The Fox News-White House Feud

Oct. 9, 2009, file photo President Barack Obama
Oct. 9, 2009, file photo President Barack Obama (Gerald Herbert - AP)

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David Westphal
USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism
Tuesday, October 13, 2009; 3:30 PM

White House communications director Anita Dunn said Sunday on CNN's Reliable Sources that Fox News "often operates almost as either the research arm or the communications arm of the Republican Party ... Take their talking points and put them on the air. Take their opposition research and put them on the air, and that's fine. But let's not pretend they're a news network the way CNN is."

David Westphal, executive in residence at the Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, was online Tuesday, Oct. 13, at 3:30 p.m. ET to discuss the brewing controversy between broadcast journalism and opinion.

Westphal is former Washington editor at the McClatchy Washington News Bureau.

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David Westphal: Greetings, news-and-politics junkies. It's David Westphal here from USC Annenberg. We're witnessing quite a showdown these days between the White House and Fox News, with the White House raising the stakes last Sunday on Howard Kurtz' "Reliable Sources" show on CNN. Is this just a tactical, get-tough move by the White House? Or might we be seeing the start of a longer-running trend of presidents confronting unfriendly news outlets? Let's discuss.

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Slingerlands, N.Y.: Why is this even controversial? Fox News has given up every pretense that they are "fair and balanced." Just because they're mean and have air space to say nasty things about us, are the rest of us supposed to pretend they're a "media" outlet instead of a Republican outlet? Please.

David Westphal: What's new here is the way the White House is directly confronting Fox News. As David Gergen has said, why have this come directly from the West Wing itself? It adds a bit of an interesting twist that it's the cerebral, let's-work-together Obama who is authorizing the showdown.

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Springfield, Va.: The dichotomy between 'journalism' and 'opinion' is largely false. Journalists have opinions, and the world views they personally operate with inevitably impact how they go about their job. Beat reporters are just like anyone else. Their own opinions inevitably shape the stories they pursue and don't pursue (and how they pursue them), the questions they ask and don't ask, and things they consider newsworthy or not newsworthy. Subjective decisions of this sort get made everyday in every newsroom. The problem is that the label 'opinion journalism' is equated with decibel level, with the implication being that because Brian Williams and Campbell Brown don't yell and scream, their work is objective. That's complete fantasy and the logic doesn't follow.

David Westphal: One reason the Fox News issue is having resonance in journalism is that these are questions being asked everywhere -- not just in the worlds of Fox, CNN and MSNBC but in newspapers and wire services as well. The longstanding model of "objective" reporting is being called to task. Many people thing it's outlived its usefulness and that the Fox model of rather straightforwardly tilting one direction or the other will emerge.

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Arlington, Va.: What do you think the White House is trying to prove by doing this? It doesn't seem like there's much upside to calling out Fox.

David Westphal: It's a bit of a mystery, Arlington. You can speculate that the president just got fed up with Fox. He's been directly critical before. I suspect it's more complex than that, and probably includes the reality that this plays well with his base. But that's only my guesswork.

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Washington, D.C.: Is CNN the only balanced cable network of the basic three "news" channels? Fox News is considered by many as Republican and leaning right and MSNBC leans left, at least in primetime. What do you think?

David Westphal: If you judge by the punditry you see on CNN, Fox and MSNBC, that's probably how you'd line them up. It seems to me that CNN is trying the hardest to walk the tightrope, especially with its news presentation. But then CNN has Lou Dobbs so its picture becomes more complex as well.

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Washington, D.C.: Do a majority of Americans want news that is straight-ahead/unbiased and without opinion? I would think they would but it seems that it's a matter of TV ratings and what gets people excited and what gets them to tune in. Hence, I think traditional journalism is suffering and is being threatened and weakened by the producers of these programs and media giants. Your thoughts please.

David Westphal: Americans tell opinion surveys that they want news that's unbiased. The rub is Americans look at politics and government through very different lenses, so the reality is that they are drawn to information that speaks to them. Now that the Internet allows news to flow from any vantage point under the sun, it seems very likely to me that we'll see more of the Fox model, and not just on cable. Speaking from a point of view is powerful, authentic, visceral and quite clearly can draw a crowd. That, by the way, is the way it used to be in the newspaper world many years ago.

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Annapolis, Md.: Do you think it's a matter of the president wanting just good news to come out of the White House? He has complained that not one positive story about him has come from Fox News and that everything has been negative. Is this true? Can a president dictate what news coverage he will get?

David Westphal: Presidents certainly strive valiantly to frame the kind of news coverage they get. And in fact, they exercise tremendous leverage in making that happen -- witness Obama's health-care address before Congress and to the nation. Huge amounts of time are spent at the White House making the conditions as favorable as possible. But we've entered what's likely to be a more fractious journalism world, and I suspect any president now will need to get comfortable with the idea of pretty intense heat.

