Obama's right. It's time to stop taking the network's skewed news seriously.
Rather than in any way maturing, Fox has in recent months become more boisterous and demagogic in rallying the opposition against Obama. The "fair and balanced" mask has been slipping with increasing frequency—as when a RNC press release was regurgitated so lazily that it repeated a typo on air or when a reporter wondered why other networks weren't doing PR for "tea parties" that Fox covered the way the Hearst press covered the Spanish-American war. On Fox, fact-checking about the president's health care proposal is provided by Karl Rove. For literary coverage, it features the bigot Jerome Corsi's rants about Obama and John Kerry. Meanwhile, the crybaby Glenn Beck has begun to exhibit a Strangelovean concern about America's precious bodily fluids, charging the government with trying to invade our bloodstream by vaccinating us for swine flu. With this latest misinformation campaign, Fox stands to become the first network to actively try to kill its viewers.
That Rupert Murdoch may skew the news rightward more for commercial than ideological reasons is somewhat beside the point. What matters is the way that Fox's successful model has invaded the bloodstream of the American media. By showing that ideologically distorted news can drive ratings, Ailes has provoked his rivals at CNN and MSNBC to experiment with a variety of populist and ideological takes on the news. It's Fox that led CNN's Lou Dobbs to remodel himself into a nativist cartoon. It's Fox that led MSNBC to amp up Keith Olbermann. Fox hasn't just corrupted its own coverage. Through its influence, it has made all of cable news unpleasant and unreliable.
What's most distinctive about the American press is not its freedom but its tradition of independence—that it serves the public interest rather than those of parties, persuasions, or pressure groups. Media independence is a 20th-century innovation that has never fully taken root in Europe or many other countries that do have free press. The Australian-British-continental model of politicized media that Murdoch has implemented at Fox is un-American, so much so that he has little choice but go on denying what he's doing as he does it. For Murdoch, Ailes, and company, "fair and balanced" is a necessary lie. To admit that their coverage is slanted by design would violate the American understanding of the media's role in democracy and our idea of what constitutes journalistic fair play. But it's a demonstrable deceit that no longer deserves equal time.
Whether the White House engages with Fox is a tactical political question. Whether we journalists continue to do so is an ethical one. By appearing on Fox, reporters validate its propaganda values and help to undermine the role of legitimate news organizations. Respectable journalists—I'm talking to you, Mara Liasson—should stop appearing on its programs. A boycott would make Roger Ailes too happy, so let's try just ignoring Fox for a while. And no, I don't want to come on The O'Reilly Factor to discuss it.
A version of this article also appears in this week's issue of Newsweek.