This past week, we learned that the White House is "waging war" on Fox News. And what terrifying weapon is the administration wielding? What sinister tactic has the Fox faithful rending their garments? Well, the White House has said that Fox is more a political operation than a news organization, committed to advancing the Republican Party's goals. In other words, the White House is leveling the same charge people have made about Fox for its entire history. Watch the station for more than a few minutes, and you'll see it's true.
What's really been revealed in this little dustup is the way television journalists think that they should get to follow a set of rules different from the set their colleagues whose work appears in other media follow.
The drama started when White House Communications Director Anita Dunn was quoted as calling Fox "a wing of the Republican Party." Shortly after, adviser David Axelrod appeared on ABC's This Week and said, "[Fox]'s really not news ... and we're not going to treat them that way. We're going to appear on their shows. We're going to participate, but understanding that they represent a point of view." Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel echoed Axelrod on CNN.
Naturally, Fox wasn't happy about the administration's criticism. Liz Cheney went on Sean Hannity's show and called it "clear censorship" and "abuse of power." Fox commentator Karl Rove -- who, as an aide to President Bush, tried to get a Washington Post reporter he didn't like removed from the White House beat -- called it "demeaning to the White House" and "unhelpful for the country." The issue has been discussed on the network for hour after interminable hour, with plenty of high-minded proclamations on the administration's abhorrent contempt for the Fourth Estate.
At times like this, you see what a thin understanding many people have of the First Amendment. Fox has the right to say anything it likes and report in whatever manner it chooses. That's a right it exercises every day. But freedom of speech and the press also means that other people are allowed to criticize you for the manner in which you exercise your rights. People can suggest that your reporting is slanted or say that your adherence to the facts is inadequate or even call you a bunch of jerks, and they haven't infringed on your right to speak and report.
What has the administration actually done to Fox? It hasn't tried to censor the network. It hasn't forbidden Fox reporters from entering the White House -- those reporters are still there, doing their jobs. Obama staffers have -- brace yourself -- criticized them. Egad!
The White House has also decided, as Axelrod said, to stop pretending that Fox is a legitimate news organization. So when Obama did a round of interviews on the Sunday shows a few weeks ago, he neglected to add Fox News Sunday to the list. Is that a choice the White House doesn't have the right to make? No one would argue that Obama has some sort of duty to give interviews to Rush Limbaugh or National Review, just as no one expected George W. Bush to sit down for a chat with Keith Olbermann or The Nation. Yet for some reason, the fact that Fox is a television network is supposed to confer upon the president an obligation to treat it with deference. No such obligation exists.
Yes, Fox broadcasts pictures as well as words. Reporters for television networks may be better paid, dressed, and coiffed than their ink-stained counterparts from the print media, but the fact that their faces appear on television doesn't mean they should be subject to a set of rules different from the one other journalists follow.
Fox News was launched in 1996, back when the White House was occupied by another Democrat who drove conservatives around the bend. Seeing an exploitable market niche, mega-mogul Rupert Murdoch decided to create a conservative cable news network and chose Roger Ailes -- media guru to both Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush -- to run the show. What Ailes created couldn't have been more different from the stodgy CNN. Fox was fast, loud, and personality-driven. And from the beginning, it offered conservatives a place where their worst fears would be validated and their opinions treated as the gospel truth.
Though Fox has defended itself by trying to distinguish between its news coverage and its opinion programming, the news is often hard to find. From the early morning fun on Fox & Friends (just as right-wing as the rest of the network but so insipid it makes Jackass look like a meeting of the Oxford Union), to the cheerleading for unfettered capitalism on Neil Cavuto, to the nightly tirades from the prime-time lineup of Beck, O'Reilly, and Hannity, to the weekend shows hosted by the likes of Oliver North and Mike Huckabee, Fox is the place to go if you want to learn how Republicans are strong and manly, Democrats are crooks, and Obama has a secret plan to lead America toward a socialist nightmare. That isn't to say there aren't a few real journalists at Fox -- there are. But the occasional bleats of reality they offer are overwhelmed by a tsunami of conservative bloviating.
The wave of "tea party" protests against the Obama administration over the summer showed how Fox is different from actual news organizations. It relentlessly promoted the protests, encouraging its viewers to attend and offering lots of information on how they could do so. Fox had its personalities fan out to appear at protests around the country. One Fox producer was caught on tape trying to whip up the crowd so it would appear more dynamic. When it was all over, the network ran a newspaper ad chiding its competitors for not going with the same wall-to-wall tea party coverage it did (see this report for details of all the network's tea party promotion). And the activism didn't end there -- just last week, we learned that John Stossel, who recently came to Fox from ABC, will be a featured performer at anti-health-care reform town halls put on by the conservative group Americans for Prosperity.
You can't engage in that kind of activism, then turn around and demand to be treated like a legitimate news organization. You especially shouldn't expect special privileges, like presidential interviews, that very few other news organizations get. To repeat, Fox has every right to say whatever it wants. Opinion-driven journalism is healthy for democracy. But Fox shouldn't be surprised that when it tells its viewers to protest the president, the president becomes less interested in doing it any favors. In the past, Obama has given interviews to Fox personalities including Chris Wallace and Bill O'Reilly. If he doesn't feel motivated to do so anymore, Fox has no one to blame but itself.
The president has obligations to the press -- to give information, to be transparent, and to answer questions. And when the administration begins criticizing a particular news organization, we should pay careful attention to what it's arguing: If it's saying that journalists shouldn't aggressively report on what the administration is doing or that certain questions are out of bounds or that -- as the Bush administration believed -- a group of reporters has no particular claim on the government, then that would be a serious problem.
But the idea that the administration has to treat every single news organization with the same respect is ludicrous. The fact that Fox is a conservative television network, and not a conservative magazine or a conservative radio station or a conservative Web site, shouldn't make any difference.