Fox News could be back in the debate business.
Just days after Democrats canceled a Nevada debate co-sponsored by the cable news network, Fox is negotiating with the Congressional Black Caucus Political Education and Leadership Institute to broadcast up to two face-offs by presidential candidates.
Officials for the institute and News Corp., Fox News' parent company, said discussions over co-hosting a Republican and a Democratic debate were under way Monday.
The CBC Institute, a nonprofit group whose directors include members of the Congressional Black Caucus, has already sealed an agreement with CNN to broadcast a Democratic presidential primary debate in South Carolina and another Republican debate at a site to be determined.
Online activists, who were instrumental in forcing the cancellation of the Nevada debate, are mobilizing to pressure the Congressional Black Caucus and the institute against entering into an agreement with Fox News.
"Should they go forward, what we will see is largely what we saw happen in Nevada," said James Rucker, head of colorofchange.org, a coalition of black online activists. "They can expect a massive grass-roots backlash."
Rucker noted that Fox News President Roger Ailes recently joked about the similarity of Illinois Sen. Barack Obama's name to al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden. Rucker and other Fox critics complain that network commentators have been racially provocative when discussing topics involving blacks, including Obama's candidacy.
Ailes told a Radio & Television News Directors Association Foundation event in Washington: "And it is true that Barack Obama is on the move. I don't know if it's true that President Bush called (Pakistan President Gen. Pervez) Musharraf and said, 'Why can't we catch this guy?'"
Nevada Democrats canceled their debate with Fox after the Ailes joke.
The institute and Fox News teamed up to host a 2004 Democratic debate. And News Corp. has been a longtime supporter of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, another nonprofit group affiliated to the black caucus. The foundation's annual reports since 2002 list News Corp. as one of scores of corporate donors, with contributions ranging from $5,000 to $30,000.
Though the black caucus is regarded as a Democratic organization in Congress, the institute cannot act in a partisan fashion under federal tax laws.
"We make (debate) decisions based on the capacity of the organization to reach the greatest number of viewers," said Candice Tolliver, a media consultant for the institute. "None of our decisions are made on a political basis."