Fox News Is Right -- And So Is Obama
November 2009

by Karen Slattery and Mark Doremus

At this writing, the White House and Fox News have declared a truce in their war over the network's treatment of President Obama and his policies.

Among other things, White House aides have charged that the news network is biased. The president declined to appear on Fox when making the rounds of Sunday morning talk shows, and he suggested that Fox is closer to talk radio than a news organization.

The Obama attack on Fox News drew an immediate defensive reaction from others in the Fourth Estate.

No one rallies around members of the press like other members of the press. So, when the administration suggested Fox be excluded from White House pool coverage, others in the media objected.

White House reporter Helen Thomas recommended that the president back off on the practical grounds that no administration has ever won this kind of fight.

CNN's Campbell Brown wondered why the administration was criticizing Fox for bias while giving other news outlets a pass.

Finally, as might be expected, Fox News commentators blustered even more loudly than usual, painting themselves as innocent victims under assault by the White House.

History repeats itself, so this dustup will likely play out like others in the past. The press frames the story as a First Amendment issue and scolds the administration for daring to criticize the media.

Then, everyone settles down.

But before we move on to the next crisis, let's take a moment to examine this story from another angle.

True, past administrations have criticized the news media. Who can forget that Vice President Spiro Agnew called the press "nattering nabobs of negativism" (and "an effete corps of impudent snobs")?

But in this instance the Obama White House singled out just one entity, Fox News. That difference is worth noting.

By snubbing Fox on Sunday morning and trying to edge Fox journalists out of the White House pool, we think the administration was acting within its rights as a news source.

Anyone who has been a journalist knows that every issue has more than one side, and that all sources deserve at least fair treatment.

If they've been treated unfairly they may withhold comment the next time the offending news team comes calling.

No serious journalist should be surprised at that response.

CNN's Campbell Brown said the Obama team "lost all credibility" because it attacked Fox News but declined to criticize "left-leaning" MSNBC for bias.

In making her point, Brown admitted what we all know. A lot of what passes for news on cable networks lacks objectivity.

And – lean left or lean right – it cannot be defended as responsible reporting.

Beyond that, the president does not have to explain why he singled out one network and not another. He is a news source, not a news organization. His choice of target does not make his critique less valid.

And as a source, he gets to say what he wants – to whomever he wants.

It is up to responsible journalists to put what he says into perspective for the public.

Quoting Mark Twain, who cautioned against arguing with someone who buys ink by the barrel, is good for a chuckle in the short term. But it ignores a serious problem for all journalists in the long run – the loss of credibility that comes from working in a field where both the fact and the appearance of objectivity are rapidly eroding.

© Karen Slattery and Mark Doremus

Karen Slattery is an associate professor in the College of Communication at Marquette University. She teaches courses related to broadcast journalism, media ethics, and qualitative research methods.

Mark Doremus has a Ph.D. in Journalism and Mass Communication and a law degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he is now employed as a research administrator. He worked in television news for 13 years in various capacities, primarily as a news reporter-photographer. He still cares deeply about the press, in all its forms, and its practitioners. He met his wife and co-columnist, Karen Slattery, when they were both working in local television news.

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