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Fox News to host debate

Cabler, org to invite Dems' prez hopefuls

WASHINGTON — Fox News Channel and the Congressional Black Caucus Institute announced Wednesday they have joined forces to sponsor two debates this fall for the crowded field of Democratic candidates jockeying for position in the 2004 presidential race.

The debates mark an important step for Fox News. TV news in general has come under criticism for ignoring the African-American audience. By forging a relationship with the CBC, Fox News stands to better weather such complaints.

And by teaming up with Fox News, the CBC is sending a signal that the country’s No. 1 cable news net shouldn’t be so easily dismissed because of a perceived conservative bent associated with indifference to minority groups.

CNN was the No. 1 news net during the 2000 presidential election. This time around, it’s Fox News that stands to deliver the widest audience.

“Debates play an important role in the election process. We want to make sure people have access to the candidates and their positions on critical issues in order to make informed choices when voting,” said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Maryland Democrat who is chair of the CBC.

Cummings spokesman Doug Thornell said his boss had shopped the debate idea to other nets but was impressed by Fox News chair-CEO Roger Ailes’ swift and serious response.

Fox ‘showed real interest’

“It wasn’t like he said, ‘We’ll have our people call your people,’ ” Thornell said. “Fox was the one that showed real interest and showed they were serious and wanted to get something done.”

Ailes and Cummings jointly announced the debate schedule at a news conference at Morgan State U. in Baltimore. The first debate will be held at Morgan State, a historically black college, on Sept. 11.

Second debate will be held Oct. 26 in Detroit. All nine Democratic presidential candidates — including African-Americans Carol Moseley-Braun and the Rev. Al Sharpton — have confirmed their participation in the debates, which will be carried live by Fox News.

It marks the first time that Fox News has sponsored a Democratic presidential debate. News org aired one Democratic debate during the 2000 election and sponsored one Republican debate.

“Presidential debates play a critical role in our democratic process, and we are delighted to be associated with such a worthwhile endeavor,” Ailes said.

Gearing up for campaign

All the cable news nets and broadcast news divisions are gearing up for intense campaign coverage, trying to find a unique angle to separate themselves from their rivals.

Many, like Fox, intend to sponsor various debates for the Democratic candidates. ABC’s “This Week With George Stephanopoulos” hosted the first debate earlier this summer.

The partnership between Fox News and CBC’s leadership institute is the result of some serious courting between Ailes and Cummings.

Ailes has met with Cummings several times over the last year to discuss public policy and the net’s various minority outreach initiatives, including a internship program for minority journalists and efforts to hire minorities in management positions.

In early June, Ailes also invited Cummings as the net’s guest at Washington’s annual Radio and TV Correspondents’ black-tie dinner, where the two first discussed the idea of airing the debates on FNC.

“This isn’t something that was just proposed,” Thornell said. “There have been several things (Fox execs) have been doing in the last year to reach out.”

The outreach has paid off for all parties involved. The CBC gets to highlight its issues, the presidential candidates get a chance to appeal to the African-American community, and Fox gets some proof that it tries to live up to its “fair and balanced” mantra.

Thornell said his boss has no problems with Fox’s conservative leanings and has appeared on the net several times. He said Cummings believes he and Ailes will collaborate on the debate format and such details as the selection of the moderator.