No doubt in the spirit of the season, somebody bestowed an audio sweetmeat upon Bob Woodward of the Washington Post – 13-plus minutes of an off-the-record conversation that took place in spring 2011 between Gen. David Petraeus, then ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) commander in Afghanistan, and Fox News analyst K.T. McFarland, who was visiting Petraeus’ Kabul HQ.
At the end of an interview, McFarland announces she has a personal message for Petraeus from Fox News President Roger Ailes, part of which is: If Petraeus isn’t appointed chairman of the Joint Chiefs, he should resign in six months and run for president.
Obviously, Petraeus didn’t take the advice. And that’s the Post headline – “Fox news chief’s failed attempt to enlist Petraeus as presidential candidate.” But there is more to the message than that.
The segment starts thus:
McFarland: I have something to say to you, by the way, directly from Roger Ailes, OK?
Petraeus: I’m not running (laughs) …
McFarland: OK! … Roger Ailes, I told him I was coming.
Petraeus: I love Roger.
McFarland: I know, and he loves you, and everybody at Fox loves you. I’m supposed to say directly from him to you, through me, first of all: Is there anything Fox is doing right or wrong that you want to tell us to do differently?
This question is devastating to the Fox News brand. And it shines a light on the kid gloves and soft lenses with which Fox has consistently handled disastrous counterinsurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan for which Petraeus, as lead author of the military’s Counterinsurgency Field Manual, literally provided the strategic blueprint. It is this sycophantic relationship that has been unmasked, no matter how hard Ailes and McFarland now brush everything off as a gag that McFarland took too seriously.
“It was more of a joke, a wiseass way I have,” Ailes told the Post. “I thought the Republican (primary) field needed to be shaken up, and Petraeus might be a good candidate.” Ailes then called McFarland “way out of line.”
But what about Ailes? Wasn’t he “way out of line” by putting her up to this – or are we to believe McFarland was making the whole thing up?
As if to amplify this notion, McFarland recently penned a half-defensive, half-confessional response at FoxNews.com that carries the headline, “My Petraeus interview firestorm silly, off-base.” McFarland strenuously rejects Woodward’s story and ensuing media reaction as so much baseless hyperbole, writing: “A conversation that began in jest and that led to a passing comment at the end of my interview with General David Petraeus has turned into a firestorm of speculation and an attempt to denigrate Fox.”
In jest? Passing comment? No. The conversation (most of it is transcribed at my website, dianawest.net) may be light in tone, but there is no mistaking the deliberate nature of the message McFarland conveys to Petraeus from Roger Ailes. There is, first, a serious query about “whether there is something Fox can do better,” a question Petraeus himself relays to an unnamed aide. Second, there is the straightforward, if unsolicited, advice as to how Petraeus might jump-start a presidential run. A supportive Fox News president implies a supportive Fox News team.
In conveying Ailes’ political advice, it even sounds as if McFarland might be reading from notes. “He says that if you’re offered chairman, take it. If you’re offered anything else, don’t take it. Resign in six months and run for president – OK? And I know you’re not running for president, but at some point when you go to New York next, you may want to just chat with Roger and, and Rupert Murdoch for that matter.”
Petraeus replied, “Well, Rupert’s after me as well.” The general then goes on to reveal that the only two jobs he would at that point consider were chairman of the Joint Chiefs and CIA director – “but that has to be off the record,” he added. McFarland replied: “His (Ailes’) deal with me was I was only supposed to talk to you, and my deal with you will be I sit down with him, and he is a little paranoid, so believe me, he doesn’t have anybody in that room.”
With the meatier aspects of the conversation out of the way, the bantering intensifies, with Petraeus saying: “Tell him if I ever ran, but I won’t … I’d take him up on his offer. He (Ailes) would quit Fox and bankroll it. Or maybe I’m confusing that with Rupert.” They all laugh. Murdoch would bankroll it, McFarland says. Ailes would run it, “and the rest of us are going to be your in-house.” More laughter.
Call it “kidding on the square.” Amid the conviviality, however, a Fox pundit has successfully conveyed more than advice from the Fox News president to the commander in Afghanistan. More significantly, we get a sense of an institutional brand of near-fealty that had to have “shaded” coverage, to use Petraeus’ word for describing the general effect of the boss on any outlet’s coverage. Now we know more about why Fox News has never covered the dark side of COIN, for example, or even hit the story that Petraeus appears to have lied to Congress over Benghazi twice, which is a felony.
Come to think of it, neither have the rest of the media.
All of which is a much bigger problem.