08/14/2011 02:42 pm ET | Updated Oct 14, 2011

A New Fox? Don't Unlock the Henhouse

Columnists, even in the New York Times, are hailing Fox News for its handling of Thursday's Republican presidential debate. The consensus is that moderators Bret Baier and Chris Wallace probed the candidates intelligently and appropriately, often asking the kind of tough questions that FNC anchors, since the channel debuted in 1996, have notoriously spared Republicans.

Some commentators have even expressed sympathy for Wallace, who was actually booed by the studio audience for asking Newt Gingrich a question the former Speaker of the House didn't like.

Meanwhile, Fox's own Sean Hannity has leaned on Wallace, saying the question to Gingrich (about the putative mismanagement of his campaign) epitomized the "double standard" that FNC has heretofore attributed solely to the "left-leaning" mainstream media. And that, in turn, has the liberal blogs trumpeting a brewing "Fox feud."

But before we start re-thinking what our lying eyes have told us about Fox all along, before we begin erasing the quotes of skepticism from "fair and balanced" or, conversely, writing Fox's obituary, let's look at what really happened Thursday night. Eight Republicans went before the Fox cameras in Iowa to showcase their credentials for president. With no Democrats in the room, it should have been clear that at least one Republican would walk away from the debate unhappy. That it turned out to be Gingrich should have been no surprise, either.

Look at Fox's history and you'll see what I mean. Conservative commentator Pat Buchanan was a favorite at FNC from Day One, but he couldn't get in the door at 1211 Avenue of the Americas during the 2000 presidential campaign. Why? Because, in announcing his candidacy for the Republican nomination, he made things just that much more difficult for George W. Bush. And in 2000, Bush was the party elite's -- and therefore, Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes's -- pre-ordained candidate.

Not only did Buchanan suddenly become persona non grata at Fox, but whenever his name was mentioned, FNC anchors began dredging up such things as his history of race-baiting - the kind of reporting for which Fox was constantly condemning the MSM. Eventually, though, it mattered little to Buchanan. Once the race was over and Bush was the Republican nominee, Buchanan returned to Fox's pundit list, race-baiting past be damned.

Trent Lott got the same treatment from Fox in December 2002, in the waning days of his tenure as Senate Republican leader. In fact, Fox went out of its way to hasten Lott's ouster. The occasion, of course, was his remarks at Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday party suggesting that the country would have been better off had Americans, in 1948, elected the then-Dixiecrat to be president.

I was working at Fox then, and I'll never forget the morning after Lott's faux pas. The first thing I saw in the FNC monitor when I arrived in the newsroom was our report on the Thurmond party. To my surprise, it made no attempt to shield Lott from the criticism that had erupted overnight. Instead, the anchor went so far as to remind his viewers that Lott had made similar, race-insensitive remarks in the past. In short, Fox was treating this Republican stalwart as it would a Democrat.

Now, there was no way a Fox anchor would take such a step without clearance from above. So I went to the daily memo put out by then-Vice President for News, John Moody, which served as the news staff's marching orders. Sure enough, there was Moody's dictum: our viewers need to be reminded that this wasn't the first time Lott had so transgressed. So now the anchor's motivation was clear, but why was Moody -- Ailes's political lieutenant-in-lockstep -- suddenly targeting a Republican?

The answer was in the day's wire-service reports: The White House wanted Lott out as the Senate's top Republican. President Bush considered him difficult to work with: a poor team player, a loose cannon that needed to be silenced. Lott's remarks the night before had provided the president's rationale for doing so -- and Fox, of course, would provide Bush's cover.

Now we have Fox v. Gingrich. As I was in 2002, people are surprised to see the channel known deservedly as "GOP-TV" going after such a prominent Republican -- even if, by "going after," one means simply asking legitimate questions. But the same rule applies at Fox with Gingrich as it did with Buchanan and Lott. If you're a Republican who runs afoul of the party machine, we'll treat you like a Democrat.

Gingrich has placed himself in that position not because of any direct sins against his party or its front-runner. In fact, there is no clear leader in the GOP field. But Gingrich made himself the party's one clear loser early in this campaign -- first, by justifying his extra-marital affairs as an expression of - here it comes -- unbridled patriotism; then, by taking his wife on a long get-away and losing his hard-working campaign staff in the process.

I'm sure it has dawned on Fox that Gingrich has lost whatever chance he had for the presidency, and that he can do nothing but harm to the party now. I doubt that Chris Wallace was given a direct order to go after Gingrich. But at Fox, such orders need not be spoken. They're understood.

So don't expect Ailes & Co. to suddenly turn legit. Besides, Rush Limbaugh is in this now, calling FNC an MSM wannabee. A bit more of that from him and it'll be just like old times, with Fox firmly -- and you can bet, demonstrably -- in the Republican fold.