Whether the White House's "war" against Fox News is a ruse to divert attention from President Barack Obama's plummeting poll numbers and unfavorable policies, or an all-out attack to exclude Fox News from the White House press pool, the self-proclaimed government "watch dogs" are virtually AWOL or turncoats.
The leading exception, ABC News senior White House correspondent Jake Tapper, had the following exchange with White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs on Oct. 20:
Tapper: It's escaped none of our notice that the White House has decided in the last few weeks to declare one of our sister organizations "not a news organization" and to tell the rest of us not to treat them like a news organization. Can you explain why it's appropriate for the White House to decide that a news organization is not one -
Gibbs: Jake, we render, we render an opinion based on some of their coverage and the fairness that, the fairness of that coverage.
Tapper: But that's a pretty sweeping declaration that they are "not a news organization." How are they any different from, say -
Gibbs: ABC -
Tapper: ABC. MSNBC. Univision. I mean how are they any different?
Gibbs: You and I should watch sometime around 9 o'clock tonight. Or 5 o'clock this afternoon.
Tapper: I'm not talking about their opinion programming or issues you have with certain reports. I'm talking about saying thousands of individuals who work for a media organization, do not work for a "news organization" -- why is that appropriate for the White House to say?
Gibbs: That's our opinion.
Fox News responded to the Tapper/Gibbs exchange Oct. 20:
The White House also appeared to stand by its effort to urge other networks to isolate and alienate the channel. Gibbs said Tuesday that it's up to the White House Correspondents Association to decide whether Fox News should continue to be part of the White House pool which covers President Obama.
"I'm not going to delineate for the White House Correspondents Association how the pool is conducted. That's not my job," he said.
While the attack on Fox has escaped none of the media's notice, they are either silent or focusing solely on the negative consequences for Obama rather than any threat to freedom of the press by the administration. Also missing is acknowledgement that the media as a whole lean left, sometimes rabidly so.
Newsweek columnist Jacob Weisberg is playing "ethical" lead shark for Obama by ratcheting up the attack: "Fox News isn't just bad. It's un-American."
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. Respectable journalists-I'm talking to you, Mara Liasson-should stop appearing on its programs. A boycott would make Ailes too happy, so let's try just ignoring Fox, shall we? And no, I don't want to come on The O'Reilly Factor to discuss it.
U.S. News & World Report columnist Doug Heye apparently sees the attack on Fox as a subterfuge but not a threat to journalists. He opined on Oct. 13, that "Attacking Fox News Won't Help the White House with Depressed Liberals." The most senior White House correspondent, Helen Thomas, advised the White House to "End Fox Fight," according to Tony Romm writing for The Hill's Blog Briefing Room. Thomas sees it as a no win for Obama rather than a loss for the First Amendment: "They can only take you down. You can't kill the messenger." Washington Post columnist Helen Marcus says it's bad for Obama while taking a cheap shot at Fox's Glenn Beck:
The Obama administration's war on Fox News is dumb on multiple levels. It makes the White House look weak, unable to take Harry Truman's advice and just deal with the heat. It makes the White House look small, dragged down to the level of Glenn Beck. It makes the White House look childish and petty at best, and it has a distinct Nixonian -- Agnewesque? -- aroma at worst. It is a self-defeating trifecta: it distracts attention from the Obama administration's substantive message; it serves to help Fox, not punish it, by driving up ratings; and it deprives the White House, to the extent it refuses to provide administration officials to appear on the cable network, of access to an audience that is, in fact, broader than hard-core Obama haters.
Marcus does note the glaring media silence: "Where the White House has gone way overboard is in its decision to treat Fox as an outright enemy and to go public with the assault. Imagine the outcry if the Bush administration had pulled a similar hissy fit with MSNBC."
Eric Etheridge writing for The New York Times "The Opinionator" sees no win for Obama: "But if the White House is playing this as an effort to correct erroneous stories, most everyone else sees it as war on Fox. And a wide range of observers are having a hard time seeing any upside for the president." Mike Madden at Salon.com slammed Fox: "There's certainly no question that Fox has gone out of its way to attack the White House on a daily basis. Republicans, in turn, frequently pick up the various crackpot theories the network peddles and run with them themselves. It may be that the Fox coverage of the administration simply can't get any worse -- or Fox could decide to get even more over the top in reaction." The Nation's Ari Melbar calls it a war on Fox but provides no defense for Fox or criticism of the White House attacks. Why aren't "sister organizations" joining Tapper by asking how Obama's attack on Fox can be reconciled with his sham statement in honor of "World Press Freedom Day" on May 1, 2009:
Today, I lend my voice of support and admiration to all those brave men and women of the press who labor to expose truth and enhance accountability around the world. In so doing, I recall the words of Thomas Jefferson: "The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."
Maybe some journalist other than Tapper could further refresh Obama's recollection of Jefferson's words about the need for public servants to attend to "public duties" while leaving the press to the "punishment of public indignation":
I had laid it down as a law to myself to take no notice of the thousand calumnies issued against me, but to trust my character to my own conduct and the good sense and candor of my fellow citizens.
During the course of [my] administration [as President], and in order to disturb it, the artillery of the press has been leveled against us, charged with whatsoever its licentiousness could devise or dare. These abuses of an institution so important to freedom and science are deeply to be regretted, inasmuch as they tend to lessen its usefulness and to sap its safety; they might, indeed, have been corrected by the wholesome punishments reserved and provided by the laws of the several States against falsehood and defamation; but public duties more urgent press on the time of public servants, and the offenders have therefore been left to find their punishment in the public indignation.
The National Press Club Web site is silent on the attack on Fox; however, on Oct. 18, it issued a press release criticizing the U.S. military for barring "embedded reporters in Afghanistan from publishing photographs of U.S. military personnel injured or killed in action."
"In a democracy, the news media serve a critical watchdog role on the three branches of government. When government seeks to control the media, it weakens that independence and devalues the information released to the press and the public."
Is Obama's attempt to indirectly control the media too subtle for the press corps? Thus far, the watchdogs are neutered lapdogs with neither bark nor bite.
One thing is certain. We need this Fox in the hen house.
Jan LaRue is Senior Legal Analyst with the American Civil Rights Union; former Chief Counsel at Concerned for Women; former Legal Studies Director at Family Research Council; and former Senior Counsel for the National Law Center for Children and Families.