The AP has a Ron Fournier problem

You never know what nuggets congressional investigators will uncover when they set off on official inquiries.

You never know what nuggets congressional investigators will uncover when they set off on official inquiries.

Last week, we learned that while investigators for the House Oversight Committee were looking into the 2004 death of Cpl. Pat Tillman, the former NFL player whose story was promoted by the White House before it was revealed that he had been killed by friendly fire, they discovered that top political aide Karl Rove had exchanged emails with the Associated Press' Ron Fournier on the day the news of Tillman's death broke.

In one email, Rove asked, “How does our country continue to produce men and women like this?” Fournier responded: “The Lord creates men and women like this all over the world. But only the great and free countries allow them to flourish. Keep up the fight.”

That sign-off, which seemed to indicate an allegiance between the two men, raised hackles all over the Internet. That kind of correspondence (“Keep up the fight”) between a reporter and a partisan White House aide during a campaign year lands way outside the boundaries of acceptable newsroom practices.

But Fournier, now the wire service's D.C. bureau chief, shrugged off the embarrassing revelation, conceding only: “I regret the breezy nature of the correspondence.”

Of course, Fournier wasn't simply being breezy. “Have a great weekend” -- that's “breezy.”

Instead, Fournier was declaring sides. That was the implication of Fournier's note: “Karl, you might think the media are liberal, but you can trust me. And give me access and return my emails. Because I'm on your side.”

The Fournier revelation came as no surprise to anyone who has read his recent campaign work, which has routinely been caustic and dismissive of Democratic contenders. In two “Analysis” pieces and a column, Fournier questioned whether John Edwards was a “phony,” announced the Clintons suffered from “utter self-absorption,” and claimed that Barack Obama was “bordering on arrogance.” That's the right of a pundit. But at the same time, Fournier avoided raising any doubts about Sen. John McCain, and in fact rushed to his aid in print during the senator's time of campaign need.

That ethos seems to have been adopted by the larger AP political team, which, honestly, writes as if it's completely in the tank for McCain. "Atrocious" is how Talking Points Memo blogger Josh Marshall has classified the wire service's campaign performance this year, as the AP again and again has turned a blind eye to the Republican candidate's obvious flip-flops.

And it's because of that context that the recent revelation about Fournier's emails to Rove has proven to be so damaging for the AP. It's also why the episode deserves a much closer examination. For instance, it was Fournier who initiated the email exchange in which he urged über-partisan Rove to “keep up the fight.”

Just in case this isn't perfectly obvious, just in case people might be wondering if it's common for objective political reporters to email partisan operatives off the record and behind the scenes, urging them to “keep up the fight,” the answer is a resounding no. Because it violates the basic journalistic guideline of maintaining neutrality. Especially at the AP, that kind of correspondence should be considered breathtakingly inappropriate.

Think about it: That year, Rove was engineering the president's re-election -- a campaign Fournier was covering as an AP reporter -- and Fournier urged Rove to “keep up the fight”? Even if that phrase was not written in connection with the campaign, that kind of communication is just wrong. If Fournier could produce emails from 2004 in which he urged top Democratic strategists to “keep up the fight,” it would certainly remove doubts about his relationship with Rove, but I suspect Fournier cannot.

And remember, this email came to light only because House investigators were looking specifically into the Tillman case. Who knows how many other “breezy” emails they would uncover if Rove were required to hand over all his Fournier correspondence.

But let's dig a little deeper: In his attempt to dismiss the Rove correspondence, Fournier said that the exchange came “in the course of following an important and compelling story” while he was an AP political reporter. Meaning Fournier was just doing his job.

Yet according to a search of Nexis, Fournier didn't write any bylined articles about Pat Tillman's death in April 2004. Or ever, for that matter. That means Fournier wasn't reaching out as a reporter to Rove for information, quotes, or context about the sad Tillman story. Fournier didn't need Rove to be a “source” for the Tillman story because Fournier wasn't covering the Tillman story.

Instead, Fournier seemed to be using the Tillman story as an opportunity to initiate contact with Rove and let him know that Fournier was on his side, and to urge Rove to “keep up the fight.”

The problem for Fournier is that the now-public email exchange with Rove simply amplifies long-running concerns about his political tilt and its manifestation in his work.

For instance, in the months before Fournier was privately bonding with Rove and urging the White House to “keep up the fight,” this was the lead Fournier wrote for a straight-ahead news article about then-Democratic front-runner Howard Dean receiving Al Gore's endorsement:

Dean hopes the coveted endorsement eases concerns among party leaders about his lack of foreign policy experience, testy temperament, policy flip-flops, campaign miscues and edgy anti-war, antiestablishment message.

Gee, not many Rovian talking points embedded in that AP article, eh?

More recently, during the Democratic primary season, Fournier wrote those pieces in which he routinely unloaded on the leading Democratic candidates -- Edwards, Clinton, and Obama -- while thoroughly questioning their motives and their character.

Yet I have searched in vain for a single example from the primary season in which Fournier raised a column's worth of uncomfortable questions about McCain's motives and his character. I have to agree with “Julia” at Firedoglake, who wrote this in late March, after Fournier dumped all over Obama:

This has nothing to do with Obama as a candidate or what kind of president he'd make, or for that matter Clinton or Edwards. It has to do with the fact that this guy has an agenda in play, and he is not on our side. He wasn't not on our side when he took a bat to Edwards' kneecaps, he wasn't on our side when he went after Hillary, and it's not on our behalf that he's concerned about Obama's character. It's because at the time that he wrote those articles, the candidate he was taking out looked like the frontrunner against the guy he wants to win.

