Two former network news presidents offered criticism following the revelation that a Fox News contributor had urged Gen. David Petraeus to run for president at the request of Fox News chief Roger Ailes.
"That just isn't what a news guy does," said Michael Gartner, who served as NBC News president from 1988 to 1993. "Twenty years ago it wouldn't have been done. But that was a different era."
The critiques come in response to a December 4 report from The Washington Post's Bob Woodward that Fox News contributor K.T. McFarland, on instructions from Ailes, had urged Petraeus to run for president during a recorded 2011 interview in Afghanistan.
McFarland suggested that Ailes would leave Fox to work on Petraeus' campaign and that News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch might "bankroll" the effort.
During the same interview with Petraeus, McFarland said of Ailes, "he loves you, and everybody at Fox loves you. So what I'm supposed to say directly from him to you, through me, is first of all, is there anything Fox is doing, right or wrong, that you want to tell us to do differently?"
Media critics have nonetheless responded harshly to the McFarland-Petraeus interview, with Dylan Byers at Politico writing that no other major news outlet would tolerate such behavior from their top executive, and Erik Wemple at the Post writing that it indicated "Fox News is corrupt."
David Westin, who served as ABC News president from 1997 to 2010, also offered concern about the exchange to Media Matters.
While Westin said he did not know the details of Ailes' direct involvement, and noted Ailes had told Bob Woodward his comments to MacFarland had been "more of a joke" than a serious request, Westin did offer criticism of such communications between news person and news subject.
"The report had someone from Fox News, now it was a contributor, not on staff, but a contributor, saying things to a subject of news coverage that normally a journalist wouldn't say," Westin said late December 4. "You need to keep some distance from the people you're covering and you don't want to be partial for them or against them either way, so what I read would be something that normally a journalist wouldn't do."
Woodward wrote that Ailes told him he "did indeed ask McFarland to make the pitch to Petraeus." Woodward later quoted Ailes as saying, "I thought the Republican field [in the primaries] needed to be shaken up and Petraeus might be a good candidate."
Westin offered further concern about such a move:
"Clearly, you know this ... you have to keep a certain distance from the people you're covering, whatever personal feelings you might have and the transcript of the [McFarland-Petraeus] recording steps over a line."
Asked if he would have tolerated such a move at ABC News when he was in charge, Westin said he would have to review the specific facts, but stressed, "I'd look into it and figure out what is going on, obviously."
But, he stressed, "The basic principle is that as a journalist you must maintain a certain distance and a certain arms-length relationship with people whom you're covering and that doesn't mean that you don't have personal views, good and bad, about people you cover, you do form views, but you keep those separate and this exchange would violate that. But let's be clear, she was an analyst, a commentator, she was not a reporter. Right?
"But you know this from your background the important thing is to keep that line, when you're covering people you have to do your very best not to have a bias for or against them and certainly not to express a bias for or against them to the people you are covering."
Asked what this does to his image of Fox News and the news channel's overall image in the news industry, Westin stated that while "there's a long and noble tradition of opinion journalism, there's nothing wrong with that," such incidents create a "blurring of the line between what's opinion journalism and what's reporting the facts" that risks creating a "disservice to the public."