The White House vs. Fox News

The White House’s cat fight with FOX News appears to have cooled somewhat, but it doesn’t change the fact that administration officials did have a point about the network.

The skirmish started last month when Obama administration officials began characterizing FOX as an illegitimate news outlet and an arm of the Republican Party. FOX immediately fired back, defending its so-called “fair and balanced” record. Many Beltway reporters and pundits immediately cried foul and rallied to FOX’s defense. Some believed the President’s fight with the network was ill-advised. The White House, perhaps stung by the fierce backlash, reportedly met with FOX executives, and White House senior advisor David Axelrod recently gave the network an interview.

The war of words between the White House and FOX News over the network’s journalistic integrity obscures the larger issue of declining news standards in television overall. Ever since the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine and the loosening of station ownership rules under the 1996 Telecommunications Act, what the news is and what it should be has dramatically changed. We expect the news to entertain us, more than inform us. We expect the news to re-inforce beliefs we already have, rather than challenge what we think we know. Liberals and conservatives flock to their respective corners – the former to MSNBC, The Daily Show, and NPR, the latter to FOX and Limbaugh. Americans no longer collectively get their facts from one undisputed source, like, say, the British do with the BBC. Instead, the “facts” are whatever your preferred team says they are. That is not good for a democracy.

Many journalists’ criticism of the White House for calling out FOX is especially troubling, and reflects a disturbing acceptance of a network that has consistently lowered the bar for what qualifies as good journalism and has contributed to the degradation of our civic discourse. These journalists should be taking a more jaundiced eye at the way FOX routinely plays fast and loose with the facts. MSNBC is hardly a bastion of objective journalism, but that network – unlike FOX – purports to be less a news entity than an outlet for political analysis, hence its motto: The Place for Politics.

The hits that the Obama administration has received for taking on FOX may make it more difficult for the White House and the Democratic-controlled Congress to reform what is broken in our media today – too much consolidation and too few standards – for fear of being seen as unfairly attacking conservatives’ free speech rights.