The Sarah Palin/Fox News Debacle

Ending months of speculation, Sarah Palin announced yesterday that she will not be seeking the Republican nomination for president in 2012 (or, as Fox Nation put it, “Palin Passes On Presidency”). The announcement also puts an end to one of the more ethically dubious media spectacles in recent memory, as both Palin and her employer Fox News spent the past year mutually benefiting from stoking speculation that she may run for president.

Last September, Politico reporters Jonathan Martin and Keach Hagey laid out the complicated ethical issues inherent in Fox News employing a stable of potential presidential candidates. Martin and Hagey reported that Fox had emailed them and “indicated that once any of the candidates declares for the presidency he or she will have to sever the deal with the network.” They went on to note that “it's such a lucrative and powerful pulpit that Palin, Gingrich, Santorum and Huckabee have every reason to delay formal announcements and stay on contract for as long as they can.”

While Hagey and Martin were suggesting that Fox's potential candidates would attempt to stay on contract as long as possible in order to bolster their eventual presidential runs, there's a flipside to Fox's lax guidelines that we saw borne out with Palin. Even people who weren't planning on running would be well-served to delay any formal announcement in order to benefit from the publicity lavished upon possible presidential candidates.

Obviously, had Fox suspended all of its employee-candidates pending their decision, this would never have been an issue. But the network, like Palin, greatly benefited from speculation about Palin's potential candidacy.

When Fox announced in March of this year that they were suspending the contracts of Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum for sixty days while they mulled their presidential runs, many media observers, including conservative outlets like The National Review, called foul. Why was Fox suspending Gingrich and Santorum, but not fellow Fox employees/putative presidential candidates Huckabee and Palin?

In an interview with Howard Kurtz, Fox executive Dianne Brandi explained that unlike Gingrich (who had announced his intention to form an exploratory committee) and Santorum (who indicated he would participate in primary debates), Palin “hasn't done anything to show us she has any intention of running right now.” At the time, Brandi's statement placed her at odds with a large chunk of Fox News' staff, which had interpreted many of Palin's actions as an indication that she was planning to run for president.

In November of 2010, both online and on-air, Fox aggressively promoted Palin's statement during an interview with ABC News that she could beat Obama in 2012, with America's Newsroom host Martha MacCallum describing the interview as a “bombshell,” and saying it “certainly sounds likes she plans on running.” MacCallum and her co-host Bill Hemmer had previously agreed on Fox News Radio that Palin “will run.”

Prior to Brandi's statement to Kurtz, Fox's flagship news program, Special Report, had featured Palin in its “12 for'12” series and given her 5-1 odds of winning the nomination. Fox Nation, one of the network's websites, had done things like label her hiring of a new chief of staff in February 2011 as a “Strong Indication of 2012 Presidential Run.”

A few months after the Gingrich and Santorum suspensions, Mike Huckabee announced on his Fox News program that he would not be seeking the Republican nomination. Meanwhile, Fox continued to promote the possible presidential aspirations of Palin (while releasing statements affirming that Palin's contract with the network remained unchanged).

In June, Fox helped promote the bus tour Palin organized with her political action committee, often in the context of whether it was an indication she was planning on seeking the Republican nomination. For example, Hannity segments on Palin's bus tour featured on-screen graphics with text like “Palin 2012?” During the same Hannity segment, Fox contributor Andrea Tantaros said, “If she doesn't run, Sean, this is the biggest head fake in presidential politics I've ever seen."

After Palin announced a September schedule that included a visit to Iowa and her PAC released what observers felt was suspiciously close to a campaign ad, Fox speculation about Palin running for president ramped up yet again.

Discussing the ad, Fox Business' Tracy Byrnes remarked, “If that's not a campaign ad, I don't know what is.” Fox contributor Karl Rove pointed to Palin's schedule and the ad release as evidence she was setting her campaign motion (Fox Nation dutifully hyped Rove's analysis with the headline “Rove: Palin Will Run.”)

During late August, Fox hosts Juliet Huddy and Clayton Morris predicted while hosting Fox & Friends Saturday that Palin would run for president; Charles Krauthammer speculated on Special Report that Palin would enter the race; Jim Pinkerton said that Palin “does appear to be edging toward running”; and Brian Kilmeade said it “sounds like [Palin] is in.”

Nonetheless, Fox still didn't suspend Palin's contract, and continued to regularly host her -- for almost 4 hours of airtime since June -- on the network, often asking her whether she was running.

It will be interesting to see how Palin's relationship with the network evolves now that she and the network can no longer mutually benefit from the “is she running?” speculation. Somewhat curiously, Palin made the original announcement to radio host Mark Levin rather than on a Fox show (though she did grant her first post-announcement TV interview to regular booster Greta Van Susteren).

In light of her official announcement that she is not running, Fox will likely claim vindication for refusing to suspend Palin's contract, but it's not that simple. Assuming Palin didn't privately assure Fox that she wouldn't seek the nomination -- which obviously would raise a host of other ethical issues -- Fox clearly decided that profiting off of the hype surrounding her potential run was worth the risk of spending a year essentially giving a presidential candidate hours of free air time.