Roger Ailes and Fox News: Traitors or Patriots?

May 10, 2010

There may be a truce of sorts at any given moment, but there’s no doubt that there’s been a war going on between Fox News and the Obama White House.

I thought about this on May 1st, during the White House Correspondents Dinner, as I watched it on TV and listened to President Obama as he turned to some serious remarks about journalism and media after he had delivered his jokes.

Here’s what Obama said:

“Earlier today I gave a commencement address at Michigan, where I spoke to the graduates about what is required to keep our democracy thriving in the 21st century. One of the points I made is that for all the changes and challenges facing your industry, this country absolutely needs a healthy, vibrant media. Probably needs it more than ever now.

“Today’s technology has made it possible for us to get our news and information from a growing range of sources. [We] can pick and choose not only our preferred type of media, but also our preferred perspective.

“And while that exposes us to an unprecedented array of opinions, analysis and points of view, it also makes it that much more important that we’re all operating on a common baseline of facts. It makes it that much more important that journalists out there seek only the truth.

“And I don’t have to tell you that. Some of you are seasoned veterans who have been on the political beat for decades; others here tonight began their careers as bloggers not long ago. But I think it’s fair to say that every single reporter in this room believes deeply in the enterprise of journalism. Every one of you, even the most cynical among you—understands and cherishes the function of a free press and preservation of our system of government and our way of life. And I want you to know that for all the jokes and the occasional gripes, I cherish that work as well.”

However, it’s clear that Obama doesn’t believe that Fox News is “operating on a common baseline of facts,” nor does he believe that they are seeking “only the truth.”

First, using the line that many have attributed to William Faulkner, I would caution Obama that “Facts and truth really don’t have much to do with each other.”

But Obama isn’t alone in his criticism of Fox News. One of the journalists I most admire, Bill Moyers, not surprisingly, also is not a fan. During the Bush administration he said Fox News functioned as the “Republican Ministry of Truth.”

In a speech Moyers gave in 2007 titled “Journalism Matters”—collected in his book “Moyers on Democracy”—Moyers wrote, “Rupert Murdoch could make a singular contribution to journalism simply by uncoupling Fox News from the Republican fog machine and giving it the mandate to report reality instead of attacking those who do. For sure we’d get more real news—what Richard Reeves calls ‘the news you and I need to keep our freedoms.’ ”

That last is an interesting point, and in my mind a key one. It speaks to the relationship of the liberty of the press to politics in a democracy.

My guidepost here is Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America,” which in another 25 years will be 200 years old.

Tocqueville was a French aristocrat who came to America to see how our democracy worked, and how it related to the social, political and economic stratums of society.

One of areas Tocqueville examined was liberty of the press in the political realm of our country.

“When the right of every citizen to a share in the government of society is acknowledged, everyone must be presumed to be able to choose between the various opinions of his contemporaries to appreciate the different facts from which inferences may be drawn.”

Tocqueville then gives this example: “ ‘The first newspaper over which I cast my eyes, upon my arrival in America, contained the following article:

‘In all this affair, the language of Jackson [the President] has been that of a heartless despot, solely occupied with the preservation of his own authority. Ambition is his crime, and it will be his punishment, too: intrigue in his native element, and intrigue will confound his tricks, and deprive him of his power. He governs by means of corruption, and his immoral practices will redound to his shame and confusion. His conduct in the political arena has been that of a shameless and lawless gamester. He succeeded at the time, but the hour of retribution approaches, and he will be obliged to disgorge his winnings, to throw aside his false dice, and to end his days in some retirement, where he may curse his madness at his leisure; for repentance is a virtue with which his heart is likely to remain forever unacquainted.’ ”

I think the appropriate response today to a tirade of this nature is “Ouch!”

Interestingly, the very same Richard Reeves that Moyers cites above, back in 1979, made the same journey across America that Tocqueville did. Reeves wrote about his experiences in a 1982 book titled “American Journey: Traveling with Tocqueville in Search of ‘Democracy in America.’ ”

Since Reeves was (and is) a longtime journalist writing about politics, I was most curious to also revisit his observations about Tocqueville’s thoughts on liberty of the press and politics.

Reeves talks about Tocqueville’s passage about Andrew Jackson in that newspaper that I quote above. Reeves writes that newspapers, in the time Tocqueville visited America in 1831, were, “generally, biased and nasty, ignorant and stupid. But [they were] lusty; the voice of a young people. Tocqueville was a bit shocked: these people were conducting the public’s business in public.”

