I am no fan of Fox News. I don’t watch it when I have a choice and only do so grudgingly when it is on a TV in an establishment I frequent (like my gym). From what I have seen of the cable channel, it is a mouthpiece for that part of the American political spectrum that I do not normally find myself aligned with.
Fox has made much of its “Fair and Balanced” theme since it came on the scene over a decade ago. At first it was a mere nuisance to the far more established CNN (which I also do not watch, save on rare occasions when a real breaking news story commands attention). At the time, CNN billed itself as “The News Network of Record,” and that motto actually seemed true in the early years of cable news coverage, before the entire industry turned the reporting of news into entertainment, thereby creating “infotainment.”
But Fox played up the idea that CNN (and the rest of TV news for that matter) was controlled by the “liberal media,” as if such a thing ever really existed in American journalism. And the viewing public (conditioned by years of that pitch from conservative politicians and commentators) bought the line to such an extent that before long Fox had overtaken CNN and was on its way to cable news dominance, first as the cable network that led the call for the impeachment of Bill Clinton and more recently as the cable network that avidly supported the “war on terrorism” in all its Bush/Cheney iterations.
Under the leadership of Roger Ailes, an old-line Republican political media consultant from the Reagan era, Fox loaded its prime-time line-up with conservative talk show personalities (Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, and, most recently, Glenn Beck). The shows that featured political panels were also tilted noticeably (if you were paying attention) to the right, and some would say the straight news reporting, such as it is on cable, also betrayed such a bias. (The “crawls” – those never-ending lines of news headlines at the bottom of the screen that require viewers to listen to one message while reading another – also reveal a strong right-wing bias on Fox.)
Be all that as it may, the network has been remarkably successful, leaving CNN and MSNBC to scramble to secure what is left of the cable news audience (totaling as many as 5 million viewers on any given night). Still, even with an average of 2.5 million viewers, Fox is hardly threatening to monopolize the field (and it isn’t a big field to start with).
All of which makes the recent dust-up between Fox and the Obama administration all the more curious. Fox clearly considers Obama fair game for political attack, and as a First Amendment protected media member, it has every right to do so. Whether it is “fair and balanced” to have its prime-time hosts refer to Obama as “a socialist,” “a fascist,” and “a dictator” is hardly relevant to the question of whether the president and his administration should be engaging in an attempt to isolate (maybe even muzzle?) the network’s voice.
But that appears to be exactly what the administration (led by the president) is trying to do, and the question has to be – why?
Granted, the ploy is one that just about every administration has used since the advent of television. Richard Nixon and his gang (led by his attack-dog VP, Spiro Agnew) were all about casting aspersions on the “liberal media.” Ronald Reagan wasn’t above suggesting that same liberal bias, although he left the dirty work to the likes of Mr. Ailes. The first Bush continued the same theme, and, as if to show the game could be played by both ends of the political spectrum, Bill Clinton and his minions made a good run at the “right-wing conspiracy” that Hillary at one point claimed was led by media operatives.
But the Obama folks seem to have escalated the nature of the battle with the current direct assault of Fox News. It all began when the president went on five Sunday talk/interview shows, all in succession, leaving out only Fox. Then his aides, Rahm Emanuel and David Alexrod, took to the airwaves to decry the bias on Fox. Mr. Obama has continued the assault with “casual” comments about Fox that do not hide his distaste for the network.
Apart from troubling First Amendment issues that are perhaps not fully appreciated, these attacks are disappointing, to use a charitable word, and offensive, to use a more accurate one. Fox should be attacked for its bias and probably for a bunch of other journalistic sins, but it should not be so attacked by the president and his administration.
First of all, it does nothing for the president’s image, he of the “open dialogue,” “seek bipartisan solutions” mantras. Obama would do far better for his own image if he would show up occasionally on a Fox broadcast. Why not do an hour with Bill O’Reilly, for example?
Sure, O’Reilly’s ratings would soar, and he’d get a lot of mileage out of the whole thing, but so what? Is Obama really afraid of Bill O’Reilly? He could run circles around him both on policy and on personality. And he’d show himself to be a better person than the host and the rest of the Fox stable.
Instead, Obama is engaged in the cheapest form of intimidation, and it can only backfire. Fox will complain (just like the rabbit did in the old Uncle Remus tale), all the while reveling that it has been “thrown into the briar patch” by the president. And Obama will look more and more like the same kind of politician he said he was not going to be if elected president.
Bottom line: here’s the way it works in America. If you have access to the airwaves, you can say what you want. If you’re the president, you have to measure your words and your actions, lest you end up in the briar patch with those nasty rabbits, er, foxes.