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.#