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Kearneysville, WV. It’s official. The Obama White House has declared that Fox News presents a slanted view of the news, one congenial to the Republicans and antagonistic to the administration. In addition to shunning the Fox News programs, White House officials have recently taken to publicly accusing the rogue network of various vices. Anita Dunn, White House Communications Director, suggested that Fox is “almost…either the research arm or the communications arm of the Republican Party.” Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s chief of staff, said that Fox “is not a news organization so much as it has a perspective.” Appearing on ABC television’s This Week, senior Obama adviser David Axelrod said Fox News shouldn’t be treated as a news organization. “And the bigger thing is that other news organizations, like yours, ought not to treat them that way, and we’re not going to treat them that way.” Axelrod went on to deliver the coup de grace: “I understand that their programming is geared toward making money….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.”

Clearly, the White House is not pleased. One wonders, though, at the Nixon-like reaction. Enemy lists are dangerous things and not just to enemies. One also is led to wonder if this “objectivity of the news” thing cuts both ways. If—let’s just imagine the possibility—a news organization consistently slanted its reporting to reflect well on the White House, would there be a flurry of ideological posturing about the “perspective”? Probably not. The fact is, “objectivity” in the news is usually only a concern if one’s own ox is being gored. Are the millions of Fox News fans bothered by the supposed lack of objectivity? In fact, a good number of those viewers would argue that Fox presents both sides of an issue (after all Fox claims to be “fair and balanced”) whereas the real guilty parties are the CNNs and the MSNBSs of the world who, these Fox apologists will claim, regularly serve as extensions of the Obama White House. So, who’s being objective and who’s pushing a perspective? That depends on your perspective.

The notion of objectivity is, in one regard, a noble ideal. If by objectivity we mean the ability, even the responsibility, to report both sides of an issue, then three cheers for objectivity. If, on the other hand, we mean a neutral perspective whereby just the “facts” are reported and the viewers decide what to think about the facts, well, then objectivity is a false ideal that harms more than it helps. Reporting the “mere facts” is not possible, for one’s perspective will determine what, exactly, constitutes a fact worth reporting in the first place. A story without a perspective is as meaningless as a fact without context.

Perhaps what we need is less objectivity rather than a pretended fidelity to this illusive ideal. Would the public be ill served if Fox just came out and admitted that its news and commentary is generally slanted toward the right? Would the republic crumble if MSNBC admitted that its news and commentary generally tilted leftward?

Next, consider Axelrod’s claim that Fox News does what it does for money. The claim creates the impression that Fox is unusual in this respect. But commercial news organizations exist to make money. All of them. That’s why every few minutes viewers are subjected to a sales pitch. Consider the dynamic: News organizations want to make money. They earn money by selling advertising time. Their advertising rates are dependent on their audience size. So, they create programming that attracts the largest possible audience. News programs, then, while giving the impression of presenting useful information, actually exist for the purpose of attracting people to watch commercials. How do you attract viewers? Spectacle. Catchy music. Carnage. Fast pacing. If this sounds jaded, tune in to The News Hour on PBS. This is not a commercial enterprise. It’s slow, in-depth, and unwatched. But it’s perceived as boring precisely because we have come to expect our news programs to entertain us. And they entertain us because they exist to make money.

All this to say that when the Obama White House whines about Fox News it is trafficking in false assumptions about the nature of commercial news. No doubt, the President’s people know all of this, but they are working the angle because they believe the American public does not. Ironically, the real winner here is none other than Rupert Murdoch who recently reported that ratings are up. That means Fox can charge more for commercial time. Murdoch is delivering what his audience wants. You can take that to the bank.

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Mark T. Mitchell
Mark T. Mitchell teaches political theory at Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, VA. He is the author Michael Polanyi: The Art of Knowing and The Politics of Gratitude: Scale, Place, and Community in a Global Age (Potomac Books, 2012). He is co-editor of another book titled, The Humane Vision of Wendell Berry. Currently he is writing a book on private property. In 2008-9, while on sabbatical at Princeton University, he and Jeremy Beer hatched a plan to start a website dedicated to political decentralism, economic localism, and cultural regionalism. A group of like-minded people quickly formed around these ideas, and in March 2009, FPR was launched. Although he was raised in Montana and still occasionally longs for the west, he lives in Virginia with his wife, three sons and one daughter where they are in the process of turning a few acres into a small farm. See books written by Mark Mitchell.

