It was one of the stranger phone calls I've gotten in recent weeks, courtesy of my old pal, Fox News Channel signature personality Bill O'Reilly.
It wasn't exactly from the O'Reilly Factor star, of course. It was an energetic researcher from his show named Ron, who phoned last week with an odd request: Could I tell him what party affiliation I was registered under and if I had contributed to any political party?
This is, of course, a hot-button issue for some journalists, many of whom don't even vote at all to preserve their illusion of objectivity and disconnect from divisive political issues. According to Ron, O'Reilly was checking up on TV critics across the country using public records and phone calls like the one I was enduring at that moment.
Since I consider myself an opinion columnist and have not been shy about divulging my political leanings in the past, I had no problem answering O'Reilly's questions, which I think are a public record, anyway. (I haven't donated to any political party and I'm a registered Democrat. Surprise!)
I'm sure O'Reilly is expecting to prove that a majority of TV critics are Democrats and have given $$ to them (good luck on that last one; we barely make enough to afford the service fees on our TiVos).
My cynicism on this latest move by Fox's highest-profile name really doesn't have much to do with the fact that he has called me a "dishonest, racially motivated correspondent writing for perhaps the worst newspaper in the country." Really.
Instead I'm struck by O'Reilly's search for new enemies, and the ongoing debate over objectivity, fairness and the boundaries of political activity for journalists.
I've always said that the standard for journalists, regardless of whether they write opinion or not, should be fairness, not objectivity. The very act of deciding that one issue makes a good story and another doesn't involves some side-taking, even if it's just deciding which subjects have a greater public interest. My goal is to be fair as possible, while informing readers as much as possible (that's why I also find journalists who don't vote amusing; anyone with half a brain who covers public policy has opinions on issues and lawmakers -- the key is to produce fair journalism regardless of your views.)
I also think some of this liberal media stuff comes from journalism's social justice imperative. To serve our core goals as a watchdog of governments and big societal institutions -- also providing a voice to the voiceless and championing the less powerful in society -- journalists are often looking incisively at issues in ways some conservatives don't appreciate. And when one party controls the Supreme Court, Congress and the White House the way Republicans have in recent years, incisive reporting is pretty much required -- regardless of how much it snarks off the Media Research Center and its functionaries.
Strangely enough, it's O'Reilly who echoes troubling tactics from the past, including his odd enemies list of media outlets and now this tabulation of what political party TV critics are registered with (I still don't get why prominent O'Reilly critics such as Al Franken and David Letterman aren't on this list, misguided as it is).
When fairness is your framework, I don't think it matters much what political party you belong to. But why should O'Reilly judge the nation's TV critics on our work? It's so much easier to damn us for our party affiliations.