NEW YORK (AP) _ Political combat pays: "Fox News Sunday" drew its best ratings in nearly three years for this weekend’s electric confrontation between former U.S. president Bill Clinton and newsman Chris Wallace.
Both men’s words were being dissected in the aftermath on Monday, with a Clinton spokesman saying Fox and Wallace had attacked Clinton with "an accusation," not a question.
"I think the interview speaks for itself," Wallace said. "They can spin all the conspiracy theories they want."
The Sunday talk show had its best ratings since the capture of Saddam Hussein in December 2003, according to Nielsen Media Research’s measurement of the top media markets. It even out-rated the morning’s dominant show, "Meet the Press," although the NBC show was displaced from its usual time slot by golf. (Two versions of the interview were the two most-watched clips on YouTube on Monday, totally more than 800,000 views.)
Wallace said Clinton had agreed to a 15-minute interview, half on his philanthropy efforts and half on any issue Fox wanted. As the interview began, Wallace asked about why Clinton is trying to help save lives in developing countries.
Clinton was angered by Wallace’s fourth question, about Clinton’s efforts to track down Osama bin Laden. Wallace said he asked because it was on viewers’ minds, particularly in the wake of ABC’s docudrama "The Path to 9/11," which was widely criticized by Clinton officials.
Wallace asked: "I understand that hindsight is always 20/20, but the question is, why didn’t you connect the dots and put him out of business?"
That question represented an attack, said Jay Carson, a Clinton spokesman who was backstage watching. Wallace hasn’t asked the same tough question of Bush administration officials, he said.
"That wasn’t a question, it was an accusation," Carson said. "He knew exactly what he was doing and we knew exactly what we were going to do if he did that, as we suspected he would. But it’s not what we wanted."
Wallace said it couldn’t have been asked in a less confrontational way.
"I didn’t say ‘you didn’t,’ " he said. "I didn’t say, ‘you screwed up, you’re responsible.’ It’s the way any newsman worth his salt would have asked the question. I’d be surprised if the president and his team felt brutalized by the question."
Wallace said he tries to ask the most current questions possible with newsmakers. Clinton had accused him of not asking Bush officials about the attack on the USS Cole in 2000, but Wallace said he didn’t join the show until 2003. Wallace said he didn’t think it was a planned counterattack by Clinton, who has been praised by many supporters for taking on Fox News.
After Clinton got angry, Wallace said Carson tried to get his producer to stop the interview. Carson said he was expressing concern that time was running out and that little of the philanthropy effort had been addressed.
"What struck me was that even before the interview had run, I had received hundreds of e-mails," Wallace said. "If they liked Clinton, they hated me. And if they hated Clinton, they thought I was a hero. I think that’s too bad for our politics today.