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Fox is loving this: I don't think it's productive for the White House to get in such a public hissing fit with Fox News, since Fox thrives on being cast as the outsider and different from the other media outlets. They say "fair and balanced" and "we report, you decide" with a wink, knowing their most loyal viewers want to be reassured they are right, not to have preconceptions questioned. Fox does have a few straight news shows, but primetime, and even their morning gab fest, are overwhelmingly loaded with conservatives. Conservative politicos like Cheney and Palin appear on Fox not to get even-handed treatment, but to get friendly interviewers and to reach their conservative base.

David Westphal: Fox News' chief, Roger Ailes, has been brilliant in positioning Fox. As you say, it does a good job with its punditry of maintaining its loyal base. At the same time, it spends a lot of time on news coverage that often seems bias-free to me. So Fox is trying to frame its audience as broadly as possible, and the ratings suggest it's having great success. I wonder, however, whether we aren't entering a period where this will be tougher to pull off, as the rhetoric ramps up higher and higher.

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Washington, D.C.: It's pretty amazing to me that Obama wants to put himself in the same category of paranoid Richard Nixon with his enemies list, rather than taking the high road and either ignoring Fox altogether or appearing on their shows to present his side (himself or via his surrogates). I saw Dunn's entire diatribe and what struck me the most was the whiny tone: "Mommy, the mean kid doesn't like me." Both those who love Fox and those who hate it are feeling equally vindicated. But I don't see what Obama gets out of it -- he just looks petty and thin-skinned.

David Westphal: I think Obama gets some points from his base for standing up to the political opposition. But I wonder, as well, if that's worth it stacked up to the "thin-skinned" damage. Perhaps we'll know soon whether this was a one-time response or something more lasting.

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Boonsboro, Md.: Can you provide an example of another president directly attacking an American news outlet like this in the past? Won't this have the effect of chilling criticism of the administration and limiting free speech?

David Westphal: White Houses often don't like one news organization or another. Recall the Bush/Cheney criticisms of the New York Times after it disclosed unauthorized eavesdropping by the NSA. But this one is noteworthy. Obama complained about Fox last summer in an interview on CNBC. As for chilling free speech? Not hardly likely. In the Internet Age, speech will be more free than ever.

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Bias-Free?: "At the same time, it spends a lot of time on news coverage that often seems bias-free to me."

You must not watch FOX often. Their "straight news" coverage is consistently incorrect and demonstrably friendly to the conservative point of view. It happens daily. Pick a day. Let's choose Sunday.

There were the same number of people in D.C. Sunday for a gay rally and FOX didn't show wall-to-wall coverage. FOX did not promote it with commercials asking people to show up. FOX did not have producers on the scene asking people to cheer.

They only did those things for the tea party protests. Are you intentionally being disingenuous, or are you just not fully up to speed on the extent to which FOX promoted the protests? What news organization runs commercials for a protest and has its reporters ask people to come to them?

Can you really say FOX straight news reports are biased free with a straight face?

David Westphal: I do often see a conservative-friendly tilt in Fox's political coverage. But not always. Shep Smith regularly stands up to the Fox model, and there's a lot of news reporting (especially away from the political beat) that looks like the reporting you'd get anywhere. That's what makes Fox intriguing.

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Battle Ground, Ind.: I like FOX NEWS because it does not lean liberal like most of the rest. It definitely is not in the pocket of Obama and the DNC. That seems to be an asset to me.

Why do liberals demand that everybody adopt their groupthink or just shut up??

David Westphal: Roger Ailes' brilliance was in seeing there was a big swath of Americans who saw most media as liberal and could be won over with a network that, in the aggregate, tilted conservative. What we're seeing now, especially on MSNBC, is networks being more willing to appeal to one political niche or the other. My guess is that will grow. There's tremendous commercial opportunity to speaking directly and emotionally to a group's political yearnings. It's not the kind of journalism most of us grew up with, that's for sure.

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Washington, D.C.: This discussion of bias is silly. There's a world of difference between subconscious bias and intentional bias. Reporters are human, of course they have opinions and subconscious reactions to things. But professional journalists, like any kind of professional, build discipline through practice and reduce the impact of their personal bias. Fox fans and apologists seem to be saying, "Well, we can't reach perfection, so let's not even try." You've just said TV news is heading toward the "Fox model." OK? Does that mean it's still journalism or are you saying TV journalism is effectively dead? That we should just roll over and accept infotainment?

