Skip to main content

Fox should have let Ricks speak

By Howard Kurtz, CNN
updated 6:27 PM EST, Wed November 28, 2012
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.

Watch: Twitter on fire as Chris Brown slimes a female critic

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



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.

Watch: Is it time for Chelsea Clinton, gay rights activist, to leave NBC?

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.

Watch: Media buzzing as Newt Gingrich says he may run again

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.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

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

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 1:33 AM EST, Thu December 25, 2014
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
updated 6:12 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
updated 8:36 AM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
updated 2:14 PM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
updated 3:27 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
updated 10:35 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
updated 7:57 AM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
updated 11:29 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
updated 4:15 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
updated 1:11 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
updated 1:08 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
updated 1:53 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
updated 3:19 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
updated 5:39 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
updated 2:51 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
updated 4:13 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
updated 7:55 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
updated 12:34 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
updated 8:42 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT