October 22, 2009

The "Bully Pulpit" Takes On A New Meaning: Banninating Fox News

Saturday, the White House "declared war" on Fox News, when the President's senior political advisor David Axelrod said that Fox News is "not really news."  The reaction to this was immediate uproar, but I admit it -- I thought this would blow over quickly.  Axelrod was taking a swipe at the conservative and anti-Administration editorial slant that really does creep into Fox News' reporting from time to time.

But it didn't blow over.  And it didn't really start on Saturday.  It started at least at the end of September when there seemed to be gleeful reactions by conservatives to the decision of the IOC to award the 2016 Olympics to Rio instead of Chicago -- the White House blog took on the subject directly, and with the gusto that only a blogger could put into the probject.  Robert Gibbs told the press corps that the White House did not consider Fox to be a "news organization" at all.  White House Communications Director Anita Dunn dismissed Fox News as "opinion journalism masquerading as news."  Axelrod's quip was really a continuation of that trend, although a highly-placed one.

The point is, "White House versus Fox News" has been making news all week, and the Administration isn't backing down from it.  And apparently, today the White House offered up "Pay Czar" Kenneth Feinberg to deal with press inquiries about the Administration's decision to cut executive pay at the major corporations the government has "temporarily" taken a controlling interest in as a result of the Great Financial Crash Of 2008. This too seemed like the sort of thing I might ignore.  Only the White House Press Office announced that Fox News would be excluded from the event completely.

Amazingly, the rest of the press corps unified behind Fox.  If Fox wasn't going to be permitted to go in there and ask questions, the rest of them wouldn't go in, either.  Good for them.  The White House doesn't get to tell Fox how to report the news.  They don't get to tell Fox to abandon its editorial slant.

And Fox gets to have an editorial slant if it wants one.  It has a First Amendment right to do so.

I might disagree with that editorial slant, but then again, I don't have to watch Fox News if I don't want to.  If Fox News' editorial slant is so off-putting that large segments of its audience turns them off, Fox News will either adapt to that condition of the marketplace, or its ratings and thus its earnings will go down.  Its choices are to appeal to its audience, or die.

In Europe, the convention and expectation is that news reporting organizations will have their own particular editorial slant.  I often look to the UK news outlets to get global news since American news organizations seem to think that like the maps they had in their classrooms in elementary school, the relevant part of the world ends outside the border of the lower 48 states.  I know when I read the BBC, it will have a corporate, pro-establishment take on things, and when I read the Guardian it will generally favor the Labour party, and when I read the Telegraph, it will have a generally Tory slant.  I have to use my own intelligence to sift through what I read and separate fact from editorial opinion.

We have this strange idealism in the United States, though, that the news reporting institutions are supposed to report everything in a completely unbiased sort of way.  I don't want the news lying to me or deceiving me by excluding relevant facts, but at the same time I don't want reporters turning their brains off or simply regurgitating the pablum fed to them by their sources.  I want and expect journalists to ask difficult, critical questions of their sources because that's where the real value of news reporting comes in to play.  If it appears to me that a news agency is not using those kinds of critical thinking skills in an intelligent and worthwhile way, I lose respect for that agency and begin to think about satisfying my hunger for news elsewhere.

So while I may be critical of the unhinged and paranoid hysteria Glenn Beck sells on Fox, and while I may note things like tone of voice or editorial selection of subjects on Fox News bleeding between the pundits who are giving unabashed opinions and the allegedly "neutral" news readers, the fact of the matter is that I do not expect or even want any news agency to become so "neutral" that they either seek "opposing points of view" from fringe or unreliable sources, or that they stop critically sourcing and fact-checking the people in power.  Right now, the Obama Administration is in power and Fox News -- having a conservative slant, appealing to a generally conservative audience -- is in a good position to ask hard questions of the people in the White House.  I can take issue with the concept of "narrative" reporting arcs transcending multiple stories, but that's something that both conservative and liberal journalists do.  And it, too, is something that I simply have to take into account when I read the news.

I expect journalists covering the high levels of government to be smart, to not take things they are told at face value, and to ask hard questions.  To do that, you have to form opinions about what you hear.  That's the only way your B.S. detectors are going to be working, the only way to know, "Hey, that politician just told a lie." 

All too often my criticism of major news reporting companies is that they spend too much time reporting things that just plain aren't news at all as if they were Very Important Events.  Like the Olympics thing that got this whole kerfuffle started.  It just wasn't front-page news.  The White House inflated its importance, and the punditocracy out there in the world inflated it back, and by the time it hit the eight majors (ABC, AP, CBS, CNN, Fox, MSNBC, Reuters, and UPI) it was The Biggest Story Of The Week.  No, it wasn't.

Fox News is not a perfect news organization. But like it or not, Fox News is one of the major news organizations not just in the U.S. but in the whole English-speaking world, because it plugs into Rupert Murdoch's Sky News network. It has an audience of millions and it has reporters who -- even if they don't check their personal opinions at the door -- are out there looking for the facts so they have something to report. If they ask their sources hard questions, they're doing their jobs. If they present the facts they discover with their own editorial slant, well, that's a part of who and what they are. And yes, Fox does do this. Indeed, it often does blur the line between punditry and opinion on the one hand and reporting the events of the day as they happened on the other.

But that doesn't mean that the White House gets to arbitrarily exclude them from the press. The government is differently-situated than a private individual. If it is going to dispense information about what it is doing at all, it needs to dispense that information fairly and evenhandedly, precisely because it is the government. If the Bush Administration had refused to communicate with MSNBC or CBS because of their generally left-of-center bias, that would be just as bad.

The power of the President's "bully pulpit" is the power to persuade, not the power to censor.  Let the White House explain to a critical press and a skeptical public what it wants to do with our government.  If the press is biased against the people in power, then that just means that the people in power have to explain that much better why their ideas are good ones.  That is not a bad thing.

1 comment:

Kaz Dragon said...

I've heard from other people from the USA that you frequently come to our news to get something a little more down-to-earth. I'm glad we can provide this service :)

Personally, I tend to read the Daily Mail. because they hate *everyone*.