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Is Fox The Softball Channel?

Last week, Fox anchor Neil Cavuto secured a White House interview with President Bush, and liberals were upset. It wasn't tough enough.

Washington Post correspondent Daniel Froomkin reported that Cavuto asked about Mrs. Bush, John Kerry's grades, and media overcoverage of Michael Jackson, but sneered: "Who wants to talk about that messy war in Iraq, or the Downing Street Memo? Not Neil Cavuto, Fox News executive, anchor, commentator and Bush campaign contributor."

Fox-defending blogger "Johnny Dollar" noted two problems with Froomkin. First, Bush was asked about Iraq and that memo at a press conference the day before, so would that be the best news-breaking topic? Second, Cavuto is not a "Bush campaign contributor." According to the campaign-finance search engine at OpenSecrets.com, Cavuto gave $500 each to the GOP House and Senate campaign committees to attend a presidential dinner in 2002. If making a federal contribution was disqualifying, then Maria Shriver should have been removed from every cream-puff Hillary Clinton interview she ever conducted for NBC.

But a review of the transcript shows that Cavuto's half-hour interview on his late-afternoon show was no puff job. It was a serious news interview with some challenging questions. Cavuto asked Bush about the latest bust of al-Qaeda suspects in California. Cavuto pointedly noted that Jimmy Carter thinks we should shut down the prison at Guantanamo Bay because abuse charges are "dragging our name through the mud globally." That doesn't sound like a softball question.

Cavuto asked about the economy (angering liberals by saying it's very strong), but also pressed on the Republican failure to pass an energy bill; how Social Security reform isn't catching on; whether Social Security benefits should be taken away from the rich; as well as our stance on North Korea, China, and the defense of Taiwan. Bush critics can fuss about a Jacko question, but anyone who didn't see substance and tough questions in this interview didn't watch it or read a transcript.

What upsets liberals about Cavuto's interview is not the questions he asked. It was the tone he displayed - deferential, respectful. Liberals believe he doesn't deserve that courtesy, as evidenced by their daily coverage, so often filled with snide commentary.

Now, if liberals like Froomkin throw fits when the president isn't pummeled enough, how do they feel about ex-presidents? Because on the two nights preceding Cavuto's interview, Fox's Greta Van Susteren interviewed Bill Clinton with a series of softballs that made no news whatsoever.

While Cavuto's interview with Bush led his show and went on for a half hour, Fox hid Greta's interviews by burying them deep inside her "On the Record" show (on the first night, 19 minutes into the show, and on the second night, after 41 minutes of Aruba and Michael Jackson coverage).

Van Susteren began by asking Clinton about his chummy relations with Bush "41," and then asked about political meanness: "What is the catalyst for the mean [sic]?" Clinton, of course, blamed conservatives for their bitter reaction to Vietnam and Watergate, and the rise of conservative PACs. She allowed that vindictiveness to go by, unchallenged, and then devoted another five minutes to more questions about meanness, and how it's "strange" to see Clinton and Bush Senior get along, as well as Newt Gingrich and Hillary.

After a commercial, Greta turned to foreign policy - specifically, how Bush is flailing: "Americans are troubled with the thought of spending lots of money in Iraq, not at home. What about the foreign policy and the direction it's headed right now with this administration?" Van Susteren then asked two questions about North Korea. She never pressed on Clinton's (mis)handling of these matters, or Osama bin Laden. It wasn't softball. It was wiffle-ball time.

On the second night, it was back to politics. Her first on-air question: "Do you think, if Senator Clinton runs in 2008, it's going to change or whether [sic] the personal attacks will get cranked up?" Poor Hillary, always suffering from those personal attacks.

Other toughies included: "Your book is coming out in paperback...Any differences or an afterword that's changed at all?" And: "This global initiative, where you're bringing together lots of interesting people, Rupert Murdoch, who owns News Corp., of course, Governor Schwarzenegger, King Abdullah, what is this forum that you're doing?"

Nobody at the Washington Post or anywhere else offered any criticism of Van Susteren's soft-shoe through the Clinton Library in Little Rock. That's because she matched the Standard Ogling Procedure to Clinton interviews. On his paperback-plugging TV tour, Clinton also drew mellow how's-your-health-and-Hillary interviews with NBC's Brian Williams, CNN's Larry King, and NPR's smitten hosts and listeners.

Answer this: when was the last time Clinton was truly grilled by a TV interviewer? I can't remember. By that standard, doesn't President Bush deserve a fair and balanced interview once in a while?