Fox News Flip-Flops on Protest Coverage … South Park Chef Serenades Dennis Hastert

Leave it to Fox News Channel to dream up ways of making a large-scale anti-war protest into something downright … sexy!

“We got an e-mail from some women who are going to be showing the bottoms of their bikinis,” said Thom Bird, the executive producer responsible for Fox’s coverage of the Republican National Convention. “That may end up being in an overall package about the protesters.”

With a quarter of a million demonstrators expected in New York on the eve of the convention, Mr. Bird said it was only right to give ‘em a little air time.

“It’s part of our American system,” he said, “of the way we do things. If people want to be heard, they’re heard. You have one group inside doing what they need to do and the other outside-they certainly go hand in hand.”

Fair and balanced, bub!

But Fox News hasn’t always felt that way. During New York antiwar protests in 2003, Brit Hume, the channel’s managing news editor, had this to say on March 23:

“The striking thing about the anti-war sentiment,” he said, “and the whole anti-war case now, is that it is rooted in what I think most Americans can see from their TV screens are demonstrative lies … They don’t have a credible argument. They don’t have-intellectually and morally, they seem totally confused.”

“Well, they’re anti-American,” said Bill Kristol, the editor of The Weekly Standard and a Fox News commentator.

A lot has changed in 18 months. A Fox News spokesperson said that at the time, “the dominant news was the Rhode Island club fire,” and that Mr. Hume “stands by the statement … for the war-protest coverage he was discussing in 2003, which has nothing to do with the protests next week-it’s two totally different things.”

Indeed: One protest was hoping to stop a war in the Middle East; the other will merely be lodging an objection to a political convention. Also, nobody was showing off their bottoms at the former.

The all-important rump question aside, other network and cable-TV executives were taking a wait-and-see approach to demonstrations. If the projected 250,000 demonstrators turned up and the whole thing went off without incident, they said, it would merit a little TV coverage. But just a little.

“Is that a full-network interrupt?” said Paul Mason, the senior vice president of ABC News. “I don’t think so. If they’re just out on the street, we’ll put it on our digital channel and we’ll put it on World News Tonight .”

The real wild card for TV executives isn’t so much the mass Sunday demonstration-which has yet to secure Central Park as its location-but the dozens of other demonstrations around the city during the convention itself, including an unknown number taking to the streets on the night of Sept. 2, when George W. Bush accepts his party’s nomination. Considering the unpredictability of thousands of anti-Bush mobs acting out in public-and the possible presence of black-clad Starbucks-haters-the main worry for TV news organizations is inciting disruptive behavior by showing up with cameras.

“The fear is that the presence of that causes it,” said David Bohrman, the executive producer of CNN’s convention coverage. “That’s really a fear. We’re reluctant to pull our cameras out if there’s a crowd of people. You don’t want to galvanize a crowd by pointing a camera at them. You want to report on them, but you don’t want to be the cause of them.”

Mr. Bohrman said that was one of the reasons that most national news organizations didn’t mark their equipment with logos.

“I think you’ll find the networks and the cable networks, their cars won’t be marked so they don’t attract attention, but local crews will be marked. We’ve learned these things.”

“You’ve got to be careful,” he added.

Bill Dobbs, the media coordinator for the major protest group, Unity for Peace and Justice, agreed. He said the media would also need to show some restraint. “For all those concerned with the dire predictions of the police and all, I just hope things are kept in perspective,” he said. “If there are huge problems, let’s keep the problems in perspective.”

It wasn’t clear what would constitute a news event big enough to cut into a prime-time Republican speech-especially President Bush’s. And nobody was willing to hazard a guess, for fear of inadvertently making a recommendation to the protesters.

Marcy McGinnis, the senior vice president of CBS News, said it would take something “pretty major” for CBS News to pre-empt any of the convention coverage-but then she became nervous just saying that.

“I don’t want it in the paper that it would have to be ‘pretty major’ and then look like we’re egging something on,” she said. “Whatever it is, we’ll make an editorial judgment when it happens.”

