Last week, when White House communications director Anita Dunn charged the Fox News Channel with right-wing bias, Fox responded the way it always does. It denied the accusation with a straight face while proceeding to confirm it with its coverage.
Take a look at Fox's own Web story on the episode. It begins by quoting a Fox News senior vice president named Michael Clemente, who says: "It's astounding the White House cannot distinguish between news and opinion programming. It seems self-serving on their part." Then it quotes David Gergen, the gravelly voice of Washington's conventional wisdom, who says the attack diminishes President Obama and works to Fox's benefit. Then we hear from Tony Blankley, Newt Gingrich's former press secretary and a frequent Fox contributor, who agrees that criticizing Fox makes no sense: "Fox has an audience of not just conservatives. They've got liberals and moderates who watch too." Then a White House correspondent for Politico echoes the claim that the controversy will boost Fox's ratings. Then comes an old quote from Fox anchor Chris Wallace, who calls Obama's team "the biggest bunch of crybabies I have dealt with in my 30 years in Washington." Then the story's anonymous author cites a joke Obama made at the White House Correspondents Dinner as evidence "that Fox News has gotten under his skin." Finally, the piece cites a Pew study that suggested that while Fox was equally negative about John McCain and Obama during the last six weeks of the 2008 campaign, CNN was more negative about McCain.
Let's do a quick study of our own. Five people are quoted in this article. Two of them work for Fox. All of them assert that administration officials are either wrong in substance or politically foolish to criticize the network. No one is cited supporting Dunn's criticisms or saying that it could make sense, morally or politically, for Obama to challenge the network's power. It's a textbook example of a biased news story.
If you were watching Fox News Channel, you saw the familiar roster of platinum pundettes and anchor androids reciting the same sound bites: criticizing Fox was Obama's version of Nixon's enemies list, the rest of the news media are in Obama's corner, Obama should get back to governing, Fox opinion shows are different from its news shows, it's always dumb to go after the press. On The O'Reilly Factor on Oct. 13, the evanescent Alan Colmes, the network's weak, battered house liberal, mumbled semi-agreement while "Doctor" Monica Crowley and Bill O'Reilly lit up the scoreboard with the familiar talking points.
Any news organization that took its responsibilities seriously would take pains to cover presidential criticism fairly. It would regard doing so as itself a test of integrity and take pains not to load the dice in its own favor. At any other network, accusation of bias might even lead to some soul-searching and behavioral adjustment. At Fox, by contrast, complaints of unfairness prompt only hoots of derision and demands for "evidence" and "proof," which when presented is brushed off and ignored.
There is no longer any need to get bogged down in this phony debate, which itself constitutes an abuse of the fair-mindedness of the rest of the media. One glance at Fox's Web site or five minutes randomly viewing the channel at any hour of the day demonstrates its all-pervasive political slant. The lefty documentary Outfoxed spent a lot of time mustering evidence about Fox managers sending down orders to reporters to take the Republican side. But after 13 years working for Roger Ailes, Fox employees don't need to be told to help the right any more than fish need a memo telling them to swim.
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.