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Obama's misguided Fox hunt

The White House is over the line when it tries to persuade other media organizations to shun the news outlet.

October 24, 2009|TIM RUTTEN

One of the lessons most people carry away from the schoolyard is that picking an avoidable quarrel with somebody who really likes to fight generally is a losing proposition.

It's too bad nobody reminded the Obama administration of that before it launched into its ill-advised campaign against Fox News. First of all, even though the White House is right on the merits when it describes Fox News as operating mainly as a surrogate for the Republican Party, making an issue of that fact is a tactical mistake.

Fox News' core audience is a cadre of true believers whose regard for their network of choice simply will be vindicated by criticism from the administration. Glenn Beck -- less a commentator than a candidate for a 72-hour psychiatric hold -- and Sean Hannity -- the sort of bully you can find at the end of every Irish bar from South Boston to Outer Richmond -- couldn't buy the kind of publicity the White House has handed them gratis.

So what's the point? According to a variety of reports this week, Obama's advisors are concerned by polls that show his personal approval numbers remaining high but disenchantment with his major policy initiatives growing. The president's aides apparently think one way to reverse the discrepancy is to go after and marginalize prominent critics, such as Rush Limbaugh, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Fox News commentators. Without judging the wisdom of that strategy, it's interesting to recall that Franklin Roosevelt managed to get through a momentous presidency with virtually every newspaper editorial page in the country against him, though he did persuade Joseph P. Kennedy and Cardinal Francis Spellman to intervene with the Vatican to silence Father Charles Coughlin, the anti-Semitic, anti-New Deal, pro-fascist radio priest.

Essentially, Fox News is an inverted version of a conventional American news operation: long stretches of editorial comment, conservative and pro-Republican, interspersed with snippets of normative reporting. Roger Ailes, the former GOP political strategist who runs the operation for Rupert Murdoch, conceived that format as a way of delivering 24 hours of programming on the cheap. Even successful commentators don't cost all that much; producers and reporters are, at least relatively, expensive. Ailes lucked into a ratings success because Fox News was launched at about the same time America began slipping into its most fevered ideological divisions since the Civil War, a process Fox News has egged on.

Obama seems to think he can swim against that tide by persuading other news organizations to shun Fox News. "It's not really news," White House political chief David Axelrod said on ABC last Sunday. "... And the bigger thing is that other news organizations like yours ought not to treat them that way." On CNN, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel insisted it's important "to not have the CNNs and the others in the world basically be led in following Fox."

That's way over the line. The White House is perfectly free to refuse to have its people go on Fox News shows, but it shouldn't tell other news organizations that they ought not to follow up on Fox News' reporting or that they ought to keep their journalists from appearing on Murdoch's networks. The White House, moreover, does its case no favors when it invites pro-Democratic commentators like MSNBC's Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow to private briefings with the president, even though their work is every bit as histrionic as Bill O'Reilly's.

One of the things lacking in the administration's anti-Fox News campaign is a sense of proportion. Murdoch's cable news operation may cast an outsized shadow inside the politically preoccupied Beltway, but in the rest of the country, it's at best a wispy presence. As the Project for Excellence in Journalism's Tom Rosenstiel pointed out this week, the network's star attraction, O'Reilly, "has around 3.5 million people watching each night, or about 1% of American adults. That would get you canceled on broadcast television. The three nightly [network] newscasts have about 20 million viewers."

A widely discussed media phenomenon in recent years has been the success -- particularly among young viewers -- of Comedy Central's nightly riffs on the news, "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" and "The Colbert Report." In large part, the explanation for their popularity is that they forthrightly do what Fox News and, increasingly, MSNBC do covertly, which is treat information as entertainment, and growing numbers of Americans insist that they have a God-given right to be entertained, even by the news.

That suggests that the White House could come to terms with Fox News -- if it simply learned to take a joke.

A personal note: Jack Nelson, who died this week at the age of 80, was a friend and colleague for more than 20 years. Like the late David Halberstam, who so admired Nelson, Jack was one of those exemplary journalists whose passion for truth and decency was forged covering the civil rights movement. He carried the lessons of that experience with him to Washington, where he was this paper's bureau chief from 1975 to 1995. During those two decades, the number of reporters and editors employed in The Times Washington bureau more than doubled, and on any given day, it was the best news organization in the capital. For many who recall his regular appearances on radio talk shows and PBS' "Washington Week in Review," he was the paper's public face -- an informed voice that always expressed itself in reasoned tones. To his colleagues, he was one of the journalists who set the standards we all aspired to match.

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