Friday, October 23, 2009

White House Nixonian assault on Fox News is wrong, wrong, wrong

Congressman: Republicans and Fox News are "the enemy of America"

When the President of the United States allows or encourages the White House staff to launch an all-out attack on a purveyor of news and opinion he doesn't like, declaring Fox "not a news organization" and following up by trying to ban Fox from the White House TV press pool, it is not just politically foolish or dumb, although it is both those things. It's just wrong, wrong, wrong. Indeed, it's positively Nixonian. In some ways, it worse than anything Nixon and Agnew did in their public pre-Watergate campaign to smear the "liberal media."

For decades, whenever I've heard people on the right complain about what they perceived to be a liberal slant at The New York Times, the Washington Post or CNN, my attitude was always, well, let them get their own newspaper or all-news TV channel. The Sulzberger family, Katherine Graham and Ted Turner were entitled to push whatever politics suited them, just as William Randolph Hearst and Henry Luce had done in earlier years. That's the essence of First Amendment rights (the three broadcast networks, with their public franchises, occupy different ground). If they showed bias, people would notice, and those who didn't like it would stop relying on them. And that's exactly what happened.

That's why the Washington Times exists today. It's why The Wall Street Journal is now competing directly with the NYT and WaPo on a wide range of non-business news. And its exactly why Roger Ailes started Fox News.

The White House makes the argument that Fox is different from MSNBC or CNN. All these networks have opinion shows, but Fox supposedly allows bias into its regular news programming, while the others, it's implied, don't. Even if that were true, so what? The counter-argument is that MSNBC, in particular, is just as biased in what stories it chooses to cover or not cover and how it presents them. So when a Republican becomes President again, will it be OK for the White House to ban MSNBC?

Of course not. Anyway, news bias is in the eyes and ears of the consuming public. News organizations have always been politically biased. That's why so many newspapers were originally named "Democrat" or "Republican." That's why the Hearst organization's support was considered crucial for several generations of national politicians. It's why Henry Luce's Time magazine was a powerful force behind the Old Guard GOP. It's why liberals were beside themselves when the old Dorothy Schiff-owned New York Post was bought by Rupert Murdoch. The three broadcast networks have to be held to a different standard because they're using our airwaves. But there are scores of perfectly good cable channels going unused, so anyone who doesn't like the news seen on CNN or MSNBC can start their own. Oh, they did!

It is, of course, shockingly thin-skinned of Obama to fret so much about Fox News that he sends his people out to delegitimize Fox as a GOP propaganda outfit. But it's worse than that. The Executive is enormously powerful. The clear message has been sent to all the other media that they had better not "follow" Fox when it breaks stories, even solid stories, that the White House doesn't like, lest they wind up persona non grata with the President, too. As seen in the video above, members of Congress are taking their cues from the President to ramp up the bitter partisan rhetoric which Obama promised he would eschew. And naturally, the left blogosphere has exploded with applause.

Fortunately, the rest of the mainstream media has not been easily herded into line with the White House. All the other TV news networks refused to conduct White House-organized interviews if Fox was to be excluded from the pool. ABC's White House correspondent, Jake Tapper, asked Press Secretary Robert Gibbs pointedly where he got off declaring "one of our sister organizations" not a legitimate news organization. Influential liberal commentators have weighed in critically too. And some moderate Democrats in Congress are already voicing concerns about the White House attacks on Fox and others coming back to bite them.

The press does not have to be immaculately "objective" -- as if that were ever possible. And it certainly does not need to be deferential or even impeccably polite to the people in power. We're all better served by a press that makes noise, upsets apple carts, disturbs the serenity of those we've entrusted with governmental authority. Rather than try to delegitimize such folks as "enemies," Obama should get used to it. That's not to say that Obama needs to go on Sean Hannity's show and subject himself to hostile and silly questioning. And every White House has a right to play favorites among the press. But Obama should not be so insecure as to worry about members of his Administration getting a few tough questions from Chris Wallace, Major Garrett or Shepard Smith.

What do you think? Post a comment.

UPDATE (Oct. 27): Fox News ratings have soured since the White House attack, up nearly 10% across the board. "As for competition against the cable also rans, Fox News is sweeping the top 11 cable news slots in the 25-54-year old demographic...and the top 13 slots in all demos."

1 comment:

  1. I agree 100%. Nixon got a lot worse with Watergate but what he and Agnew did about the media was just like Obama and Fox.