Just some quick points about the Obama Administration’s strategy of bashing Fox News:
1. The easy rejoinder to the claim that Fox News is a “wing of the Republican party” (for which Anita Dunn, who made the statement, is Fox News’s target for tonight) is that, well, the rest of the media is liberal. Except it isn’t. Even MSNBC, which is often considered the liberal Fox News, is only considered liberal because it has the only openly partisan liberal hosts on cable news, along with conservatives like Joe Scarborough, and Chris Matthews, who is just a crazy person prone to man-crushes. (He has a man-crush on Obama, but he also had one on Bush.) The conservative argument about liberal media bias is that it’s unconscious, that because media personalities skew liberal/Democratic, they have certain unexamined liberal assumptions that they incorporate into their work as if they’re “objective.” Liberals actually agree with conservatives that TV media personalities incorporate unconscious biases into their work, but liberals see these as the biases of elites, which are not necessarily liberal at all (particularly on issues like the Iraq war). But whichever way you look at it, it’s different from what Fox News does. Fox News is a combination of partisan outlet and entertainment, and its genius is the way it has made partisanship into entertainment — for example, bringing on the most pathetic, beaten-down liberals imaginable so that the audience can enjoy watching them lose the argument. (That was the whole point of teaming freakish-looking Colmes with handsome, all-American Hannity.) Other networks, terrified of being called liberal and constantly bending over backward to prove they aren’t liberal (MSNBC famously canceled Phil Donahue’s show, despite decent ratings by their standards at the time, to prove they weren’t liberal), simply aren’t in the same league either as partisanship or as entertainment.
2. Jacob Weisberg’s article on why Fox News is “Un-American” is pretty hellaciously silly. Which is too bad, because he’s raising a point that probably should be discussed seriously: given that Fox News is slanting the news to favour a particular political party, should journalists treat it as if it’s the same exact thing as a non-partisan outlet? But the idea that news has “a century-old tradition of independence” that is being destroyed by that nasty foreigner Rupert Murdoch is, as many people have noted, kind of weird. Even if you assume that openly partisan news ended after the collapse of the Hearst empire, that would still would be less than a century ago, and of course the tradition of partisan news persisted for much longer than that, particularly at the level of local newspapers. Apart from that, his assumption that the American approach to news is better than anybody else’s is, really, pure jingoism, on the level of saying that the U.S. has the “best health care system in the world.” It’s telling that his biggest worry is the presence of “a variety of populist and ideological takes on the news,” i.e. shows with opinions in them. This is silly. Fox’s opinion shows are just talk radio on TV. The more problematic thing about the network is that its “objective” news reporting, which it defends to the death, tends to be increasingly indistinguishable from the opinion shows in terms of what issues it considers important. If Fox News dropped the U.S.-style pretense of objectivity, it would be a lot less problematic, and might help pave the way for a genuine liberal alternative. Bashing Fox for pretending it isn’t conservative makes sense; bashing Fox for being conservative doesn’t.
3. As to why the Obama administration is picking this fight, I think Fox News pundits are correct in comparing this to Nixon and Agnew’s media strategy. It’s partly about playing to the base (since liberals hate the media even more than conservatives nowadays). But mostly, it’s about pushing the media in a certain direction. Nixon picked up the “liberal media” strategy, at a time when these complaints were closer to the truth than they are now, as a way of guilt-tripping the media into examining their assumptions. There were many editorials and articles written asking whether the media was out of touch with what would now be called “Real America,” the silent majority that elected Nixon. Reporters and pundits began trying to make sure they didn’t descend into knee-jerk liberalism. Today, the Obama team is trying something similar. His aides are telling CNN and other networks that they shouldn’t be like Fox News. This won’t and shouldn’t hurt Fox’s popularity any, but it could help jolt CNN et al into wondering if they’re out of touch with the majority that elected Obama, and re-check for conservative assumptions (anti-tax protests are the most important things ever) in their work. Call it the Nixon strategy in reverse, which makes sense after 40 years of the U.S. media being spooked out by the original Nixon strategy.