This week in media musings: Obama v. Fox News, and NPR’s social media tact

As Jay Rosen surmised after my last Media Musings, this review is largely curated from Twitter, with some RSS thrown in there to catch anything I might have missed. But because I’ve been out on the road and mostly off the grid for the last week, I decided to catch up via RSS, rather than trying to drink from the firehose that is a week’s worth of unread Twitter streams.

Consequently, this review may end up a bit narrower in its sourcing than usual, but I still hope to touch all the primary bases. (Explanation is here.)

— The Obama administration and Fox News have never been on particularly good terms, but this week the proverbial gloves came off. White House communications director Anita Dunn blasted the channel as “a wing of the Republican party” on CNN last Sunday, then told The New York Times the same day, “We’re going to treat them the way we would treat an opponent.” I’ll spare you the White House’s list of grievances — most of these links have a good overview — and focus instead on the administration’s decision to publicly go after a single political news outlet.

First, I believe this is something unprecedented. Yes, it’s reminding a lot of people of Nixon-Agnew and their “nattering nabobs of negativism,” but keep in mind that that remark was directed at the entire mainstream political press, not a single outlet. And of course, we’ve long seen presidential press secretaries and other top political officials have their feuds with individual reporters and publications, but those have mostly played out either in private or for an inside-baseball audience. Journalism historians can correct me if I’m wrong, but this is the first time I’ve heard of an administration saying on national TV it will henceforth treat a major national news outlet as a political opponent.

So is the White House’s offensive a good idea? Probably not, although it’s probably going to accelerate Fox News’ move into a very strange spot on the political media spectrum: An advocacy/political niche outlet with a “mainstream media” audience. On the one hand, Chris Rovsar’s analysis in New York’s Daily Intel is spot-on — Obama is feeding an already galvanizing opposition’s caricature of himself with fresh material. And as the Times’ David Carr notes and Fox News counters in its own “news article” about the blowup (brilliantly skewered by Slate’s Jacob Weisberg), this move does make the administration appear petty and sensitive, as if it’s still in campaign mode.

Naturally, liberal media critics like Media Matters and The Nation are overjoyed at the White House’s aggressiveness, and in this case, there’s a legitimate reason. Those outlets have long seen Fox News with a “one of these things is not like the other” sensibility in relation to the rest of the mainstream political press, and they’re right. While the size of Fox’s audience may lead the public to believe it’s a mainstream press outlet, it’s clearly not — and that’s not because it tilts conservative. It’s because, as Weisberg points out a bit more calmly than Media Matters, Fox’s newsroom ethos is steadily being revealed as fundamentally different from the others. That ethos is about providing a central gathering point to inform and rally a political movement.

And there’s nothing wrong with that, of course; it’s just not what the rest of the mainstream political press does. It’s advocacy journalism, and the administration’s now-open war on Fox News will hasten the time when most of the American public recognizes that fact and evaluates Fox News within that framework. That may come too late to benefit Obama, but in terms of simply seeing things for what they are, it’s good for all of us.

— NPR released its new social media guidelines, and the takeaway is pretty similar to the Washington Post’s, released a week or two earlier: Don’t compromise our news organization’s objectivity, and don’t say anything on social media that you wouldn’t say in print or on air. Yet while the Post’s guidelines got killed online, NPR’s got a positive, though quiet, response.

That disparity is a bit unfair to the Post — after all, the net results between the two are about the same — but it’s instructive in the importance of tone. NPR’s tone was softer, more conciliatory, where the Post’s was more stilted and frightened. Michele McLellan’s analysis of “leadership code words” is a little inane — come on, the Post used the word “valuable” in its second sentence, too — but as Steve Buttry noted, NPR’s implicit message was clear, and it was right on: Use common sense, folks. We trust you to do that.

— This happened two weeks ago now, but ignoring it for that reason would feel like a dereliction of duty: The FTC posted new guidelines requiring bloggers reviewing products or services to disclose if they got them for free. Suffice it to say, Jeff Jarvis hates the new rule. So does Slate’s Jack Shafer. If you want to go deeper, Edward Champion has an interview with the FTC’s Richard Cleland, and MediaShift’s Mark Glaser (Jarvis’ sparring partner on Twitter) has all the links you’ll need.

— Also pretty old news, but worth noting: Rupert Murdoch and the Associated Press’ Tom Curley fired their latest shot against search engines and, I don’t know, the internet, at a summit in Beijing. This is almost too easy for Jeff Jarvis, who dismantles their assertions with a lesson on the collaboration economy. Suw Charman-Anderson also has fun with the contradictions between what they’re saying now and what they’ve said in the past. Meanwhile, thanks to the Nieman Journalism Lab’s relentless Zachary Seward, we get some clarification and much smarter stuff from Curley. (Short version/full version.)

— A few nice conference overviews: Poynter’s Steve Myers and the Knight Digital Media Center’s Jacqui Banaszynski on the trends at the Online News Association’s conference, and MediaShift’s Chris O’Brien on nonprofit news from the UC-Berkeley Media Technology Summit.

— This week in depressing media statistics: Poynter’s Rick Edmonds crunches the numbers and estimates that newspapers are spending $1.6 billion less on news gathering each year.

— Finally, Steve Buttry says it’s time for journalists to re-evaluate their impression and use of Wikipedia. (He’s absolutely right.) And former Baltimore Sun copy chief John McIntyre has another remarkably simple reason that newspapers are failing: They’re a bastion of really crappy writing. I suppose Occam’s razor makes sense applied to newspapers.

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19. October 2009 by Mark
Categories: political journalism, this week | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 5 comments

  • Dad

    “That ethos is about providing a central gathering point to inform and rally a political movement.”

