UPDATE: ABC News' has disputed this account of events, saying that the impetus for last night's Weather Underground queries stemmed from an April 10th post on Jake Tapper's "Political Punch" blog: "The article was the basis for the question and George and Charlie had discussed it in advance of the Hannity interview."
The unseen influence of Fox News wormed its way into tonight's nominally ABC-hosted debate, when Senator Barack Obama was asked to account for his tenuous connections to former Weather Underground leader William Ayers, who famously began a New York Times article with this statement: ''I don't regret setting bombs...I feel we didn't do enough.''*
The question was posed by George Stephanopoulos, who neither conceived of the question himself, nor disclosed the primary source of his donated inquiry: Fox News talking head Sean Hannity.
The blogosphere has been up on this from jump street. On Tuesday, Democratic Underground was among the first to note that Stephanopoulos was "Taking Notes From Sean Hannity for Tomorrow Night's Debates":
Hannity asked George what kinds of questions they'll be asking at the debate tomorrow and they discussed a few things. When Hannity asked about the first question below about Ayers and whether George had plans to ask such a question, George replied, "Well, I'm taking notes now Sean." It did actually sound like he was pausing to take notes. And Hannity continued to feed him more:
1) Ask Obama about his relationship with Ayers and WeatherUnderground and Axelrod's comments, "They're friendly"
2) Ask Obama why he attended the Million Man March
ABC contacted UIC for a photo of Ayers to be used tonight. Granted, this may be simply for the sake of having it on hand, but it seemed pretty clear that it IS going to be coming up in the debate.
Perhaps unused to receiving such a strong dose of the harsh stuff from the media (or unprepared - is there no one at the Obama campaign that's reading DailyKos?), Obama passed on the opportunity to knock ABC for asking the question. He offered a game enough response, noting that he was on friendly terms with Republican Senator Tom Coburn, who once advocated for the application of the death penalty to the providers of legal abortions:
OBAMA: Do I need to apologize for Mr. Coburn's statements? Because I certainly don't agree with those, either. So this kind of game in which anybody who I know, regardless of how flimsy the relationship is, that somehow their ideas could be attributed to me, I think the American people are smarter than that. They're not going to suggest somehow that that is reflective of my views, because it obviously isn't.
MSNBC's Keith Olberman was one of the few in the traditional media to note the Hannity connection to Stephanopoulous' question.
*An interesting point about this Ayers article: an extra dose of damnation has been laid on this statement because the article in which it appears carries the dateline of September 11, 2001, as if to say the statement is trebly offensive because it coincided with that tragic day. But these criticisms are insincere: obviously, the article was slated to go to press before the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, and was available at newsstands in advance of the attacks as well. As our own Rachel Sklar pointed out tonight, no one from the New York Times was covering any other beat on September 11th other than the terrorist attacks.