EXAMINER PUBLICATIONS – OCTOBER 28, 2009
Just flew back from our nation’s capital (arms tired) having rubbed elbows (elbows sore) with some of the D.C. press corps. And what is the talk of the town among Washington journalists? Why, Obama vs. Fox. Duh.
This is truly a head scratcher. George W. Bush was once asked what he thought of the way the press covered him. He answered in the same manner that Presidents – Republican, Democrat and probably Whig – have answered that question for centuries. To wit: he paid no attention to what the press was saying, for he was too busy running the country to worry about the way the media was portraying those efforts.
Not entirely true, I’m sure. Presidents have legions of advisors whose job it is to “keep their finger on the pulse” of public opinion, and some of that surely involves scanning the editorial pages of the New York Times. Yet, the principle is the point. The chief executive of the most powerful nation on earth should remain aloof from media squabbles.
Back when the press didn’t give a damn about showing its party colors, opposition newspapers positively crucified Abraham Lincoln. Honest Abe shrugged it all off, figuring that if he accomplished his goals, the criticism would not matter and if he didn’t, it would matter even less. He was the master of retaining his cool, no matter what names the press called him, and he set a standard that Presidents would follow for decades to come.
This latest President, however, appears to have an exceptionally thin skin. If you line up all of the major news networks, four fifths of them – ABC, NBC (and all its permutations), CBS and CNN – provide coverage that is generally pretty favorable to the new Obamanation. The remaining network, Fox, is more critical than the other four, far more often.
In such an environment, one would expect that the current administration would follow the traditional path: remain aloof. So it was a bit surprising when Obama’s communications director, Anita Dunn, went after Fox two weeks back, accusing the organization of being “a wing of the Republican Party” and, accordingly, not a legitimate news organization.
Everyone, even those reporters who adore the current President, assumed that Dunn had simply mis-stepped and that the administration would quickly distance itself from her remarks. But no, that was not to be. Dunn reiterated them. White House advisor, and consummate Chicago politician David Axelrod, jumped on the bandwagon. No surprise there. Axelrod cut his political teeth as part of “The Daley Machine, Reloaded”, and if there is one thing the Daleys know, it’s that you bludgeon the press into submission whenever possible – unless Mike Royko is on the job, of course.
The strategy, such as it is, has not exactly done the Obama administration proud. Fox was already beating the pant off of its competition handily and, since Anita Dunn declared war on the network, its ratings are skyrocketing even further. Independents and moderates are naturally curious – what could Fox possibly be saying that so upsets the President that he doesn’t want us to hear it? It’s the equivalent of telling your child that they are forbidden to date so-and-so. Nothing will make so-and-so more attractive than declaring him or her persona-non-grata.
There are two other, unintended effects, of Obama’s plan that do not bode well for the President. For one, the rest of the networks are not signing on to the President’s plan. The White House recently called for a meeting between itself and the major networks, an invitation that deliberately excluded Fox. (Not a news organization, if you’ll recall). The rest of the press corps prudently decided not to attend, figuring that granting the President – even one they otherwise liked – the power to decide what was “legitimate news” and what was not might not be beneficial to themselves in the long run.
The other issue here involves editorial control. If one accepts the tenuous proposition that the White House communications office can determine what is and what is not a “legitimate news story”, then one effectively yields editorial control of one’s media outlet to that unit of government.
None of the big boys ran the Van Jones – unrepentant communist – story, except for Fox, because the White House didn’t approve of the story. None of the big boys, except for Fox, exposed Acorn for the corrupt organization it is, because to do so would have been disloyal to the Obamanation.
Thus, CNN, ABC, NBC and CBS, along with the New York Times, Washington Post, the newspaper that used to be the Chicago Tribune, and so many others, have effectively said “if the White House doesn’t confirm it, we ain’t repeating it!”
Their choice, of course. But the nature of the public interest is that that average person always assumes that there are juicy, behind the scene, tidbits that he or she are not privy to. The more the powerful organization (like the Executive Branch of the government of the United States, for example) tries to conceal those tidbits, the more fascinating the potential information.
Viewers are running to Fox, in unprecedented numbers, precisely because Obama and his minions have made Fox the forbidden fruit. It’s as if Axelrod planned Fox’s marketing campaign.
Where does this end? I’ve no idea. Obama doesn’t seem to care for the free market, so I doubt that he has much affection for the free press. Even that – huge – portion of the free press that supports his policies wants nothing to do with attempts to suppress free speech. The President is thus at a cross roads, facing a choice that will define his administration: does he 1) attempt to define the limits of public discourse, or 2) try to protect the unlimited nature of public discourse that the founders intended?
We shall see.