): We're joined by the editor of The Weekly Standard, a Fox News contributor, Bill Kristol. Bill, why was the president so angry, do you think?

KRISTOL: I think he knew what he was doing, Jon. He wanted to intimidate people who want to ask tough questions about his presidency. It's not stupid by Clinton. You know, the rest of us now are going to have think twice. Here we are at Fox, you know, are we just a conservative -- a bunch of conservative hitmen attacking Clinton unfairly? Clinton has used intimidation to good effect in his political career and I think that's what he tried to do yesterday.

[...]

KRISTOL: No, I don't -- I don't think he simply lost his temper. I think he knew what he was doing. They wanted -- it's like the way they've attacked the pope, you know -- they want to put certain questions out of bound -- bounds, and one question that hurts the Democratic Party going forward, that could hurt Senator [Hillary Rodham] Clinton [D-NY] going forward is: "Are you tough enough -- do you have the right understanding in fighting radical Islam and fighting the jihadists?" And Clinton did his best to rule that out of bounds.

From the 10 a.m. ET broadcast of the September 25 edition of Fox News Live:

SCOTT: President Clinton takes off on our own Chris Wallace, getting a bit hot under the collar about a question Chris asked him about Osama bin Laden.

[...]

SCOTT: Hey, [Democratic strategist] Bob [Beckel], it was a fairly simple question, and Mr. Clinton really took off on Chris. You know, the question was: "There are some who say you didn't do enough to catch Osama bin Laden." Was he -- was he -- is he right to be angry?

[...]

SCOTT: There is some -- some sense, I guess, Tammy, of "Thou doth protest too much" if I'm misquoting my Shakespeare properly. Was there a little too much indignation here? I mean, he's been asked about this before.

BRUCE: That's what is so surprising. And a friend of mine mentioned this morning that she was -- after he handled eight years of the presidency and [Monica] Lewinsky and impeachment with, if you will, such grace, even though it was filled, on occasion, with lies, the fact is, is that he seemed to go on overload. It was -- it seemed like a complete meltdown and that was odd for, indeed, a master politician to even move into Chris Wallace's space and stab at his -- at the papers on his lap.

I know that Bill Clinton's probably been told by a number of women to stop touching them, but never necessarily by a man. I mean, it was a remarkable event to watch, and I think that if this is their strategy to -- you know, Chris Wallace is not a representative of the administration. He's -- he asked a very generic question, frankly, that's on a lot of people's minds and to say that this is some of kind of right-wing hatchet job is an insult to all Democrats and liberals and to people who are American first who want answers to those questions, and I think that Clinton finally, I think, has -- has gone over the edge when it comes to having to deal with the truth of the matter.

SCOTT: Well, Bob, Bill Kristol, who I know is your ideological soul mate, said earlier on the program that he thinks that this is Mr. Clinton's way of sort of inoculating this whole area of controversy and questioning for the rest of the campaign season that other journalists are going to stay away from it from now on. Do you see it that way?

BECKEL: "He doth protest too much." The -- no, Jon, you're right, by the way, your Shakespeare was perfect. The -- you know, another thing I'll say about Chris Wallace, I have been on the receiving end of one of those before and it is a frightening thing and I give Chris a lot of credit.

From the September 25 edition of Fox News' Fox News Live:

SKINNER: The ultimate effects, though, of an interview like this -- I mean, it turned oddly personal. And if you're going to talk about somebody doing a hit job or doing Fox's bidding, et cetera, et cetera, Chris Wallace is certainly not the guy. As you know him, has a great reputation. And let's take a quick listen to what he had to say -- his explanation for what happened behind the scenes.

WALLACE [video clip]: This was the third question I asked, and he just blew. And his communications director was jabbing my producer in the arm saying, "End this interview right away." When it was over, Clinton did not want to make up and be friends, he was still fuming. And as he left, he started yelling at his aides that if they ever put him in that kind of a situation again he would fire them. So I do not think this was preplanned. I think all this talk now is after-the-fact spinning by somebody.

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