    “it’s just not what the rest of the mainstream political press does.”

    Mark, I agree with the first statement, although I see them doing this less often than you do. But I totally disagree with the second statement. While Fox may intentionally be doing so, the other networks are just as active in providing a central gathering point. They just deny it. I challenge you to listen to one evening of MSNBC and objectively state that there is not a concerted effort to present and push a point of view.

    What makes Fox stand out is that its point of view is so different from all the rest. This makes it seem as though it is doing something that none of the rest is doing. The rest share one basic point of view and Fox has a different one. This does not make Fox wrong, nor all the others wrong. I just wish everyone would admit to their own bias. Honest reporting admits to its own bias and seeks alternative voices to balance the presentation. ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, PBS have just as much to learn in this area as Fox.

  • Mark

    I still think there’s a fine, but very important, difference between Fox and the rest.

    Yes, everyone is biased. Every TV news outlet is pushing a point of view — for the networks and CNN, it’s primarily the veneration of political savviness above all else, and for MSNBC it’s a distinctively liberal perspective, as you wrote.

    Delivering news from a consistent, distinct political point of view, as MSNBC does, is what Fox has done for most of this decade. But roughly since Obama became president, Fox News has changed; it has crossed the Rubicon into overt political activism.

    If an MSNBC personality actively spearheads a political rally and then the channel covers it as “news,” (as Glenn Beck and Fox did with the 9/12 rally), then we can consider the two channels to be comparable. But no other TV news outlet has parlayed its journalistic power into outright political organization, so until that happens, Fox is in a class by itself.

    That may seem like a minor distinction, but in journalistic terms, that’s a chasm.

  • Dad

    I think we actually had such a thing when ABC held their “health care forum” at the White House without presenting opposing views, which was covered by all the news organizations you cite as hard news. I just reread your definition and seriously think this meets your criteria.

    Yes, I agree that Fox went (and often does) cross the line. But so does every other news organization, by choosing which stories to cover, or by giving the story a positive or negative slant. What angers me and so many like me is that there is no admission to slant, no problem with White House operatives becoming news anchors, no recognition that they too are promoting an agenda. It just so happens to be an agenda that is in vogue with each other and the party in power at present, but it IS an agenda none the less. When those like George Steph. are granted instant credibility as objective journalists despite their blatant bias, such a news organization has lost all credibility with me. There is a reason the current administration seeks such people out for interviews.

    Until the mainstream media admit to their faults, their ratings will continue to fall and outlets like Fox will continue to grow. When I see the same sort of skepticism toward the latest Obama initiative that follows Palin’s every word, I will soften my disdain for their bias. Demonizing and seeking to marginalize Fox serves only to cement in my mind the blinders and jealousy that hinders such journalists from real journalism. Sorry, but that’s how I see it.

  • Dad

    I think as well of the week last year when NBC highlighted global warming all week in both its news programs and its other programming. I don’t think there could be any doubt that they were pushing an agenda and treating their own views and agenda as news.

    I’m confident that given more time, I could come up with many more examples. I also question whether “it’s primarily the veneration of political savviness” that is there concern above all. Were that the case, we would see the same level of skepticism, criticism, and hype with administrations from both sides. Instead, political savvy is too often defined as agreeing with the ivy league elite perspective. I think they are more motivated to push an agenda of the state taking bold action to solve problems, increasing the size and reach of government. Such proposals are greeted with unquestioning joy and adulation, cheerleading each step as we have seen with the current health care proposals, i.e.”Never have we been so close!” whereas private enterprise proposals are viewed with suspicion and skepticism, “greedy insurance companies.” That is every bit as over the line as Fox’s perspective. Sorry to be so long. If you want me to quit, let me know.

    • Mark

      As for your first post, I agree with most everything you say. There’s a reason “transparency is the new objectivity” is the new catchphrase among the online media criticism community. (Unfortunately, it hasn’t caught on in the establishment media.) Why try to keep up the charade that journalists are merely objective observers without opinions, when everybody knows that a) they’re humans, so of course they’re not objective, and b) there’s often evidence of the biases that they’re trying not to acknowledge? And you’re right to connect that to declining ratings in those outlets, because the public has made it clear that the reason their trust in the establishment media is tanking is because of what they see as rampant bias.

      As for the second one, I still maintain that “mainstream” Washington media’s primary bias is in favor not of a particular political side, but of savvy political gamesmanship. We’ve obviously gone over this in the past, but I think your characterization of the media as accepting liberals’ proposals with “unquestioning joy and adulation, cheerleading each step” is something of a caricature. Obviously, the media has done plenty of stories with a critical eye toward the Dems’ health care reform plans. Take, for example, one AP story I had to read particularly closely a few weeks ago, as I used parts of it in my story about a local dentist visiting the White House: http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20091005/ap_on_go_pr_wh/us_obama_doctors

      You can’t tell me, honestly, that that story is not critical of or cynical about President Obama. But in this story, as in the vast majority of the stories about health care reform and politics in general, the primary bias is in valuing political maneuvering — who’s trying to portray what image, who’s taking what tack to get whose vote — over the actual substance of the proposals. That’s the overriding systemic bias in political journalism.

      As for your examples, I think we still must be misunderstanding each other. ABC’s “health care forum” was a very poorly handled “interview” of the president, but it was nowhere close to a political rally. And NBC’s highlighting global warming is, obviously, reporting that stems from the assumption that global warming is legitimate and human-caused; it is not tantamount to organizing an anti-global warming movement. Again, I’m not saying that the other TV news outlets don’t address issues from a particular cultural and often political mindset — of course they do. But I think there’s still a big difference between that and consciously serving as a rallying point and an organizing force for a political movement.

      And no, you don’t need to quit — this is a good discussion :)