Every president at some point complains about coverage of his policies, his people and his family. Lincoln jailed several editors; Franklin Roosevelt railed against publishers who turned critical; Nixon compiled his infamous enemies list that included many journalists, and George W. Bush insisted a liberal bias pervaded the “media elite.”
So when top President Obama’s aides began chastising the Fox News Channel for being against everything the President does and says, there were only two surprises: the unusually blunt language from political aides known for their carefully chosen words and that such deep antagonism is surfacing so early in the administration.
Describing Fox as a “tool” and communication arm of the Republican Party, White House aides declared it was not a real news outlet and henceforth Fox would be treated as a political opponent. Though his own comments have been veiled, Obama snubbed Fox recently while visiting the other major networks for interviews on health care.
That ratcheted up the controversy and delighted the likes of Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity because it appeals to their audience and audience numbers appeal to advertisers. No surprise that the latest numbers for evening cable television viewers show the CNN news channel well behind red-meat opinionated talk shows on Fox, MSNBC and even HLN, CNN’s sister network, formerly known as Headline News.
There is a larger issue here. When there is breaking news, readers and viewers want reports of the latest developments which CNN and others have done well. In the absence of breaking news stories, there is evidence of an increasing polarization of readers and viewers on the right and on the left throughout the news business. Attribute it to the growth of the cable news programming and especially to the Internet where it is easier to select the kind of information you are most comfortable with or opinions that you approve, and filter out the rest.
Add to that the decline of mass market newspapers—where people traditionally shared not only news reports but a mix of opinion columns. That decline of that medium has accelerated tremendously in the last decade. An audit bureau report a week ago showed large circulation newspapers averaging annual circulation losses of between10-15 percent.
Overall, the media industry is consolidating and television is increasingly preaching to the choir as a way to retain and attract viewers. Even in this tussle, Fox News executive Bill Shine acknowledged to The New York Times the impact of such White House criticism: “Every time they do it, our ratings go up.”
The fight also gives journalists a delightful side-show to talk about the war of words instead of the economy and health care and the real wars. And journalists, truth be told, do love a political food-fight. Everything is messy but, hopefully, no one gets hurt. Bloggers and columnists join in with great satisfaction as both sides lob big fat rounds of invective at each other.
For years, many journalists were rankled that people actually believed the Fox News slogan that it was “fair and balanced” when it was so demonstrably not. Now, in a delightful bit of showmanship, Fox is adding “unafraid” to its tout.
On the other side, the way news was framed on ABC, CBS, NBC and on NPR and in many newspaper articles often displayed a more liberal set of values and was less than “objective,” sometimes even downright slanted.
This fight isn’t new, but the blurring of news and commentary is creating a new wrinkle on what is considered “news” and who represents a legitimate news outlet. We’ll look at that more in a future column.
The Fox network has eagerly developed a group of commentators who feed each other’s dire predictions and question Obama’s patriotism. I suspect they don’t represent the majority of Republicans, or even the majority of conservatives, who may feel their true message has been hijacked by the shouters on the far right. The loudest often get the most attention, think back to the empty paranoia and suspicion that the John Birch Society once spewed.
Still, as entertaining as it can be watching spittle form at the corners of an opponent’s mouth, there is also something worrisome when the attacks go beyond “just politics”.
Americans know that even as we cherish First Amendment rights to free speech and a free press, we also share a painful history of dangerous invective, especially when it comes to race-baiting. When Beck claims Obama “hates whites,” and others in the so-called “birther” movement deny his legitimacy (claiming he was not born in the U.S. and not entitled to the presidency), there is fear that such claims could provoke the unhinged to attack him personally.
At anti-administration “tea-party” rallies, promoted by the Fox hosts, some question Obama’s patriotism and call him a Nazi and a communist. During the election campaign, the opposition castigated Obama for transgressions by anyone, such as William Ayers, or any organization, such as ACORN, which supported him in the last election. It is almost certain that whenever some new terrorist attack occurs, that Obama will be blamed for allowing it to happen. The September 11 attack occurred just about this time in the Bush administration.
At the moment, however, the journalists in this food fight are more concerned about themselves.
A couple of weeks ago, Tucker Carlson (yes, the one with the bow tie), a Fox contributor, portrayed Fox as a victim while “the two most senior members of the White House staff attempt to bully a news outlet into silence.” The far right reveled in the feeling of victimhood throughout the eight years of the Bush administration. Now they can imagine the jackboots of government coming down over their throats.
The online Media Matters, a left-of-center watchdog organization, compiled a list of times the GOP and the Bush White House went after news organizations such as NBC, CNN and MSNBC and suggested boycotts by viewers.
Such tiffs are not uncommon especially during the campaign season. For a time, Vice President Cheney excluded New York Times reporters from traveling aboard Air Force Two. Presidential candidate John McCain’s people threatened to throw reporters from Time, Newsweek, and NBC off the campaign plane and two very critical columnists from the New York Times and Time magazine were not allowed on the campaign plane.
Democrats also kick back. Just a year ago, during the final election swing, Obama aides kicked off three reporters from the campaign plane: one from the Washington Times, another from the New York Post and one from the Dallas morning news. All three newspapers had editorially endorsed McCain.
For those who want to see how a conservative watchdog group operates, I would recommend the Media Research Center whose goal is to “fight liberal bias.” There you can find instances of how bias can swing both ways. If you are against bias from one antagonistic group, you should be against bias in all forms.
All parties in this will survive and similar food fights may erupt at any time. Some of Obama’s ardent supporters were getting worried that the government was prepared to cut Fox out from regular administration news briefings. But one lesson Obama learned from this current fight: don’t threaten to cut off a particular news organization’s access because even the competing ones will rally to its defense. There is an unwritten understanding among journalists that if one administration is allowed to cut off access to set of reporters and commentators, the next one administration may go after you. So many voices have been heard on the issue now that it is coming full circle with Mike Madden in Salon.com complaining that many mainstream media outlets are siding with Fox and attacking Obama.
There is certainly no question that Fox aims to appeal to a very conservative audience and that its commentators such as Beck, O’Reilly and Hannity love to pick apart every presidential utterance and administration effort. Fox executive Shine admits acknowledges that Fox is “the voice of the opposition on some issues.” Fox talk show hosts have been beating up Obama for his health care proposals, for efforts to turn around the economy, and for each decision or anticipated decision involving Iraq and Afghanistan
There is also no question that much of the rest of the media has been supportive of Obama throughout his campaign for the presidency and his first 10 months in office.
The Nobel Committee gave Obama the Nobel Peace Prize basically, I believe, for not being George Bush, and for creating hope around the world that the U.S. is headed in a new direction on everything from climate change to conflict. The media also swooned (O’Reilly called the reporting “rhapsodic”) at Obama’s potential for change. It is fair to say that Obama has been treated with exceptional delicacy.
That could change, of course. Journalists, in general, hate the status quo (it’s boring) and criticism of the President is already rumbling through editorial pages and among even the most liberal political columnists. Many of Obama’s ardent supporters on the left are growing restive because he has not moved fast enough to undo Bush administration policies on Guantanamo. They also complain his Justice Department supports Bush-era court cases that lessen citizen privacy rights.
Last week, the Web site FishbowlDC reported that White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs had a meeting with Michael Clemente, a senior vice president at Fox, supposedly to tone down the rhetoric on both sides.
Despite the occasional food fights, it’s better to have a contentious free press than a tame one. While presidents get irritated by opposition voices, they know that ultimately they must live with them; they also believe the bully pulpit of the presidency is louder than any one news organization.