"To Referee Public Debates"

According to Time, the Obama administration decided the press was “falling down on the job” after three perfectly sensible stories appeared in the media: The New York Times reported that parents objected to the idea of a presidential address to the nation’s schoolchildren, several outlets covered public outrage over health-care reform, and The Washington Post ran two op-eds by members of Congress who objected to the president’s reliance on advisors who were not subject to Senate confirmation or congressional oversight. It seems that the White House staff didn’t object to the stories themselves, but to the fact that the press — in the words of White House communications director Anita Dunn — “didn’t even question” the criticisms public officials, parents, and the public had made of the administration. “Obama aides,” Time reports, are disappointed “they can’t rely on reporters to referee public debates.”

Of course, were the press to take it upon itself to denounce parents, the public, and members of Congress for criticizing the administration — or, as it seems the White House staff would prefer, to exclude these “misleading” criticisms from news coverage — it would be “opinion journalism masquerading as news.” Yet those are precisely the words Dunn employed to denounce the Fox News Network for being too opinionated. It’s not clear, exactly, what the White House wants from the press. When Dunn appeared on CNN’s Reliable Sources to explain her comment, it became even more confusing.

“It’s not ideological,” said Dunn. Obviously, there are many commentators who have conservative, liberal, centrist [views], and everybody understands that.” But the problem is that Fox “operates almost as either the research arm or the communications arm of the Republican Party.” But then she suggested it was ideological, explaining that President Obama will go on Fox News “because he engages with ideological opponents.” The real problem is that the ideology doesn’t affect “just their opinion shows,” but “there is a very different story selection.” Then it turned out the real problem was not the reporting, but the opinion shows. “I’ve differentiated between Major Garrett, who we view as a very good correspondent, and his network,” Dunn explained. Howard Kurtz asked her to clarify her position: “You are making a distinction, just before I move on, between the opinion guys, O’Reilly, Hannity, Glenn Beck, and people like Major Garrett.” Dunn replied: “I’m not talking about people like Major Garrett. I’m talking about the overall programming.”

Dunn’s particular charges — that during the campaign Fox focused more than other networks on Bill Ayers and ACORN and that Fox failed to cover Senator Ensign’s affair and scandal — turn out, according to Noel Sheppard to be false. Dunn also complained that Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday — in Dunn’s words — “fact-checked an administration guest on his show.” This, of course, seems not only appropriate but common. And if Fox were indeed the only network to check the facts that public officials offer to the news media, that would seem to make Fox the most responsible news gathering organization we have.

Anyway, Dunn’s comments seem to amount to the charge that Fox News has some good news coverage and some “opinion journalism” she doesn’t like. It’s no secret that the opinion journalism on Fox News is largely conservative, but so what? “Opinion journalism” is still journalism, and the idea that the White House believes some opinions are somehow illegitimate for the news media to hold is more outrageous than anything aired on Fox News. It seems that Dunn is throwing out charges in order to discredit negative coverage of the administration, and when pressed on what, exactly, she means, she backtracks and qualifies and seems not to have anything serious to say.

The White House “can’t rely on reporters to referee public debates” — which is great. Here’s hoping the White House itself doesn’t succeed in refereeing public debates, either.