Reeve notes that Tocqueville also wrote, “The Press—the channel of public opinion. Who would not submit to its occasional abuse rather than forgo the blessings of its freedom?”

And, Tocqueville wrote, most famously, of freedom of the press, “I love it more from considering the evils it prevents than on account of the good it does.”

Reeves then remarks that Tocqueville went on to say that “The evils the press itself might generate were small and many, because the newspapers themselves were small and many.”

But, what Reeves observed in his Tocquevillean journey in 1979 was something Tocqueville had not anticipated: the consolidation of the newspaper industry. Specifically, Reeves wrote about Gannett. “With Gannett as the model two-thirds of the country’s 1,769 daily newspapers—compared with 2,500 dailies in 1900—were owned and operated by chains.”

Reeves interviewed Gannett president Allen Neuharth, and Neuharth, of course, explained Gannett in terms of the business it was. “We are not, however, democratic in business,” Neuharth said, “I would prefer to do a moderately responsible and professional editorial job—our newspapers, I think you’ll find, are better than they were under their old owners—but this is, first, a business to make money…”

Reeves then asked him, “If one of your editors was meeting all business projections, bottom-line profit and the rest, and following all your internal procedures, but was taking an editorial line you found objectionable, what would you do?”

“Fire him,” Neuharth said, “That’s not our kind of journalism.”

Reeves later quotes a former Gannett executive as saying, “Gannett newspapers are not interested in power or influence as you understand it. They do what readers tell them. If someone proposes two expressways, they’ll favor one and oppose one. It doesn’t make any sense, but it keeps up appearances.”

Few, watching Fox News, would say it is not interested in influence, at the very least.
And many would say that what Fox News does, hammering away at the Obama Administration, is just like what that newspaper article Tocqueville found in 1831 was doing to Andrew Jackson, multiplied at least 10-fold, since the network is on 24-7 and likely has a much larger audience than that newspaper had.

Tocqueville was clear that journalists are manipulative; “The characteristics of the American journalist consist in an open and coarse appeal to the passions of his readers: he abandons principle to assail the characters of individuals, to track them into private life and disclose all their weaknesses and vices.”

And Tocqueville says this is “deplorable.” Furthermore, he says, “The personal opinions of the editors have no weight in the eyes of the public. What they seek in a newspaper is a knowledge of facts, and it is only in altering or distorting those facts that a journalist can contribute to the support of his own views.”

So these are the evils of the press. Any yet,Tocqueville is unbending in his defense of the press, and its importance in a democracy: “Nowadays an oppressed citizen has only one means of defense: he can appeal to the nation as a whole, and if it is deaf, to humanity at large. The press provides his only means of doing this. For this reason freedom of the press is infinitely more precious in a democracy than in any other nation.”

Reeves, writing about how the press had changed 30 years ago, worried not only about consolidation of the press, but how the mere speed of communications could endanger democracy. The republic, Reeves wrote, was designed to be deliberate, with a slow and cumbersome process of governing.

Thirty years later, when one combines the ascension of news outlets such as Fox News, the continued consolidation and downward spiral of the health of the traditional newspaper business, I’d imagine those are developments that neither Tocqueville nor Reeves would have foreseen.

Neither would they have foreseen the explosion of the Internet and ascension of bloggers and Twitter. We are indeed in the age of information at light speed.

But I don’t know that that has necessarily sped up the political process.

As for the danger of Fox News to our democracy, I just don’t see it. Where Tocqueville said our great strength was in the diversity of opinions in so many independent newspapers, we now have that same diversity of opinion over the Internet.

Obama’s election itself argues against the hegemony of Murdoch and Fox News and Limbaugh and the like.

Like Moyers, I believe journalism matters. And I am not as cynical as Tocqueville that most journalists abandon “principle to assail the characters of individuals, to track them into private life and disclose all their weaknesses and vices,” though some do.

Moyers asked in his speech, “Where, then, does journalism stand as the future of our media world is being determined by the likes of Murdoch and by business models that target us as consumers instead of citizens? Honest reporting is so essential to the food chain of democracy, we can’t just throw up our hand and say that newspapers and professional journalism have to accept a fate where they become more marginalized—or made irrelevant from changes in attitudes and behaviors about media, especially from young people….”

