In normal times, it would make no sense for the White House to engage Fox News Channel in battle. That tactical decision would make as much sense as a dog chasing a crocodile into a swamp -- the White House is on Fox's turf, and the cable network has all the advantages. But these are not normal times, and the White House is not dealing with a typical media outlet.
Fox News is everything that Press Secretary Robert Gibbs says it is: It's an arm of the conservative movement and an opposition research shop for the GOP. And now, the Fox affair is a test case about the future of American political journalism.
Set aside the immediate question of whether the Obama administration stands to gain or lose by engaging an outlet that has positioned itself as a Republican clearinghouse. The larger issue at play is whether the public will ever again seriously differentiate between newsgathering that serves the public good and information-gathering that serves a specific cause. Fox is not The New York Times, and we should make the distinction.
In this post-Crossfire age, we've all been slowly, but surely, sucked into the maw of mass-media punditry, where we are all publicly for or against this issue or that candidate. This approach has made the public debate a bit more heated and a lot more entertaining. But for all the promise of an innovative and interactive media landscape, we have not yet been led into a new age of enlightenment. Fox News is the iconic example of the problem. The long-assumed liberal bias in the media may have reflexively challenged the legitimacy of conservative positions, but it almost never got to the point of trying to destroy the opposition. FOX takes criticism three steps further and instead goes on the attack.
Maybe the age of evenhanded, fair --and dare I say -- objective journalism is at its end, and we are in a new combative arena where ideas must loudly contend with each other for primacy. I think that's all fine, if you acknowledge that you're delivering arguments and not information. Fox does not. They are playing a new game but would like to be judged by the old rules. Fox is talk radio on television: Its anchors are propaganda jocks, not Walter Cronkites in the making.
Let me stipulate that not everyone on Fox is the kind of propagandist that has come to define the network. Shepard Smith and Brett Baier, to name a couple, are perfectly fine journalists trying to make a living -- but theirs are not the names and faces and voices that give the network its character or its ratings. That task has fallen to Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, and Bill O'Reilly, plus a whole cadre of similarly loud and uninformed talking heads.
It should be no surprise that the White House is upset with some of the media coverage it gets. Presidents are supposed to have problems with the press -- it's been that way from the nation's very beginnings. Thomas Paine once wrote about George Washington that he was "treacherous in private friendship, and a hypocrite in public life." And there was more; Paine went on: "The world will be puzzled to decide, whether you are an apostate or an impostor; whether you have abandoned good principles, or whether you ever had any?"
Ouch. But as bad as that is it does not rise to the level of Glenn Beck saying of President Barack Obama: "This president has exposed himself as a guy, over and over again, who has a deep hatred for white people." Really? And all the while, FOX wants to be taken seriously and treated as something it is not: a source of record. One of the real tragedies of the current newspaper apocalypse is that, over the past century, those print institutions embarked on an effort to be fair and objective in their reporting -- and they largely succeeded. The result was a few generations of journalists who learned how to set aside their own agendas in service of telling important stories.
That ethic of fairness drove the golden age of American journalism over the last half century, and for a while it appeared to translate into newer types of media. As newspapers disappear as a training ground for that kind of fair and evenhanded journalism, so does the work. If all we get is strident, aggressive argument, and no solid reliable information we can trust, the Republic is doomed. Fox can't be the model for our journalism future.
The White House had a choice. It could follow the old rules and avoid fights with people who buy their ink by the barrel. Or, it could call out Fox News for what it is, and then react to the pushback accordingly.
The White House may lose the battle or abandon this posture after a while, but its willingness to engage is one of these meta-events of the new media age that will help determine whether Fox becomes the dominant mainstream model going forward. In the future, will people on both sides scream at each other using whatever claims exist to advance their argument? Or will there be some small retreat to respectability in a world in which facts and fairness matter?
A guy can dream for the latter, right?