You know, I just don’t get the controversy over the Obama administration’s criticism of Fox News. For one thing, it’s entirely accurate: Fox does not approach its job the same way other organizations do. Most legitimate news organizations honestly attempt to purge their presentations of bias. I’d be the first to concede that all journalistic institutions sometimes fall short of that goal, but the point is, as professionals they try.
Fox doesn’t even make the effort, or even the pretense of an effort. At best, they make the pretense of a pretense of an effort. Bias is what they’re selling — they know it, and their audience knows it. So what’s the big deal about the White House saying out loud what everyone already knows?
Beyond that, though, I’m surprised to see the Washington media play this as some kind of new threat to the purity of media-political relations. It’s not. The Bush administration used to complain publicly and often about coverage from MSNBC and NBC. The Clintons were outraged at how the New York Times covered the Whitewater investigation, and they probably were right to be angry. In a speech back in the ’90s, Newt Gingrich fought back against critical coverage by telling Atlanta business leaders that they ought to institute an ad boycott against the AJC.
Most of the time, the publishers and news executives who field those kinds of angry threats from politicians don’t even bother telling their reporters about them, because the reporters don’t need to know. But sometimes the message is communicated directly. I once had a very influential Democratic state legislator — back when Democrats ran the Capitol — suggest to me privately that if the AJC edit board would back off an ethics reform crusade, legislators might look more favorably on funding a downtown multimodal station. (Note that no such station exists.) And Maynard Jackson, exasperated at criticism over his muni bond business, once informed a group of AJC editors that “I don’t work on Jay Bookman’s plantation.” That was a personal favorite.
The point is, it’s a rough-and-tumble relationship between the media and those we cover, and it always will be and ought to be. Politicians who feel under attack will return fire, and personally I think they have that right. What Harry Truman said is true of the media as well as politicians: If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.