I, too, worry about journalism as a profession, and having the resources moving forward to do investigative journalism, especially vis-á-vis the government and business.

But I also believe, as the boss said, we need to show a little faith, that there’s magic in the night.

We, as a free society, have access to enough information that, ultimately, we’ll make the right decisions. Or, at the least, the decisions the majority feel are right at the time. And when we get them wrong, we’ll eventually change our minds and throw the bums out.

Obama knows this. Here’s an edited transcript from an interview the president did in April with CBS’ Harry Smith:

Smith: I’ve been spending time, out and about, listening to talk radio. The kindest of terms you’re sometimes referred to out in America is a socialist, the worst of which I’ve heard is, a Nazi. Are you aware of the level of enmity that crosses the airwaves and that people have made part of their daily conversation about you?

Obama: Well, I think that, when you listen to Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck..

Smith: It’s beyond that.

Obama: It’s pretty apparent, and, it’s troublesome. But, keep in mind that there have been periods in American history where this kind of vitriol comes out. It happens often when you’ve got an economy that is making people more anxious and people are feeling as if there’s a lot of change that needs to take place.

But that’s not the vast majority of Americans. I think the vast majority of Americans know that we’re trying hard, that I want what’s best for the country. They may disagree with me on certain policy issues. There are a huge number of people who agree with me strongly.

And I didn’t buy all the hype right after inauguration, where everybody was only saying nice things about me. And I don’t get too worried when things aren’t going as well, because I know that over time these things turn.”

That said, I’m sure Obama’s administration and Fox News will continue to relentlessly go after one another.

And the messier it is, the better. That’s the nature of democracy and the press.#

14 Comments

  1. Roger Ailes and FOX (News?) deserve all the crap that is, (and will be), coming their way.
    Our Democracy demands questioning of any one “regimes” ideas or policies.
    But the part where Ailes and his FOX buddies fail us is in reporting the news. They wave their motto: “We report, you decide” like they actually report. They do not. They interpret, distort and present as if what they read and show is “news”.
    The intermixing of news and opinion within any given paragraph is distortion to the max. If they would label it FOX Opinions, then, OK. But, to continue to be so totally biased under a flag of “News” is dishonest.
    News is news, opinion is opinion and should be disclaimed and set aside as such.
    Roger Ailes is a master at distortion of the truth. IF Murdock wants to call it “FOX News”, then Ailes should be out on his ass and the “News” Division at FOX should have a mass firing of its biased “reporters”.
    Peter Bright

  2. If you cannot distinguish between what Fox reports and what they Opine on, clearly your credibiltiy itself is in question. I notice you made no mention of MSNBC……hmmmmm.

  3. Yeah, Left Wingers get so outraged by Fox News, it cracks me up. MSNBC is doing worse but from the left, he didn’t mention that. I think the Left is jealous that their radio programs (the defunct, listener-less Air America) and news nets (MSNBC, CNN) don’t have even a FRACTION of the audience of Rush or Fox News. Maybe that should tell them something about their stupid opinions. Long Live Fox News and Rush Limbaugh!

  4. Liberals simply don’t respect differences of opinion.

  5. It’s a shame that Fox News, or for that matter, Glenn Beck, are selected as your targets of poor journalism, or should I say, misuse of the media airwaves. I find your “opinion” is as lopsided and biased as that of Mr. Bright’s comments. It appears that neither of you have taken appropriate time to watch the various Fox programs, assuming you are moreso infatuated with the likes of Moyers, MSNBC, CBS, CNN, and other liberal media – aka…ObamaMedia. Now there’s good reporting…assuming you believe “reporting” is transcribing rhetoric directly to your front pages – as if that was representing the facts! Well, actually, there may be a point here, those so-called FACTS, coming from the current administration, aren’t necessarily TRUTHS, now, are they? Could it be that these “facts” are nothing more than their distortions of what they want you, as obedient media servants, to believe and then transfer to your front pages for the citizens, or consumers, to digest, as truths?
    Watching a W.H. Press Conference is reminiscent of lap dogs waiting for their next tidbit of food to be thrown at them. These so-called reporters wouldn’t think of objecting to a Gibbs’ point or asking “uncomfortable” questions. That is, no one but Fox News reporters! And, have you even questioned why the president doesn’t hold press conferences himself anymore?
    The “Slobbering Media” seems to be the most appropriate phrase describing what’s going on in journalism these days. It strikes me that if a reporter should ask a thought provoking, difficult question, they won’t be invited to the next press conference. What a shame to have such a fear of an administration.
    Let us not forget…THEY work for US!!!
    P.S. — I find it interesting that to date, no one from the White House has EVER called on Glenn Beck’s RED phone to challenge or question him on “any” of the FACTS that he presents in his programs… which are thoroughly researched and eloquently portrayed.
    Could it be that the TRUTH has quieted them?

