Journalism has a special, hallowed place for stories of its practitioners' persecution. There is no higher claim to journalistic integrity than going to jail to protect a source. And the Newseum in Washington, D.C., establishes the profession's legitimacy with a memorial to fallen scribes, thus drawing an implicit connection between the murdered abolitionist editors of long ago and the struggling outfit that gave you this morning's page-one story about cute pets in Halloween costumes.
But no journalistic operation is better prepared to sing the tragedy of its own martyrdom than Fox News. To all the usual journalistic instincts it adds its grand narrative of Middle America's disrespectful treatment by the liberal elite. Persecution fantasy is Fox News's lifeblood; give it the faintest whiff of the real thing and look out for a gale-force hissy fit.
As the Obama administration has discovered by now. A few weeks ago, after Fox had scored a number of points against administration figures and policies, administration spokesmen decided it was time to start fighting back. Communications Director Anita Dunn called the network "a wing of the Republican Party," while Obama himself reportedly dismissed it for following "a talk radio format."
The network's moaners swung instantly into self-pitying action, likening the administration's combative attitude to Richard Nixon's famous "enemies list."
They should remember that it wasn't just the keeping of a list that made Nixon's hostility to the media remarkable. Nearly every president--and probably just about every politician--has criticized the press at some point or other. What made the Nixon administration stand out is that it also sued the New York Times to keep that paper from publishing the Pentagon Papers. It schemed to ruin the Washington Post financially by challenging the broadcast licenses for the TV stations it owned. It bugged the office of Joseph Kraft, a prominent newspaper columnist. One of its most notorious henchmen was G. Gordon Liddy, who tells us in his autobiography that under certain conditions he was "willing to obey an order to kill [columnist] Jack Anderson."
It is interesting to note that Mr. Liddy, that friend of the First Amendment, appeared frequently in 2006 on none other than the Fox News network. In fact, the network sometimes seems like a grand electronic homage to the Nixonian spirit: Its constant attacks on the "elite media," for example, might well have been inspired by the famous pronouncements on TV news's liberal bias made by Mr. Nixon's vice president, Spiro Agnew.
And, of course, the network's chairman, Roger Ailes, was an adviser to Mr. Nixon in the 1968 presidential campaign; his signature innovation back then was TV commercials in which Mr. Nixon answered questions from hand-picked citizens in a town-hall style setting.
Although they cry persecution today, the network and its leading lights have not really distinguished themselves on the issues surrounding clashes between the government and the press. When Mr. Ailes was on the other side of the politician/press divide, making ads for the presidential campaign of George H. W. Bush, the Washington Post once found out in advance where one of the commercials was going to be filmed. According to an article that appeared in that paper in 1988, Mr. Ailes was moved to comment thusly on the situation: "'These leakers!' he told an inquiring reporter the night before the planned event. 'I think they should all be executed and tortured.'"
Mr. Ailes was joking on that occasion. But faced with one of the biggest First Amendment cases of our own time--the New York Times's 2005 story on the George W. Bush administration's domestic wiretapping program--how did Fox News react? By impugning the motives of the Times, of course, with different Fox personalities speculating that the Times deliberately published the story when it did in order to dissuade the U. S. Senate from reauthorizing the Patriot Act.
To point out that this network is different, that it is intensely politicized, that it inhabits an alternate reality defined by an imaginary conflict between noble heartland patriots and devious liberals--to be aware of these things is not the act of a scheming dictatorial personality. It is the obvious conclusion drawn by anybody with eyes and ears.
Still, one wishes that the Obama administration had taken on Fox News with a little more skill. As cultural criticism goes, this was clumsy, plodding stuff. What the situation required was sarcasm, irony, a little humor. Simply feeding Fox a slice of raw denunciation was like dumping gasoline into a fire. It did nothing but furnish the network with a real-world validation of its long-running conspiracy theories--and a nice bump in its ratings.