Taking the Fox problem seriously

TAKING THE FOX PROBLEM SERIOUSLY…. Tensions between the White House and the Republican cable news network have been evident since Inauguration Day, but it wasn’t obvious that the president’s team intended to do something about it until a month ago, when Obama appeared on five networks’ Sunday morning shows, and decided to exclude Fox News.

The strategy became clearer two weeks ago with an interesting piece from Time‘s Michael Scherer, which quoted Communications Director Anita Dunn describing Fox News as “opinion journalism masquerading as news.” Pressed to defend her remarks last week on CNN, Dunn didn’t hesitate, accurately characterizing Fox News as “a wing of the Republican Party.”

I’m delighted to see that the White House isn’t backing down on this. Today, White House senior adviser David Axelrod shared his thoughts with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos. “It’s really not news — it’s pushing a point of view,” Axelrod said of the Republican network. “And the bigger thing is that other news organizations like yours ought not to treat them that way, and we’re not going to treat them that way. We’re going to appear on their shows. We’re going to participate but understanding that they represent a point of view.”

Also this morning, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel told CNN that Fox News is “not a news organization.” He added, “[I]t’s important not to have the CNN’s and the others of the world being led and following Fox, as if what they’re trying to do is a legitimate news organization.”

Slate‘s Jacob Weisberg not only approves of this approach, he explained why it’s time for the rest of the political world to reevaluate its approach to Fox News.

There is no longer any need to get bogged down in this phony debate, which itself constitutes an abuse of the fair-mindedness of the rest of the media. One glance at Fox’s Web site or five minutes randomly viewing the channel at any hour of the day demonstrates its all-pervasive political slant. The lefty documentary Outfoxed spent a lot of time mustering evidence about Fox managers sending down orders to reporters to take the Republican side. But after 13 years working for Roger Ailes, Fox employees don’t need to be told to help the right any more than fish need a memo telling them to swim.

Rather than in any way maturing, Fox has in recent months become more boisterous and demagogic in rallying the opposition against Obama. The “fair and balanced” mask has been slipping with increasing frequency — as when a RNC press release was regurgitated so lazily that it repeated a typo on air or when a reporter wondered why other networks weren’t doing PR for “tea parties” that Fox covered the way the Hearst press covered the Spanish-American war. On Fox, fact-checking about the president’s health care proposal is provided by Karl Rove. For literary coverage, it features the bigot Jerome Corsi’s rants about Obama and John Kerry. Meanwhile, the crybaby Glenn Beck has begun to exhibit a Strangelovean concern about America’s precious bodily fluids, charging the government with trying to invade our bloodstream by vaccinating us for swine flu. With this latest misinformation campaign, Fox stands to become the first network to actively try to kill its viewers.

That Rupert Murdoch may skew the news rightward more for commercial than ideological reasons is somewhat beside the point. What matters is the way that Fox’s successful model has invaded the bloodstream of the American media.

And that’s precisely why the White House’s media strategy matters. Fox News’ model makes a mockery of American journalism, and poisons the larger discourse — in part by encouraging mimicry (Weisberg said CNN’s Lou Dobbs has become “a nativist cartoon”), and in part by pushing nonsensical stories that legitimate news outlets pursue because they’re aired on Fox News.

For Murdoch, Ailes, and company, “fair and balanced” is a necessary lie. To admit that their coverage is slanted by design would violate the American understanding of the media’s role in democracy and our idea of what constitutes journalistic fair play. But it’s a demonstrable deceit that no longer deserves equal time.

Whether the White House engages with Fox is a tactical political question. Whether we journalists continue to do so is an ethical one. By appearing on Fox, reporters validate its propaganda values and help to undermine the role of legitimate news organizations.

The question isn’t why the White House is treating Fox News like a partisan propaganda outlet. The questions are a) why it took so long; and b) why others aren’t following the White House’ lead.