  6. Bill Moyers as defender of objectivity in journalism. That’s really rich.

  7. This article went south the minute you wrote (quote): “One of the journalists I most admire, Bill Moyers, not surprisingly, also is not a fan.”

    Just for the record, would that be the SAME Bill Moyers who was a huge Obama supporter and who threw his media backing behind universal healthcare? Saying those on the right were wrong to oppose it or the notion of employers giving everyone access to healthcare?

    I only mention that because — in a TOTAL CROCK MOMENT — it then turned out that Bill Moyers DOES NOT pay for or extend health care benefits to anyone who works for him. And it was Fox News…and ONLY Fox News…that pointed out Moyers hypocrisy, when they literally confronted him on the street with a camera.

    Gee, can’t imagine why Moyers wouldn’t like them!

  8. Such a lot of defensive responses. Me thinks thou protesteth too much.
    Go Bill Moyers!!!

  9. You are correct…good reading, I made no reference to MSNBC, for the article was about FOX News…it is about that, that I expressed my feelings.
    Peter Bright

  10. I notice the Mr Peter Bright has opined, along with his photograph, whilst us lesser creations from the primordial vox pop swamp, wallow in our pathetic anonimity, throwing stones from the pond and proudly asserting we know better.
    Would that this were true.
    You see, it doesn’t matter if it’s Fox News that you claim as ‘fair and balanced’ (whilst getting a chubby over Glen Beck’s blubbering simpering, tragically tearful, nationalism and calling anyone and everyone names from Adolf Hitler to Communist to bolster his facile pseudo intellectualism) or if you are cheering that this MSNBC or CNN anchor of your choice (for being the next re-incarnation of your favorite deity or son thereof) speaks only the truth…
    We should awaken our torpid dullness.
    If you are not getting an objective reporting of news with significant investigation and independent confirmation of facts, devoid of spin or marketing or party affiliation, being reported on our favorite cable outlet, then we are not being served with the information that we need, as is our constitutional right, to question and make accountable, our least favourite government department, representative or summary elected servant of the people.
    Try watching the BBC World News from London. It’s a little Eurocentric, but it is the station that our troops listened to in the Gulf War, the Iraq War and Afghanistan, to find out what is actually going on, on the ground, where they are fighting.
    Information is worth more than gold. Those who control the dissemination of information, control what opinions we form, if you don’t have the facts, you can’t form an opinion (Unless of course you are the Attorney General and we are talking about Arizona politics)…But I digress.
    The sad answer is, dear fellow swamp dwellers, we are both right. We are ill served with this excuse of a media, pretending to report the news; us liberal lefties and crazy conservatives.
    Of course Fox News is biased, but I love it. Of course MSNBC is biased, but it gives me hives just watching Rachel Maddow.
    Recognize this as a fact and watch on. Get cream for your hives and keep watching.
    Then you can have a real opinion and you may find that it is not the same once you hear the facts and not the excuse for news that these cable stations broadcast.
    Well, sadly evolution (it’s only a theory, I know) is knocking on my door and I have to slither back into the slime.
    Who knows, I may evolve into a real human and put my photograph and name up on my posts and stop throwing stones, but what’s the fun in that.

  11. Your article was interesting and appeared to be honest, but it should be put in some type of context with other news outlets. In the end people have to learn to form there own opinions and not wait for someone to give them one.

  12. Hello, I used to be in need of Roger Ailes and Fox News: Traitors or Patriots? : Open Mic : TVWeek – Television Industry news, TV ratings, analysis, celebrity event photos may it be encountered this site. Thanks for sharing this very good details. Read more about how to keep chicken Cheers from College Inform

  13. How has how to keep chickens got anything to do with this article? Actually you may have a point.

  14. Peter I agree it should be called “opinion” rather than news. But I would say that about CNN, MSNBC and others as well. Both left and right are guilty.
    Just my 2 cents.
    Jim

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