You don’t have to love Fox News to see how dangerous it is when the President of the United States gives his staff and advisers a green light to single out and denigrate by name a specific news organization. As we surely all know by now, this is what the White House has been doing to Fox.
The Sunday morning talk shows just brought us White House Senior Adviser David Axelrod opining to George Stephanopoulos, on ABC’s “This Week,” that Fox is “Really – not news — it’s pushing a point of view.” Axelrod advised that ABC and other non-Fox outlets take his cue and expunge Fox from the brethren of news services: “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.” Meanwhile, on CNN’s “State of the Union,” White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel was hammering home the same message, that Fox “is not a news organization so much as it has a perspective,” and urging “More importantly is not have [sic] the CNNs and the others in the world basically be led in following Fox, as if what they’re trying to do is a legitimate news organization… .”
This would be a very good moment for all those other news organizations — CNN, ABC, NBC, CBS, the newspapers and the news web sites — to offer President Obama the perspective that it is utterly inappropriate for White House personnel to be opining publicly on the overall fitness of specific news outlets. The president has sworn to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” That includes protecting free speech, not dispatching White House staff and advisers to hold forth publicly as media critics denouncing news outlets they don’t like.
If errors of fact turn up in reporting, the White House is entitled to dispute them. But Axelrod and Emanuel were not disputing a particular piece of reporting. They were slamming wholesale a widely followed and highly informative news outlet, and denouncing it as not “legitimate.” (Full disclosure here: I have done consulting work for Fox, which has consisted of reporting and writing news stories under my byline for them from time to time since 2004. Further disclosure: In my own experience of putting in a lot of sweat to cover stories for Fox, this is an organization that cares plenty about news, about accuracy, and about substantiation in reporting. Here’s a link to a joint by-line piece I wrote with Fox News Executive Editor George Russell in 2005, which helped lead to the arrest of a former United Nations procurement officer, Alexander Yakovlev, and his guilty plea to federal charges of wire fraud and money laundering. Here’s a piece I wrote just last month for Fox, on how Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad personally recruited a now-convicted sanctions buster while visiting UN headquarters in New York. This wasn’t based on “perspective,” but on federal court documents).
The matter of deciding whether a news outlet has “a perspective” — and many do — is something that in a free country, if the country is to remain free, should be left to the private customer. There are legions of critics in the private sector who spend their time analyzing and debating which outlets provide the most reliable news, what’s entertainment, who’s opinionated, and how, and who’s not. They are easy to find. You can tune in, subscribe, and decide for yourself. These folks, like the media they criticize, are subject to the market test — in which private consumers freely make their own choices about what or whom they trust, what they pay for, what they pay attention to, and why.
Government personnel getting into this act is altogether different. These are people paid out of the public purse, and speaking under the imprimatur of public institutions — in this case the White House. Here they are, urging White House-favored news outfits to follow the White House lead, and ostracize a specific news outlet the White House doesn’t like. This is Banana Republic stuff, a stock tactic of pressure and intimidation. The effect of such stuff, as a rule, is not to promote accurate news coverage, but to cover up stories the government doesn’t want aired, and shut up critics.
Other news outlets — the CNNs, ABCs, NBCs, CBS’s, or for that matter the New York Times and the Globe-Post-Mercury-Etceteras, may not agree with opinions expressed on Fox. But they would be wise to remember that what goes around comes around. And if they don’t rally now around the idea that the White House has no business vetting, according to its own “perspective,” which news outlets are “legitimate” and which are not, then the legitimacy of all news outlets becomes a function of “point of view” held by the White House. Welcome to the road to China’s Xinhua News Agency and Russia’s Channel One TV.