I hate the unprecedented extent to which Fox News has involved itself in Republican politics, but I have to admit the channel presented a first-class, rousing and illuminating debate among GOP candidates Thursday night.
Most of the credit has to go to anchorman Bret Baier and Sunday show host Chris Wallace who were superb in their prepaartion and questions.
I cannot remember seeing a moderator this side of CNN's Wolf Blitzer who opened a debate with a more focused, well-researched barrage of questions than Baier. He set the bar high for every moderator who follows this presidential season, and every other sponsoring group and network better be careful about letting someone who is over the hill, lazy or living off his or her looks moderate a future debate. They are going to be judged against Baier and found wanting.
As for Wallace, he immediately managed to get the candidates talking to and arguing among themselves -- and that friction generated some of the best, unscripted insights into who these candidates are and what they stand for.
You can criticize Wallace if you want for sowing the seeds of conflict in Iowa Thursday night. But you would be walking a phony high road in doing so. Wallace's questions and his keen ability to get under the candidates' skins with the words of their opponents made Thursday's debate the lively, spirited event it was.
Furthermore, in pushing some of their buttons, Wallace got several of the candidates to reveal more of their character than is almost ever shown in such TV performances.
Conversely, I am sure some viewers noted the poise Mitt Romney showed in face of provocative questions.
I loved the pushback from the Fox questioners when gasbag Newt Gingrich tried to make this about the media. And what a joke that was when he tried to chastise his interviewer for using his past words, which were uttered while he was on the Fox News payroll as an analyst, against him.
I am sure Gingrich made some points with voters Thursday by attacking the media -- that always works at one simplistic and false level. Ask Barack Obama and David Plouffe; it was one of their core campaign strategies.
But, in this case, because Gingrich is one of Rupert Murdoch's owned-and-operated GOP candidates by nature of his past relationship as a paid analyst, all the over-the-hill former congressman did was highlight the onstage conflicts of interest in the fact that he and other candidates were recent employees of Fox -- and some of them will surely be employees again after the election.
We can never lose sight of the way Murdoch and Fox News chief Roger Ailes have abused their place in the media by trying to use the channel to control part of the process of selecting a president of the United States. Such behavior is truly dangerous to our democracy -- and they will always find unprincipled characters like Fox analyst and possible candidateSarah Palin willing to cash their checks.
But for all of that, let's also be fair to the two Fox journalists (and I don't use that word lightly) who performed admirably Thursday night in helping voters make more informed choices about the 2012 GOP candidates.