Fear of Fox: Autocrats and the Uppity Media

Napoleon once said he feared three newspapers more than a thousand bayonets. I fear them too, but for different reasons. News organizations flirting with bankruptcy and courting government bailouts present a troubling dilemma.

If it is true, as Napoleon said, that leaders are dealers in hope, then one could say that Obama has taken the idiom and run with it. Certainly Napoleon would have jumped at the chance to put a few newspapers at his disposal -- what politician wouldn't? Although Senator Cardin's Newspaper Revitalization Act has good intentions, so does that road to hell we've heard so much about.

One must qualify as a newspaper corporation in order to receive this special government intervention. The most disturbing requirements are as follows: "(2) the newspaper published by such corporation or organization contains local, national, and international news stories of interest to the general public and the distribution of such newspaper is necessary or valuable in achieving an educational purpose, and (3) the preparation of the material contained in such newspaper follows methods generally accepted as educational in character."

I am a fan of Overheard in the Newsroom on Facebook. One of the quotes I received recently is very telling of the times in which we find ourselves.

Overheard in the Newsroom #1936:

Publisher: "You all need to be change agents. You need to get on the change train."

Reporter: "I feel like I'm on the change Titanic."

A photo journalist encapsulated many journalistic concerns with his comment, "Also, I thought our job was to REPORT the news, not be activists for change. No wonder our profession is dying."

An Associated Press writer gave her two cents, adding, "WTF? Change train? He'd be laughed out of any respectable newspaper office. Why do these suits TALK like this?"

Objective reporting already seems to be an endangered species. Obama's concern is that "if the direction of the news is all blogosphere, all opinions, with no serious fact-checking, no serious attempts to put stories in context, that what you will end up getting is people shouting at each other across the void but not a lot of mutual understanding."  

The problem is that there can be no mutual understanding when the administration refuses to concede other perspectives as valid. Financial help by government could only lead to influencing newspapers' acceptable perspectives, or shades of such, and would not lead to increased public understanding, but to exclusivity of published thought. The internet may have crippled the newspaper industry, but going to bed with the government is not only a breach of journalistic ethics, but also a contagion terminal to free press. 

Everything comes at a price, as many corporations who took bailout funds are finding: you take government help, and you obligate yourself. Up to 90% wage-cuts for top executives, compliments of Obama's Pay Czar. As justifiable as some class warriors might find this move, as lovely as revenge may feel, picture this kind of help within news agencies who receive government funding. News organizations doing their job to speak out cannot help but bite the hand that feeds them. Imagine writing a piece against your boss and then expecting to keep your job.

The recent furor over Fox News should give cause for concern when top Obama Adviser David Axelrod tell us that Fox News shouldn't be treated as a news organization.

And the bigger thing is that other news organizations, like yours [ABC], ought not to treat them [Fox News] that way, and we're not going to treat them that way. You know, I'm not concerned. Mr. Murdoch has a talent for making money, and I understand that their programming is geared toward making money.

Mr. Axelrod went on to say,

The only argument Anita was making is that they're not really a news station. ... It's not just their commentators, but a lot of their news programming. It's really not news. It's pushing a point of view. ... [Fox News] is not a news organization so much as it has a perspective.

These statements are a perspective in and of themselves, and they are disturbing in their evident manipulative intent. The elected administration is clearly advocating that the press and media outlets shun the source of a point of view deemed unacceptable to the political leader.

A conservative viewpoint is just as much a perspective as a liberal viewpoint, and to regulate either is more dangerous to democracy than losing the newspaper industry itself. With such views toward Fox News and newspaper-bailout support by the Obama Administration, it is not hard to imagine what could be done with the power of tax-exempt status or wage control of a news organization in their hands. As Napoleon once said, "A man will fight harder for his interests than for his rights." Such would inevitably be the case when push comes to paycheck. 

Napoleon feared the media because he did not control it, because he knew that "ten people who speak make more noise than ten thousand who are silent." And those ten often set off those ten thousand to get off their butts and take action.

But what if those ten were silenced? Or better yet, what if those ten were on your side? What if you had leverage over them? Why, that certainly would be convenient to the one in power, wouldn't it? Because one need not fear what one owns.