On Tuesday Michael Calderone at Politico produced definitive evidence of Ron Fournier's bias in favor of John McCain. He did it by linking the Associated Press Washington Bureau chief directly to the McCain presidential campaign. Over a period of several months during 2006, Fournier discussed taking a high-level communications job with the McCain campaign. Apparently Fournier turned down the job offer in the end.
I say 'apparently' because often it is difficult to tell from the reporting produced by Fournier and his Bureau whether or not he views himself as a campaign operative.
The most striking thing about this story is what is absent. Although he oversees reporting on the presidential race for the purportedly unbiased and nonpartisan AP, Fournier has never disclosed to the public his close contacts with the McCain campaign. And though he doesn't deny the contacts, when asked about them Fournier declined to discuss the matter and referred Politico to an AP spokesman (who issued a bland statement). If Fournier has had nothing to hide, then why the secrecy and evasiveness? Who would argue that the public does not have a right to know that the AP Washington Bureau chief considered working for a presidential candidate?
Here are details from Politico:
In October 2006, the McCain team approached Fournier about joining the fledgling operation, according to a source with knowledge of the talks. In the months that followed, said a source, Fournier spoke about the job possibility with members of McCain’s inner circle, including political aides Mark Salter, John Weaver and Rick Davis.
Salter, who remains a top McCain adviser, said in an e-mail to Politico that Fournier was considered for "a senior advisory role" in communications.
"He did us the courtesy of considering the offer before politely declining it," Salter said.
Discussions with McCain's top aides lasting months don't constitute a mere 'courtesy' no matter how Salter tries to spin it. If Fournier had not been interested, he would have rejected McCain's advances at the outset.
After entertaining this job offer, Fournier should not have been covering the presidential campaign, certainly not while keeping his contacts with McCain secret. That's not a hard call, ethically.
This is just the latest in a series of controversies surrounding Fournier, from his unseemly attention to John McCain's donut-gustation at an interview, to his eager embrace of Republican talking points, to the extraordinary changes he introduced at AP encouraging the freer expression of opinion in news stories. His predecessor at the AP Washington Bureau, Sandy Johnson, sees Fournier's policies as a threat to it.
"I just hope he doesn’t destroy it."
Fournier's ties to the Republican establishment were exposed garishly earlier this month by a House Oversight and Government Reform report. Discussing the Bush administration's political response to Pat Tillman's death in 2004, it cited emails sent to the WH offering political advice. This exchange stood out.
Karl Rove exchanged e-mails about Pat Tillman with Associated Press reporter Ron Fournier, under the subject line "H-E-R-O." In response to Mr. Fournier's e-mail, Mr. Rove asked, "How does our country continue to produce men and women like this," to which Mr. Fournier replied, "The Lord creates men and women like this all over the world. But only the great and free countries allow them to flourish. Keep up the fight."
Fournier tried to explain away his seemingly cozy relationship with Karl Rove.
"I was an AP political reporter at the time of the 2004 e-mail exchange, and was interacting with a source, a top aide to the president, in the course of following an important and compelling story. I regret the breezy nature of the correspondence."
However he convinced almost none of his critics that his Rovian correspondence was appropriate. For one thing, Fournier has never written about Tillman. So what was the need to contact Rove in the first place? The episode gives the impression that Fournier was just worshipping at Rove's altar.
Even before that email correspondence came to light (almost accidentally), Fournier had long been notorious both for carrying water for John McCain in particular, and for savaging McCain's rivals. Among other things, under Fournier's leadership AP reporting this year has consistently downplayed or suppressed information about McCain's many contradictory, false, and otherwise embarrassing statements. Last week at Media Matters Eric Boehlert surveyed Fournier's long and tawdry record of partisanship:
In two "Analysis" pieces and a column, Fournier questioned whether John Edwards was a "phony," announced the Clintons suffered from "utter self-absorption," and claimed that Barack Obama was "bordering on arrogance." That's the right of a pundit. But at the same time, Fournier avoided raising any doubts about Sen. John McCain, and in fact rushed to his aid in print during the senator's time of campaign need.
That ethos seems to have been adopted by the larger AP political team, which, honestly, writes as if it's completely in the tank for McCain...
Fournier wrote those pieces in which he routinely unloaded on the leading Democratic candidates -- Edwards, Clinton, and Obama -- while thoroughly questioning their motives and their character.
Yet I have searched in vain for a single example from the primary season in which Fournier raised a column's worth of uncomfortable questions about McCain's motives and his character...
In fact, one of the few times that Fournier dedicated a column to the Republican primary battle was following the Michigan contest, which McCain lost to Mitt Romney. The win presented Romney with his one brief window of opportunity to knock McCain from his front-runner perch. Fournier unleashed a wild column targeting Romney and practically threw his body in front of McCain to protect his beloved candidate.
Boehlert highlighted a series of reports and columns in which Fournier has advanced unfounded assertions and used flagrantly biased language to promote McCain or belittle his rivals. He concluded, as many others had already, that Fournier has a man-crush on McCain.
The fact is, Fournier's McCain love runs deep and goes back years.
The Associated Press desperately needs to find a new Washington Bureau chief.