Mr. Bird was willing to venture that if a Fox News camera captured footage of a single black-clad anarchist throwing a garbage can through a Starbucks window-the ubiquitous image from the W.T.O. protests in Seattle in 1999-he would have to air it. “It’s a part of the story,” he said. “You can’t ignore it.”

In the most extreme case, a network might split the screen, or display a small box within the main broadcast. “We’ve made decisions to split the screen with two different screens,” said Ms. McGinnis, recalling the simultaneous broadcasts of former President Bill Clinton’s impeachment and the civil-suit verdict of O.J. Simpson.

But imagining the circumstances under which they’d do that-especially during President Bush’s speech-was difficult. “We need to be careful before we just blindly do that,” said Mr. Borhman. “That could conceivably undermine what’s happening on the floor of the convention. We need to think a little bit before we do that. None of us knows what this is going to turn into. By everyone’s hope, it won’t be Chicago 1968.”

Mr. Borhman said that, given that many of the protests would take place during the day, the two events might not be part of the same narrative.

“They may be able to exist as completely different stories, and they may not have to intrude into each other in a huge way,” he said.

Black-Tie Power

In the next month, there are two places you can hear funk legend Isaac Hayes sing his Black Power classic “Theme from Shaft .”

One is the TV premiere of the concert film Wattstax , the so-called “black Woodstock” from 1972, hosted by an Afro-and-dashiki-sporting Jesse Jackson and featuring 100,000 people, fists in the air, repeating after Mr. Jackson: “I may be on welfare, but: I am! Somebody! “

And the other place? The G.O.P. party on Wednesday, Sept. 1, honoring House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert and featuring a special appearance by California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

NYTV had to ask: Was the 62-year-old voice of Chef McElroy on South Park now one baaaad right-wing Repub-

“No!” said Mr. Hayes in an interview, his deep baritone testing the bass levels on our telephone. “I’m not a Republican. I made it clear: Don’t associate me with the Republican Party. I’m a Democrat.”

Mr. Hayes said he was asked to perform by his friend, Mitch Bainwol, chairman and chief executive of the Recording Industry Association of America, which is sponsoring the event.

“Mitch Bainwol is a good friend of mine and he happens to be part of the RIAA, and they want me to be a part of this thing,” said Mr. Hayes. “But they promised me I wouldn’t be associated with this thing at all.

“It’s a fine line,” he confessed. “You have fans on both sides. So I try not to get all that mixed up, you know.”

And yet, mixed up he was-alongside pro-Bush rap-rocker Kid Rock and country singer Trace Adkins.

But a significantly younger Mr. Hayes will reburnish his rep on Tuesday, Sept. 7. PBS will air Wattstax , the concert commemorating the Watts Riots and featuring performers from the legendary Stax Records, with Mr. Hayes as the headliner.

Directed by Mel Stuart, the man who brought us Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (!), it shows glorious documentary footage of life in the Watts section of L.A. in the early 70′s, savage comedy riffs by a radicalized Richard Pryor and lots of jive-ass screw-whitey commentary by such random Black Power youngsters as Teddy Wilson, the man who would later play Isaac on The Love Boat .

“We were overcoming,” said Mr. Hayes, who sports a solid-gold chain-link vest in the film. “Dr. King’s dream was alive in all of us. There was a lot of love in that whole thing that day, in the whole coliseum. It was a great day for me, because I visited Watts Tower. We had a parade-it was an awesome day.”

Mr. Hayes might not say the same thing about Mr. Hastert’s right-wing wing-ding, but a lot has changed since Wattstax-and not, in his opinion, for the better. He said that after Bill Cosby made his recent comments about lazy, degenerate black kids, he called him up to tell him how much he agreed with him.

“I congratulated him: ‘I totally support you, man. Tot-a-lly ,’” Mr. Hayes recalled. “He had had it. It’s time for black folks to take responsibility. Some got offended by it. It’s just crazy.”

If it’s any comfort to lefty funk fans, Mr. Hastert and company won’t be getting the full Shaft when Mr. Hayes does his bit at their gig.

“I’m just singing to a CD,” he said. “My band won’t be on this.”