In fact, one of the few times that Fournier dedicated a column to the Republican primary battle was following the Michigan contest, which McCain lost to Mitt Romney. The win presented Romney with his one brief window of opportunity to knock McCain from his front-runner perch. Fournier unleashed a wild column targeting Romney and practically threw his body in front of McCain to protect his beloved candidate.

“Mitt Romney's victory in Michigan was a defeat for authenticity in politics,” Fournier complained in the opening line -- and it went downhill from there. “The former Massachusetts governor pandered to voters, distorted his opponents' record and continued to show why he's the most malleable -- and least credible -- major presidential candidate,” Fournier wrote, in a column that quite literally could have been written by the McCain campaign. “The man who spoke hard truths to Michigan lost.”

Then again, the AP and McCain seem to enjoy a special bond. Remember when McCain and Obama appeared separately before AP editors for Q&A sessions in April? Contrasting the two events, Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank wrote: “The putative Republican presidential nominee was given a box of doughnuts and a standing ovation. The likely Democratic nominee was likened to a terrorist.” (An AP questioner that day mistakenly referred to the Al Qaeda mastermind as “Obama bin Laden.”)

During McCain's Q&A with Fournier, AP colleague Liz Sidoti welcomed the candidate effusively and even dropped a McCain catchphrase:

We spend quite a bit of time with you on the back of the Straight Talk Express asking you questions, and what we've decided to do today was invite everyone else along on the ride. We even brought you your favorite treat.

McCain cooed, “Oh, yes, with sprinkles!”

It was Sidoti who, weeks later, filed an Obama hit piece about the candidate's decision to forgo public financing for his campaign. It was a piece “filled with errors of fact and judgment," as blogger Steve Benen wrote at The Carpetbagger Report

Also note that during the AP lovefest that day, Fournier again and again prodded the Republican to tag as Obama as elitist. (“You served with him for a couple of years. Did you ever see elitist behavior from him?”) This, after Fournier had already written that Obama was “bordering on arrogance” and that “both Obama and his wife, Michelle, ooze a sense of entitlement.” He also assured readers, "Privately, aides and associates of Obama tell stories about a boss who can be aloof and ungracious" [emphasis added].

Again, I simply cannot find any evidence that Fournier has ever written about McCain in the way he has when he personally attacked Clinton and Obama this year.

The fact is, Fournier's McCain love runs deep and goes back years. In 2004, when McCain wasn't even a candidate, Fournier praised him in print as “a former Vietnam War hero who emerged from his 2000 defeat as one of the nation's most popular politicians, beloved by independent voters and courted by both presidential candidates.”

The next year, while reviewing the possible 2008 presidential field, Fournier insisted the Arizona senator was “favored by a majority of Democrats and independents who would vote in a general election.”

But that breathless claim had no factual basis.

Contrast that effusive praise for McCain with Fournier's drumbeat of attacks this year on Democrats. His name-calling during the primaries was relentless. He dubbed Clinton “Slick Hillary” and claimed she might pay a price for her “selfishness” during the campaign. She was showing "desperation," wallowed in "self-pity" and "utter self-absorption." She had “more baggage than Samsonite.”

Meanwhile, her husband was “long-winded, misleading and self-absorbed.” Fournier's obsessive and often baseless Clinton-bashing became so pronounced that even one conservative blogger suggested he lay off.

Worse, the Dem-bashing was often based on little more than Fournier's fervent imagination. In the piece in which he dubbed Clinton “Slick Hillary,” one example he presented as evidence was the fact that when asked in June 2007 whether she would appoint a union leader to be secretary of labor, she dodged the question. Of course, as The Daily Howler pointed out, that's what all candidates do. Who's going to commit to a specific cabinet appointment 17 months before Election Day?

But for Fournier, Clinton's ordinary response somehow confirmed her “mastery in the political arts of ducking and dodging,” which prompted him to call her nasty names in a piece that was echoed on Meet the Press.

Oh, and this was great. Warning Clinton during the primaries about the dangers of having a candidate's character questioned by the press, Fournier noted that Al Gore got unfairly tagged during the 2000 presidential campaign for having claimed to have invented the Internet. Fournier patiently set the record straight, noting that Gore “never said he invented the Internet,” that “his mistake was to place himself more centrally than warranted at the creation of the technology,” and that “such nuance was lost on people who voted against him in 2000.”

Silly voters. But how on earth did they come to the false conclusion that Gore ever claimed to have invented the Internet? Answer: By reading Ron Fournier.

  • “He [Gore] claimed credit for inventing the Internet, and comics had a punch line for months.” [November 13, 1999]
  • “Gore, who once claimed to have invented the Internet, e-mailed Bush and said Democrats won't air TV ads purchased with unlimited, unregulated donations called 'soft money' unless Republicans do so first.” [March 15, 2000]

In a recent interview with Politico, Fournier insisted that readers were “having a hard time figuring out the right from the wrong, the black from the white” in politics and that Fournier's AP can help to cut through “the clutter.”

In truth, Fournier and his AP team have been clogging up the campaign with unnecessary layers of GOP clutter.

It's time for Fournier to give up “the fight.”