David Westphal: In an earlier era, American cities had multiple newspapers that represented one interest or another -- Chamber of Commerce, labor union, political parties, and so on. People bought one paper or another because it represented their interests, rather straightforwardly. We're on the road to this sort of model, and not just on the networks. We have labor unions now bankrolling investigative Web sites, for example. And we'll see more of this on the Web. This can still be journalism. It's just not the objective model that's been with us for the last half-century.

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Washington, D.C.: So where will straight, down-the-line journalism live in the new media world, where will people go for it? Don't tell me the need for it is fading out due to ratings.

David Westphal: I think this is one of the more interesting questions to watch. I'm with you: I don't think straight, down-the-line journalism is dead. I think it will have lots of company from point-of-view voices, but I think it will survive.

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Houston, Te.: "Their own opinions inevitably shape the stories they pursue"

I think most journalists would take serious umbrage at the use of the word inevitably here, that's just a long time talking point for those that don't agree with what is being reported. Reporters strive to their utmost to be unbiased in their reporting.

One thing to pursue in this issue is that the Internet and influence of Fox News really "peaked" or increased during the Bush II administration.

The result is that Fox has continued to position themselves as some sort of "truth to power" network, or at least "truth to liberal power network" while backing the president. Hence, no complaints from the Bush administration, they are happy.

However, now that a less conservative politician is in office, why SHOULDN'T he call them on it when they go over the top?

David Westphal: I agree that most journalists do a good job of trying to steer clear of bias in their reporting. On the other hand, I agree with critics of "objectivity" that there have been problems, too. In particular, we mainstream journalists too often have given equal weight to "both" sides of an argument, irrespective of whether one side clearly happened to be baloney. It's important, as well, to remember that even reporting that comes from a clearly "biased" news source can turn out to be on-the-money journalism. Just because a reporter or news organization tilts one direction or another doesn't mean they can't do spot-on journalism.

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Washington, D.C.: In the newspaper days, the editorial pages would draw upon the news pages for facts to support positions on the left, right and middle.

Doesn't the absence of factual sources, and the resulting absence of reliable facts, make it even more difficult to have a believable editorial argument, particularly if the editorial person is the one gathering the alleged facts?

David Westphal: Rick Edmonds of Poynter Institute estimated this week that news organizations have cut their resources by $1.6 billion. There's a lot of uncertainty about what this decline -- and there's more to come -- will do to the knowledge base Americans need to self-govern. New information sources such as community news sites are expanding quickly, so there's good news on that front. Still, some folks (Paul Starr and Clay Shirky, for example) think we could be headed for a period of government corruption because of a big decline in accountability reporting. So this question of factual sources and reliable facts looms large.

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Washington, D.C.: When did fair and balanced come about? Why did it arise? If you look at newspapers from the 1860s when Lincoln was president, he faced Fox-like opposition.

I agree that the new technology of the Internet and 24-hour news is taking us back to days of more biased but also more news outlets.

David Westphal: The "objective" model emerged in the middle of last century, with the emergence of the Big Three TV networks and monopoly newspapers. It thrived because it was a good economic model: You try to appeal to every person in the market, and this is best done with news coverage that seems acceptable to as many as possible. It has survived a long time, but it definitely was showing its age -- with newspaper circulation in long decline and network news audiences down. There are many theories about the reason, but one that resonates with me is that news organizations became increasingly distant from the communities they covered, and increasingly inauthentic-seeming. In any case, the Internet now means millions of voices are entering the picture, and they can be (and will be) whatever they want to be.

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Albuquerque, N.M.: Isn't Fox News and MSNBC really just a modern version of biased/special interest newspapers common in American cities pre-Great Depression?

David Westphal: For the most part I think that's true, and as I said I think we'll see more of it.

One brake on this trend with the cable networks is federal regulation. If the environment gets too shrill -- and it might -- there will be increasing pressure on government to introduce a la carte pricing on your cable bill. Right now, you have to pay for Fox News (or MSNBC) even if you don't want to. I can see enough people growing restive about this that they just say: I refuse to pay for Fox, or MSNBC, anymore.

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Baton Rouge, La.: There was a time when TV news journalists were expected to deliver an unbiased report of the news -- Edward R. Murrow, Chet Huntley come to mind. We don't get that from the networks anymore and it has been going on for many years. I appreciate that Fox News delivers another viewpoint, that we, the public should be able to digest, reflect upon, and draw our own conclusions from. After all, we are not "mindless sheep", but a news-consuming public with a myriad of sources to draw our opinions from. All of the networks need to go back to the policy of "just delivering the news" and stop all their opinion forming for us.

David Westphal: Remember, too, that it was Murrow who took Senator McCarthy to task over the Communist witch-hunt hearings in Congress. In some ways, this recent period when we expected journalists to express no opinion has been the aberrational period.

Thanks for the great chat. It'll be fascinating to see how these things play out -- on both the politics and journalism fronts.

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