The Roger Ailes Scandal Becomes a Presidential Debate Issue
Policy + Politics

The Roger Ailes Scandal Becomes a Presidential Debate Issue

REUTERS/Fred Prouser

The upcoming presidential debates, already politicized by their very structure, are becoming a controversy unto themselves in this rancorous and highly charged election.

In late July, Republican nominee Donald Trump tweeted, “As usual, Hillary & the Dems are trying to rig the debates so 2 are up against major NFL games. Same as last time w/ Bernie. Unacceptable!”

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The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), which is controlled by the two major parties, stuck to its schedule, but now it’s being attacked from the Democratic side with political bomb-thrower David Brock tying the last of the face-offs to the Roger Ailes scandal.

Brock, who spent a good part of the 1990s as a right-wing zealot trying to destroy the Clintons, is now founder of Media Matters, which bills itself as a watchdog group. He is an ardent Hillary supporter and controls two Super PACs that back her.

In a letter to CPD co-chairmen Frank Farenkopf Jr. and Mike McCurry, first reported this morning by Politico, Brock demanded that Chris Wallace, host of Fox News Sunday, be removed and replaced as the moderator of the third and final debate.

“It is a glaring conflict of interest that Roger Ailes, who resigned from Fox News in July, simultaneously provides advice to Donald Trump while serving as a paid adviser to Fox News chief Rupert Murdoch—debate moderator Chris Wallace’s boss,” Brock wrote.

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In July, Ailes was accused of sexual harassment by former Fox News personality Gretchen Carlson, who sued him, alleging that the mastermind of the highest-rated channel on cable TV derailed her career after she spurned his advances. Earlier this week, 20th Century, which owns Fox News, paid Carlson $20 million to settle the suit and offered her an abject apology.

After an internal company investigation and other women coming forward, Ailes was ousted by Rupert Murdoch and sons James and Lachlan who control 20th Century. Ailes was handed a reported $40 million severance package that included a consulting gig as an “adviser.” Ailes, a onetime political operative, soon after signed on to help Trump prepare for the debates.

Brock said in his letter that Wallace’s stated approach to moderating the last debate, to be held at the University of Nevada on Oct. 19, would benefit Trump. He said that is another reason to remove him.

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“Also troubling is Chris Wallace’s explicit pronouncement that he doesn't intend to press the candidates to be truthful during the debate he moderates,” Brock wrote. “When Wallace's Fox News colleague Howard Kurtz asked what Wallace would do if either candidate made ‘assertions that you know to be untrue,’ Wallace asserted, ‘That's not my job. I do not believe it is my job to be a truth squad.

It's up to the other person to catch them on that.’ Ailes and Trump may already be unduly influencing Wallace to favor Trump in the debate. The New York Times' James Poniewozik was correct when he noted that Wallace's stated fact-free approach to debate moderating helps Trump the most.”

After the departure of Ailes, The New York Times talked with Fox employees, including Wallace, who said, “Roger Ailes is the best boss I’ve had in almost a half a century in journalism. I admired him tremendously professionally, and loved him personally.”

It remains unclear whether the Clinton camp signed off on Brock’s letter, but on July 31, Wallace conducted a one-on-one interview with the Democratic nominee that by any standard was tough, fair and balanced. Clinton acquitted herself well enough, but Wallace was deeply prepared and relentlessly forceful.

The Clintonistas may have reason to fear Wallace.

Update, Sept. 12, 2016: In a letter to David Brock dated Sept. 9, 2016, the co-chairmen of the Commission on Presidential Debates, Frank Fahrenkopf Jr. and Mike McCurry, said tersely: "We are pleased with our selection of moderators and confident they will do a good job."