17 COMMENTS

  1. Mark, this is an excellent essay; reasoned, insightful, objective, and I trust it won’t result in you being ‘listed’ by the White House.
    As a republican I am suspicious of any administration that ‘critiques’ journalism.
    This particular administration, radical leftist and Marxist, led by His Magnificence, is starting to show its true colors.

  2. Perhaps the White House should just call Fox “reprehensible” and leave it at that. “The Enemy Within” would be more accurate, but it would probably induce even more people on the Right to misuse such words as “Marxist.”

    I think the only organ of opinion more sinister than Fox is SRN, which claims openly to be Christian but hawks such merchandise as this and this.

  3. Claims of objectivity–by anyone–are pure nonsense, since all human knowledge is personal and subjective. The problem with Fox is not that they have a particular bias–we all have that–but the claim to be “fair and balanced.” For while objectivity is neither possible nor desirable, fairness is both. Fox is not fair, which makes them like every other news organization. What every news organization needs, and every thinker as well, is not to pretend to have no biases, but to make one’s biases explicit and be always ready to re-examine them.

    As for the charge of doing it for money, they all do that of course. But the charge most describes MSNBC. CNN had captured the avuncular “center” with Wolf Blitzer, and MSNBC could make no headway in the ratings against them. Fox had already captured the right, so that left the left as the only available market niche, which they colonized not on ideological grounds, but out of marketing necessity.

    What you have is “politics as product” conveniently packaged and marketed to the voters, who now become political consumers, and audience with specific demographics that could be delivered to advertisers. In marketing terms it is nothing more than niche marketing, but in political and social terms it leads to tribalization. Thanks to the internet, voters can spend all their time within an information bubble and never hear a challenge to their own viewpoint, while every other view becomes strange and alien to them.

    As a political matter, the democrats are within their rights to go after their ideological opponents, especially those who control powerful media outlets. The danger is that the political becomes the governmental all too easily.

  4. Remind me to never read anything written by John Medaille again since all human knowledge is personal and subjective 🙂 For that matter I’ll stop believing science.

    I thought we were realists, moral and otherwise, here!?

    Yet I agree with Mr Mitchell that “one’s perspective will determine what, exactly, constitutes a fact worth reporting in the first place.” NPR is as guilty of this as FOX. These stations both do report both sides of an issue when they do a story, but it is what they consider to be a newsworthy story that the slant comes in. I think that the editorial boards on a station that claims to be objective just need to pay attention to the claims of bias that result from the left and right and not only show both sides of an issue in their stories, but be sure to show both sides of what the issues are in their story selection.

  5. When I heard that the administration was going after Fox News, it made me roll my eyes. It strikes me as an amateur move, and President Obama hardly needs to add fuel to the critique that he is an amateur out of his element. He has been plagued by a bunch of buffoons in his administration that gives new meaning to the cliche, “With friends like these, who needs enemies?”

    And it is interesting to watch the reaction of other news outlets. While there is the expected smirking tone to the coverage, I also sense a current of unease. Journalists do not take lightly attacks by government on the press, even if the press in question happens to be reviled. The first amendment is holy writ to them, and if push comes to shove, they’ll toss this administration to the wolves just as quick as they tossed Nixon.

  6. Jake Tapper continues to earn my respect with his willingness to ask the hard, albeit obvious, questions:

    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 –

    (Crosstalk)

    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.

  7. Of all the things the administration could have done, drawing attention to the very thing “harming” its image seems like a stupid thing to do. Give attention to the thing sending too much bad attention your way? Yeah… FOX is miserable, admittedly (they canceled Joss Whedon’s Firefly which is unforgivable) but even addressing the corporate media is a foolish movie. Fox (surprise!) is making itself out to be a bastion of truth, fairness, and balanced news coverage. But at least FOX hasn’t sold out to Starbucks like MSNBC. Yet.

