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Fox Chief On Hot Seat

Senate Democrats today get to turn the tables on the founder of the Fox News Channel, putting News Corp. President Rupert Murdoch on the hot seat at an informal weekly luncheon.

Murdoch, whose employees at Fox News have had their share of fun grilling Democrats on their cable shows, is the guest of Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) at today’s Democratic Policy Committee luncheon.

While a good portion of the roughly 90-minute session is expected to focus on the latest relaxation of media ownership rules by the Federal Communications Commission, quite a few of his Democratic critics will have some questions about what they consider to be Fox News’ tilt to the political right and its claim of being a fair and balanced media organization.

Sen. John Breaux (D-La.), a Murdoch friend, joked “they may need a referee” in the meeting just to keep order.

One of the No. 1 targets of criticism from Fox News commentators, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), will not be able to make the luncheon because she has a long-planned book signing two blocks away at Trover Books on Pennsylvania Avenue Southeast.

Clinton, whose appearance on CNN’s “Larry King Live” on Tuesday night was countered by a Fox News interview with a woman who accused former President Bill Clinton of sexually assaulting her in the 1970s, made clear she was not ready to break bread with Murdoch.

“I’m going to send him a note and say I’m sorry I missed him,” Clinton said with a smile Wednesday.

News Corp. aides declined to comment on Murdoch’s appearance.

Dorgan, who chairs the DPC and is a member of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, has been one of the most outspoken critics of the FCC decision, and even jousted with Murdoch on the issue of conservative views dominating talk radio at a hearing late last month. At the time, Murdoch brushed aside Dorgan’s complaints, saying, “Apparently conservative talk radio is more popular.”

Dorgan said he invited Murdoch to attend the luncheon a few weeks ago, following the tradition of having diverse speakers at the weekly events, including past guests like Vice President Cheney and famed investment guru Warren Buffett.

“He’s an interesting guy and we’ll have an interesting lunch,” Dorgan said of Murdoch.

In addition to the questions about the FCC decision and Murdoch’s pending takeover of DirecTV, some Democrats were clearly looking forward to a chance to hear from someone with a different viewpoint than most of them.

“I think it is always good to have people who have different perspectives,” said Breaux who also serves on the Commerce panel but does not oppose Murdoch’s DirecTV bid. “He is a conservative and the Democratic Caucus is predominantly more liberal than he, and I think it is good to have those people come in.”

“Particularly at a time when the media is not balanced, it’s important that we be fair and balanced,” said Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), intentionally playing with Fox News’ slogan.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) said he views this opportunity to “speak directly” to a person intricately involved in media ownership.

“I don’t know what we expect to hear, but what we do expect to get is a free and full discussion in regards to media ownership and a very candid discussion about our concerns,” Daschle said.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who adamantly opposes Murdoch’s DirecTV bid, acknowledged that a great part of the discussion today will focus on Fox’s alleged political bias, but said that he plans to narrow his questioning to the merger.

“If his deal goes forward, everybody is going to say we have got to keep up with the Joneses,” said Wyden, who serves on the Commerce committee. “I just think that is another huge step towards media concentration that is not in the public interest. I want to hear how this deal would produce something other than I anticipate.”

Murdoch’s private engagement with Democrats today has similar overtones to former CNN chief Walter Isaacson’s closed-door meetings with GOP leaders in August 2001. At that time, Isaacson acknowledged he was reaching out to GOP leaders in an effort to convince them that his network did not favor Democrats over Republicans.

Just as Democrats openly question Fox’s political bent, GOP leaders such as House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) have labeled CNN as the “Communist News Network” and the “Clinton News Network” — suggesting they only presented the liberal viewpoint and that of former President Clinton.

But some Republicans are opposed to the FCC decision and fear the growth of media giants such as Murdoch, including Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who joined Dorgan at a press conference the day of the FCC decision to blast the move.

While Lott loves Fox News Channel — “fair and balanced” is one of his favorite sayings when trying to tweak reporters — he said smaller cities such as his state capital, Jackson, could be overrun by one media giant overtaking a local TV station, newspaper and radio station, leaving little if any diversity in the local media.

“He’s given us an alternative voice in the media,” Lott said of Murdoch, who he has spoken to about DirecTV and other media issues. But he’s still with Dorgan on this issue, and he said he expects the North Dakotan to put Murdoch through a tough line of questioning on the issue.

“He’ll do fine without any help from me,” said Lott, a member of the Commerce panel.

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