Are the norms of Democratic discourse at risk when elected officials attack the legitimacy of certain news organizations, while supporting only the news organizations that do not ask tough questions? This question is being asked by some commentators after a series of White House statements, including recently from President Barack Obama, assailing Fox News, and Obama's recent interviews with news organizations that only ask the president easy questions.
In a New Republic interview published Sunday, Obama complained that it is difficult to accomplish his goals because Republican members of Congress would be "punished on Fox News" if they worked with him. This comment renewed a debate from early in Obama's first term about the appropriateness of a president seeking to delegitimize a news organization.
Liberals and Democrats have long complained about the conservative bias of Fox News. Some have even embarked on a vendetta against the network. A liberal organization called Media Matters, founded by David Brock, described, in a 2009 letter to supporters and a 2011 memo, a plan to "engage and defeat" the network through boycotts, intimidation and "opposition research" on Fox News employees. The memo also mentioned a plan to set up a legal fund that would be used to sue conservatives.
It was also in 2009 that Obama and other White House surrogates complained frequently on other networks that Fox News was not a "real" or "legitimate" news organization. The clash came to a head in October of that year when the White House tried to exclude Fox News from a pool report. The other reporters in the pool, fearing the precedent it would set, banded together and said they would boycott the pool report if Fox were not included. The White House backed off.
More recently, Fox News was excluded from a State Department conference call with reporters about the Sept. 11 Benghazi, Libya, attacks, even though Fox News had been reporting on the incident more than other major news organizations.
Fox News host Greta Van Susteran remarked Monday that Democratic members of Congress have told her that they have been pressured by other Democrats to not appear on Fox News.
The 2009 Media Matters letter suggests that Brock sees himself as upholding journalistic integrity by attacking Fox News in this way.
"It is now the job of progressives to expose the true nature of the network, thereby defending their own political principles and the institution of journalism itself," Brock concludes.
Even some liberal Democrats have raised concerns about the appropriateness of a government official deciding what is, and is not, a "legitimate" media organization.
"Whether you are liberal or conservative, libertarian, moderate or politically agnostic, everyone should be concerned when leaders of our government believe they can intentionally try to delegitimize a news organization they don't like," Kirsten Powers wrote Tuesday for Fox News.
Powers, a columnist for The Daily Beast and political analyst for Fox News, worked in the Bill Clinton White House and with other Democratic officials before becoming a journalist.
"In fact, if you are a liberal -- as I am -- you should be the most offended," Powers continued, "as liberalism is founded on the idea of cherishing dissent and an inviolable right to freedom of expression.
"That more liberals aren't calling out the White House for this outrageous behavior tells you something about the state of liberalism in America today."
Powers has also complained that while Obama is concerned about the conservative bias at Fox News, he only grants interviews to news organizations that give him favorable coverage.
The New Republic interview was conducted with Franklin Foer and Chris Hughes. Hughes, who recently bought The New Republic, worked on Obama's 2008 campaign and donated money to his 2012 campaign.
Obama appeared Sunday on CBS' "60 Minutes" with outgoing Secretary of Defense Hillary Clinton. Powers described the interview as "state-run media propaganda."
Obama has now appeared on "60 Minutes" five times. Steve Kroft, the journalist who conducted the interview, said on CNN's "Piers Morgan" that he thinks Obama likes to appear on "60 Minutes" because "we're not going to play gotcha with him."
For some journalists, who believe that asking tough, probing questions is part of their job, that is exactly the problem.
"It hardly matters whether Kroft is deliberately pulling his punches to secure ongoing access or is simply disinclined to fulfill the core journalistic duty of holding powerful people accountable for their actions; his Obama interviews ought to diminish his standing and the reputation of his employer," Conor Friedersdorf wrote Tuesday for The Atlantic.
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