Why Journalists Shouldn't Be Defending Fox News
The Obama administration's recent characterization of Fox News is a long overdue acknowledgment of the obvious: Fox News is not a legitimate news organization -- indeed, after many years of serving as the research and messaging wing of the Republican Party, it has now gone beyond even that, to become the electronic evangelist of an ultra-partisan and non-reality-based world view.
Historically speaking, White House criticism of the media has often been unseemly and defensive, with the president's ire generally provoked by journalists who excel at their work -- by asking cheeky questions, exposing important things that the president would prefer be kept secret, holding the powerful accountable and playing host to a vibrant and informed exchange of a wide range of political opinions.
But in this case, the critique is something else entirely. The litmus test is that the Obama White House is not upset at news gatherers for doing their job. What Obama and his aides are correctly pointing out is that the people working at Fox News are doing another job altogether.
The White House "attack" on Fox is being derided as bad politics, as ineffective and as a distraction from more important issues -- all of which may be true. But doesn't it kind of matter that, when it comes to the substance of what Anita Dunn, David Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel, and now even Obama himself have said, they're exactly right?
Obama on Wednesday told NBC's Savannah Guthrie: "I think that what our advisers have simply said is, is that we are going to take media as it comes. And if media is operating basically as a talk radio format, then that's one thing. And if it's operating as a news outlet, then that's another. "
Fox News has, as my colleague Jason Linkins so effectively wrote earlier this week, well and truly left the fold of legitimate news outlets. The evidence is exhaustive. If you actually watch the network, it's not a close question. Indeed, as Josh Marshall writes, "as a product the straight news is almost more the stuff of parody than the talk shows which are at least more or less straightforward about what they are."
Pretending that Fox News is fair and balanced only serves the right wing, in the same way that it only served the Bush administration when traditional-media reporters pretended Bush didn't have a credibility problem -- and didn't call him out for his lies -- for fear of appearing partisan. It's self-muzzling, plain and simple.
One of the startling shifts in the last decade has been how so many of the most important policy issues of our time have become matters not of honest political debate, but of competing realities (only one of which, mind you, is supported by facts.) During the Bush years, whether it was related to Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, progress in Iraq, torture, or tax cuts for the rich, Bush and his acolytes operated in their own fictional world -- with the traditional media only rarely issuing a reality check.
I was confident that the alternate-reality dynamic would dissipate with Bush out of office. But in fact it has rebooted -- and has come back stronger than ever -- with Fox's opinioneers and their only slightly more news-like enablers at the lead, creating a rich alternate universe full of foreign-born presidents, socialists and conspiracies to destroy the American way of life.
Allowing that kind of conduct to be called "news" does real news a tremendous disservice. And for those trying to restore a more reality-based political debate, calling Fox News out is a crucial step in counteracting or containing its noxious effect on the political climate.
Washington Post opinion columnist Ruth Marcus, who this week predictably and enthusiastically joined the inside-the-Beltway hyperventilating about the White House's "dumb" decision to describe Fox accurately, then tried to use something I wrote last year about an incident of White House media criticism from the Bush years in her defense.
Marcus's initial argument included this assertion: "Imagine the outcry if the Bush administration had pulled a similar hissy fit with MSNBC." Then, after being deluged by commenters, Marcus cited me, at the time writing an online column about the White House for the Washington Post, as evidence that the media did appropriately call the Bush administration out when he had the gall to engage in media criticism himself.
But the difference in scale is laughable. We're talking about the nearly lone protestations of one marginalized blogger in one case -- compared to the massive media scrum now, which shows no sign of letting up, and in which reaction has mostly ranged from tut-tutting aimed at the White House to full-throated conspiracy theories about a new Nixon era, even from people who should know better.
Furthermore, looking back at the details of that particular incident from the Bush years is instructive, because Bush's beef was with a journalist who happened to be doing his job with unusual integrity and fearlessness.
Here's the column in question: The President Vs. the Peacock, from back in May of 2008.
The ostensible cause of the complaint by Bush counselor Ed Gillespie to NBC was that the edited version of an interview between Bush and NBC chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel had been unfairly truncated, when compared to the full interview. Here's the text.
But, as I wrote at the time:
NBC's handling of the interview was not atypical for a tightly-edited broadcast and did not violate any journalistic norms. The White House may believe that news outlets are obliged to reproduce all of Bush's non-answers in their rambling entirety, but that's not the way the news business works....
"The White House's outsized reaction instead appears to be about two other things entirely.
It doesn't take a trained psychologist to observe that Bush got angrier and angrier as the Engel interview went on....
Bush typically sits down with interviewers from Fox News -- or, more recently, Politico -- where he can count on more than his share of ingratiating softballs. But Engel, a fluent Arabic speaker who has logged more time in Iraq than any other television correspondent, assertively confronted Bush with the ramifications of his actions in the Middle East.
For instance, Engel noted: "A lot of Iran's empowerment is a result of the war in Iraq." He questioned Bush about his lack of an exit strategy in Iraq: "So it doesn't sound like there's an end anytime soon." He clearly upset Bush by saying that "on the ground," the situation in Iraq "looks very bleak." (Bush replied: "Well, that's interesting you said that -- that's a little different from the surveys I've seen and a little different from the attitude of the actual Iraqis I've talked to, but you're entitled to your opinion.")
He also challenged Bush on his legacy: "[I]f you look back over the last several years, the Middle East that you'll be handing over to the next President is deeply problematic: You have Hamas in power; Hezbollah empowered, taking to the streets, more -- stronger than the government; Iran empowered, Iraq still at war. What region are you handing over?"
And Bush seemed positively furious by the end of the interview, when Engel had this to say: "The war on terrorism has been the centerpiece of your presidency. Many people say that it has not made the world safer, that it has created more radicals. That there are more people in this part of the world who want to attack the United States."
Get it? The difference here is that everything Engel said was true. He was doing his job very well indeed -- with a rare amount of courage. That was his big "mistake" in the eyes of the White House -- speaking the truth to the president.
The latest news, from the New York Times is that: "In a sign of discomfort with the White House stance, Fox's television news competitors refused to go along with a Treasury Department effort on Tuesday to exclude Fox from a round of interviews with the executive-pay czar Kenneth R. Feinberg that was to be conducted with a 'pool' camera crew shared by all the networks."
But for Washington's real journalists to rush to the defense of Fox News would be extremely short-sighted, and yet another dismal example of inside-the-Beltway camaraderie run amok. Sure, some of these people may be our friends -- and there are a few journalists at Fox who have maintained a modicum of integrity -- but the fact is that overall, these are people who have made a conscious decision to get out of the truth business. They don't deserve our support -- or our silence about what they really are.
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