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FROM THIS EPISODE

Off the Handle

For KCRW, I'm Nick Madigan of the Baltimore Sun with Minding the Media.

It's hard to tell whether Bill Clinton's tirade on Fox News Sunday was simply an explosion of exasperation or a rallying cry to the Democrats in a contentious election season.

But it made great television.

The confrontation between Chris Wallace and the former president gave the Fox show its best ratings in nearly three years, besting even the dominant Sunday news show, Meet the Press.

Fox, no friend of Democrats, had agreed that half the interview would be about Clinton's Global Initiative Forum and half about whatever Wallace wanted to ask. It was the first time Clinton had consented to an interview in the program's 10-year history.

Wallace did ask about Clinton's humanitarian efforts. Then he brought up the U.S. withdrawal from Somalia in 1993 and several terrorist incidents apparently perpetrated by al-Qaeda.

That's when he asked, "Why didn't you do more, connect the dots and put them out of business?"

Clinton went off.

Bear in mind that the question came just a couple of weeks after The Path to 9/11, the ABC miniseries that blamed his administration for not going after Osama bin Laden.

Clinton accused Wallace of doing "Fox's bidding," of doing a "nice little conservative hit job" on him.

He said Wallace had "a little smirk" on his face as he asked his questions, implying that the interviewer was enjoying putting Clinton on the spot.

"I didn't think this was going to set you off on such a tear," Wallace said.

Clinton replied that it had set him off on a tear because "you people ask me questions you don't ask the other side."

He then said President Bush's neo-cons thought he was "too obsessed with bin Laden" but that they had held no meetings about bin Laden for nine months after Clinton left office, until the planes hit the towers.

Howard Kurtz, in yesterday's Washington Post, wrote that Fox, which employs a number of conservative hosts, "maintains that its reporting is straightforward, but is viewed by many liberals and other critics as leaning to the right."

Media Matters for America, which documents what it perceives as conservative misinformation in the media, noted that in numerous interviews with senior Bush officials, Wallace has repeatedly failed to ask pressing questions about the Bush administration's efforts to pursue al Qaeda in the eight months prior to the September 11 attacks -- and in the years since.

Jay Carson, a Clinton spokesman, told Kurtz, "We're fully aware of Fox News' and Chris Wallace's agenda, and President Clinton came in prepared to respond to any attack on his record. When Wallace questioned his record on terrorism, he responded forcefully, as any Democrat would or should." Carson noted that the 2000 bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen was officially linked to al-Qaeda only after Bush took office.

Media Matters reported that after Wallace's interview with the former president, Fox News dedicated wall-to-wall coverage to it, portraying Wallace as a victim of an overbearing Clinton.

Fox News hosts and guests referred to Clinton's behavior during the interview as a "complete meltdown," an "angry explosion," a "volcanic reaction."

Yesterday, Fox News political analyst Tammy Bruce said: "I know that Bill Clinton's probably been told by a number of women to stop touching them, but never necessarily by a man."

On ABC News, reporter Dan Harris said that, "Unlike Michael Dukakis, Al Gore and John Kerry, who many believe failed to effectively combat efforts to distort their image, the Clintons believe Democrats have to push back hard."

With all the noise about Clinton's temper tantrum, it fell to Jon Stewart, last night on The Daily Show, to ask -- did anyone actually look at the substance of what Clinton was saying in defense of his record?

This is Nick Madigan of the Baltimore Sun, Minding the Media on KCRW.


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