Presidential candidates rarely turn down a network television interview, especially on a highly rated program. But some prominent liberals are wondering why Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama agreed this week to sit down for interviews on the Fox News Channel, for years the highest-rated cable news network and the bastion of conservative TV news analysis.
The dilemma for the candidates: Is appearing on Fox a smart political move before Democratic primaries in two largely conservative states - Indiana and North Carolina - or not worth the effort to court what could be a small amount of persuadable Republican voters.
"I understand the need to reach out to different audiences," said Robert Greenwald, the director of "Outfoxed," a 2004 film that described Fox as a Republican mouthpiece. He also produces an online series of "Fox Attacks" videos that chronicle the network's coverage of African Americans, Obama and Clinton. "But this is a decision that will have virtually no gain for Democrats."
MoveOn.org Executive Director Eli Pariser said Wednesday that appearing on Fox helps to "legitimize Fox" as a news source.
"It's a conduit for right-wing smears," Pariser said, citing an unsubstantiated Fox report - later debunked by CNN and others - that Obama attended a radical madrassa as a child. Obama's campaign criticized the charges as "malicious" and "irresponsible."
Even though the story was debunked, being reported on Fox "allows these stories to get picked up by other mainstream outlets" and enter the national political conversation, Pariser said.
On Wednesday night Clinton appeared for the first time on "The O'Reilly Factor," hosted by Bill O'Reilly, who has been a longtime critic of Clinton and her husband Bill's administration - and a nemesis to much of the left.
But Clinton didn't mention any previous remarks by O'Reilly Wednesday, nor the online petition drive on her campaign's Web site, where supporters are told that O'Reilly "likes to take a few comments out of context and use them to smear broad groups of grassroots activists."
Instead, sitting face to face with O'Reilly in South Bend, Ind., Wednesday morning, she fielded questions about Obama's former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and her tax and energy policies. Clinton parried O'Reilly's declarative questions ("You're going to bankrupt the country with Hillcare," O'Reilly said). She even name-dropped the ultimate conservative icon ("I learned something from Ronald Reagan," Clinton said, citing a bipartisan commission he agreed to that would study Social Security).
Said Clinton spokesman Isaac Baker after Wednesday's show aired: "Bill O'Reilly has a big audience, and Sen. Clinton is in the business of reaching out and talking to people even if they don't agree with her 100 percent of the time."
Obama's appearance Sunday on "Fox News Sunday" with Chris Wallace was similarly affable despite the chill between his campaign and the show. After the madrassa report, Fox reporters said they felt the Obama campaign was "freezing" them out.
In March, Wallace began running an on-screen "Obama Watch" graphic - modeled in part on the Fox program "24." It counted down the days, hours and minutes from the time in 2006 when Obama promised Wallace he would appear on the program.
Obama opened Sunday's show with a Watch joke. "Well, it takes me about 772 days to prepare for these questions," he said.
Organizers at MoveOn.org, the 3.2 million-member online liberal hub that endorsed Obama, weren't so amused. They weren't just ticked at Obama for appearing, but for not challenging Fox. More than half of the dozen-plus questions in the first segment of Wallace's interview were based on some sort of racial premise, an attempt to marginalize his candidacy, Obama supporters said.
Neither a representative of Obama's campaign nor of Fox News would comment for this story.
Liberal activists say that there is little to be gained by appearing on Fox. A study by Democratic pollster Mark Mellman found that 88 percent of Fox News viewers voted for George W. Bush in 2004 over Democratic Sen. John Kerry. (In a 2006 appearance on O'Reilly's program, Kerry regretted not coming on "The Factor" during the campaign.)
But Sam Rodriguez - the former political director of the California Democratic Party who is unaffiliated with either candidate - says it was strategically smart for both candidates to appear on Fox this week, before the next two primaries.
Indiana is an open primary, where independent and Republican voters can cast ballots for Democrats. And while the university-rich region around Durham and Raleigh is more liberal, Rodriguez said, "Most of North Carolina is full of conservative Democrats. And they watch Fox. Same goes for Indiana.
"They're talking to conservative Democrats in these states - conservative Democrats who vote."
While both states "are never in play in the general election" for Democrats, Rodriguez said the appearances may help sway independent-leaning Republicans and make them competitive in the fall. Swaying a few of those voters could also help increase turnout that could help down-ticket Democratic congressional candidates, he said.
Plus, as the primary race has tightened in both states, particularly in Indiana, "Both Clinton and Obama are looking at trying to get every possible marginal advantage," Rodriguez said.
Mark Jurkowitz, associate director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, said, "Even if conservatives are more likely to be regular viewers, there are certainly independents and moderates and liberals and Democrats who watch (Fox) and who Democratic candidates would want to reach.
"For obvious reasons, it would make sense for Democrats to develop solid working relationships with Fox reporters and on-air personalities."
Indeed, toward the end of Clinton's 20-minute appearance that ran Wednesday - the rest will air on today's "Factor" - was a line of questioning about how Clinton's personality compares to Obama's. There, O'Reilly bonded with his guest.
"You're a polarizing personality," O'Reilly said. "You're like I am and I hate to say that."
© 2008 The San Francisco Chronicle