Senators vent as topper defends Fox News

WASHINGTON — News Corp. topper Rupert Murdoch ventured into the lion’s den yesterday — a room full of Senate Democrats on Capitol Hill.

The conservative media tycoon was there to sell his company’s mega-merger with DirecTV and address questions senators had about the FCC’s recent decision to relax media ownership regs.

According to various accounts of the 90-minute luncheon, however, Murdoch spent most of the time trying to convince the lawmakers that the Fox News Channel lives up to its “Fair and Balanced” slogan and apologizing for times when the Democrats claimed it was anything but.

“He said Fox News is fair and balanced and he just can’t imagine that there was any kind of a slant there,” Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) recounted after the meeting. “Members of the Senate were just speechless.”

But Durbin agreed with one point Murdoch made.

“He said that ‘The Simpsons’ is the best show on TV and I agree with him. Springfield (Ill.) is my hometown.”

Boxer’s boxes

Democrats on the Commerce Committee took their fair share of shots at Murdoch during a recent hearing on the proposed merger, even as some Republicans came to his defense.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) was particularly tough on Murdoch, chastising him about how she was treated during a recent appearance on the network. Boxer objected to a box that appeared on screen whenever she was speaking, which, she said, listed several of her votes on different issues without providing accurate context.

She repeated the complaint during Thursday’s luncheon, and Murdoch apologized in front of the Democratic Caucus, according to several lawmakers present.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) also confronted Murdoch about what he regarded as inaccurate reporting by Fox News. During the heated run-up to the war in Iraq, Leahy said Fox reported that Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) had voted against numerous military spending bills. Leahy told Murdoch that simply wasn’t the case, and once again Murdoch apologized and told the senators to call him with any complaints, according to one lawmaker present.

After the luncheon, Murdoch told reporters he had a “very good dialogue” with the Democrats and brushed off questions about the Democrats’ complaints about the net’s conservative bias.

“It’s no different than what the Republicans say about CNN,” he asserted before his handlers rushed him away from reporters.

Media arms race

On the topic of media concentration, Murdoch told lawmakers he has far fewer holdings that AOL Time Warner. He also explained that most people get their information from local news and that he does not plan to interfere with any of his affiliates’ newsrooms.

The speech did little to quell the concerns of Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) about the FCC’s decision and the prospect of big media getting even bigger.

“I’m concerned about a whole rash of mergers,” he said. “I think we’re in a media concentration arms race right now.”

Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), a vocal critic of the FCC’s action, said he didn’t believe Murdoch’s acquisition of DirecTV was part of the media consolidation problem because it would not eliminate one satcaster for another but ensure that one remains viable.

“He’s given us one alternative, one conservative voice,” Lott maintained.

When asked whether that means Fox News maintains a bias and does not live up to its slogan, Lott smiled.

“Conservative is fair and balanced,” he quipped.

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