A couple of weeks after the White House declared war on Fox News (with communications director Anita Dunn saying on CNN, "Let's not pretend they're a news network the way CNN is"), peace talks have begun.
Fox News senior vice president Michael Clemente reportedly met with White House press secretary Robert Gibbs on Wednesday. That's all we really know about that right now. But meanwhile, the debate carries on about whether it was an abuse of power for the White House to — as deputy communications director Dan Pfeiffer put it to the New York Times — "stop abiding by the fiction, which is aided and abetted by the mainstream press, that Fox is a traditional news organization."
Writing for Salon, Gene Lyons sums up the nature of the controversy: "Neither the Times nor most 'mainstream' pundits evaluated the claim on its merits. Most pretended not to grasp the White House's point, and then went straight to the aiding and abetting." Lyons and Mike Madden list several of the most egregious examples of Fox apologism in the mainstream press. Writes Madden:
"It makes the White House look childish and petty at best, and it has a distinct Nixonian — Agnewesque? — aroma at worst," Ruth Marcus wrote on a Washington Post blog. Her colleague Sally Quinn told Fox News the episode reminded her of Watergate. (Likewise, NPR's Ken Rudin initially compared the White House move to Nixon's enemies list, though he later apologized for the comparison.) ABC News' Jake Tapper pressed the White House on whether it was appropriate for officials to weigh in on what was or wasn't a legitimate news organization. On Time's Swampland blog, Joe Klein said the White House was better off ignoring Fox than trying to hit back.
Lyons reminds us just how overblown and borderline batshit the Nixon comparisons are: "Excuse me, but Nixon's enemies list was secret. Journalists and others got subjected to illegal FBI wiretaps, 'black bag' break-ins and IRS audits. White House officials even discussed murdering columnist Jack Anderson... Meanwhile, poor little Fox got criticized publicly. Oh, the horror!"
Perhaps the worst offender, though, was CNN's Campbell Brown, who asked Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett whether the White House considers MSNBC a biased network. Jarrett declined to answer, prompting Brown to remark that she, "seems loath to admit that MSNBC has a bias. And that is where I think the White House loses all credibility on this issue."
Really? Because that's where I think Campbell Brown loses all credibility on this issue. Even if MSNBC does have a liberal bias in its news reporting (as opposed to its opinion and analysis) — for our purposes here, I'll even stipulate that it does — it's still comparing apples and rotting, bug-infested oranges. The problem is not that Fox News leans a bit to the right (in my opinion, so does CNN and so does half the "liberal" opinion on MSNBC), but that they consistently violate principles of journalistic ethics as if that is, in fact, their primary goal and they're systematically working through a checklist. It's not that they editorialize; it's that they lie. It's not that they sympathize with right-wing whackjobs, it's that they sponsor them. You want to have a conversation about media bias on both sides, that's fine, but you cannot have an intellectually honest version of that discussion if you begin with the premise that Fox and MSNBC are equally outrageous in their departure from objectivity and distortion of the facts — or, you know, "the fiction that Fox News is a traditional news organization."
It's convenient for folks at CNN to pretend that the two are equivalent, since that makes them look like the one cable news outlet that gives a damn about balanced reporting. But such an assertion actually betrays both bias and bull on their part (even if the bias is chiefly toward their own profits). Fox News has consistently displayed such a flagrant lack of concern for facts, balance and integrity, any journalist with the slightest pretension to objectivity should be mortified by the mere thought of defending them. And yet.
Personally, I think it's time to "elevate the conversation," as Brown put it, not to a discussion of liberal vs. conservative bias in the media, but one about whether such a thing as "journalistic objectivity" really exists anymore (or ever did). For starters, everyone, including journalists, has opinions; that traditional journalists make some effort to mask their own while reporting doesn't change that fact. Even the most "objective" reports can be manipulated to reveal a slant in one direction or another; who gets the first word, who gets the last word, how quotes are edited, which facts are included and which omitted, which arguments from each side of a controversy are considered worthy of inclusion, all can — and often do — give the reader a peek behind that mask, without any acknowledgment that that's exactly what's happening.
And especially lately, establishing "balance" has meant giving an equal voice to people who live in the reality-based community and any crackpot with a theory and a publicist. Why the hell did the mainstream media take "birthers" seriously, for instance? Fact: Obama is an American citizen. Fact: He has the birth certificate to prove it. Fact: Several journalists have fondled that legal document with their own hands. That right there is the objective truth, and all that's worth reporting. Presenting those facts alongside a deranged rant by Orly Taitz, as if both deserve equal consideration, is not balanced reporting, but cynical ratings-mongering that inflames bullshit-based hysteria and very much clouds the truth. Getting "both sides of the story" isn't worth sweet fuck all, journalistic integrity-wise, when there are not actually two sides to that story.
Of course the White House speaking out against any media outlet demands a full consideration of whether they're trying to control the news in unconstitutional ways. But in this case, such a full consideration leads to the conclusion that they're not. They are, in fact, acknowledging an objective reality: Fox News is not a traditional news organization, and it is dangerous to continue pretending they are.
Fox News Channel, Obama Administration Talking [AP]
Why Is The Media Defending Fox And Attacking Obama? [Salon]
Don't Be Surprised The Media Elite Sided With Fox [Salon]
White House Declares War On Fox News [Salon]