  8. I think you’ll always get “tribalization” but the important thing for a society is to ensure a balance of views across the spectrum. Elite and undemocratic ownership of major media channels mitigates against this balance to the detriment of society’s well-being.

  9. John,
    I’d argue we ought to be realists about truth and knowledge, meaning that they are objectively real.

    But then again I don’t think I should believe you when you say that “we are realists” since I suppose you are just expressing your subjective point of view with no claim to objectivity or truth in your claim 🙂

  10. Emp, The world is real enough (mostly) but our knowledge of it is not “objective.” The question is not ontological but epistemological; one cannot be a realist without making this distinction. Man (unlike the angels) does not enjoy a direct knowledge of essences, but only of appearances; we must infer the essence from the accidents. Man’s knowledge is mediated by the physical world, not direct. Our relationship with the ontological world is dialogic, subject to repeated and continual revision and critique.

    As for your last comment, I make no claim to “objectivity” but I do make a claim to truth. Obviously for you those are the same claims, but that is a very modern claim; in fact, it is the claim of empiricism.

    Further, my claim to know the truth is a humble claim, always alert to someone else’s evidence and critique. But this humility produces (paradoxically) a high degree of confidence, but not an absolute certainty, save in the case of revealed truth.

  11. Media bias?!!! good heavens no, throw me to the Briar Patch again. In fact, there is no bias, only clerkdom, all sides taking dutiful orders from management, employing their “confidential sources” within the “root system of the Aspen” and providing the obligatory encomium for The State. Buying partisanship in the press is as old as Sally Hemmings but the principle difference now is that there was once a time when the Federal Government could be largely ignored except in times of real need. No longer, it is the somewhat seedy chaise we reside upon within a deteriorating velvet cell.

    Actually, if there was some bias, we might see the press pool bust out laughing with every utterance of these folks..on either side of the aisle. The only authentic media bias we’ve seen in the last several years is when that poor-aimed Iraqi roundhoused his shoes at the former President

    Politics, like the media is mere entertainment, the most expensive burlesque since Busby Berkeley unleashed his terpsichorean Hollywood abandon on Depression era America. So, tell me now, the media is supposed to be balanced and sober about…ehhh…Washington? Its like asking Bugs Bunny to officiate solemnly about an Elmer Fudd Wabbit Hunt.

    Still, the Office of the Executive of the United States of America whining like a child over some bully network?…Really now. The best response to any of these media sots has always been the art and humor of the raconteur and given the flabby lack of professionalism in Washington, where all hands get their automatic chance at the honey jar, the art of the raconteur just aint required anymore. Credulity is fungible.

  12. John Medaille is correct in recognizing that MSNBC not Fox is the most crassly commercial of all the news networks, which is something of a feat. Funny then that it was MSNBC commentators Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow whom President Obama recently spent more than two hours meeting with in the Oval Office — more time than he has spent meeting with many other much more important people, including, for example, General McChrystal, the U. S. military commander in Afghanistan.

  13. I think that we need to beware of throwing around the hackneyed catch-phrase, “there are no objective facts” so loosely. This is what I call the myth of the myth of facts. Indeed, there are facts, we know many of them, and as John Adams once said, “they are stubborn things.” We ought to be informed by those facts that are available to us. Certainly we all hold that we know facts. It is a fact known by me that I am sitting in a room, that is daytime, etc. There are also facts that are more removed from direct experience, such as “Barack Obama is a socialist” or “Barack Obama is not a socialist.” I believe that any news source ought to have as its objective presenting these facts, giving support for why they think that they are facts, and commenting on them. I believe that Fox, MSNBC etc. have failed us in this regard; and, I think that much of this failure is this ridiculous notion that there are no objective facts.

  14. What are we to make of Fox News’ active promotion of the tea party protests? Does a “news organization” cross a line (is there any such line?) if they move from reporting and opining on news events to actually sponsoring and helping create news events? The corollary would be if MSNBC had actively promoted anti-war protests while the previous administration was in office.

    • Bridgid raises an excellent point and puts to mind Evelyn Waugh’s hilarious novel “Scoop” where a British reporter (actually the author of a gardening column) is sent to Africa to report on a war. In the event that there is no war, he’s instructed to get one started so he’ll have a story.

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