One of my favorite dialogues from one of my favorite plays, “Fiddler on the Roof,” has Tevye, the elderly font of wisdom in the village of Anatevka, Russia, trying to mediate a bitter dispute between neighbors.
He always tried to see things both ways — he often would say, “on the one hand,” and then he would say, “but on the other hand.”
So one day he hears one man’s argument against his neighbor’s conduct, and he says, “You’re right.” Then he hears the other man’s argument, and he says, “You’re right, too.” Both of them look at him, confused, and say, “Tevye, how can we both be right?”
And Tevye says, “You know, you are also right.”
I hate to seem as if I am punting, but I kind of feel like Tevye when asked whether the White House was justified in picking a fight with Fox News Channel or whether Fox is justified in protesting that the White House has gone too far.
On the one hand, I understand the Obama White House’s perspective. I worked in the Clinton White House from 1996 to 1998, and it was hard to remember a day when we didn’t feel angry at some news organization (including the New York Times and The Washington Post) for what we thought was over-hyped coverage of the latest purported “scandal,” which often turned out to be much ado about not much (as in Whitewater).
So I can understand why the Obama White House would be angry at Fox News Channel’s evening shows. Some of the hosts, such as Glenn Beck, and the guests attack the president personally at times, using over-the-top venom reminiscent of 1930s right-wing radio commentator, Father Charles Coughlin, who accused President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal of being socialist or worse. (Sound familiar?)
It is certainly fair game for the Obama White House to fight back against this type of extreme personal attack.
Nor was the White House’s public criticism of a news organization all that unprecedented. Didn’t President John Kennedy make a big public point about his cancellation of his subscription to the New York Herald Tribune because it was overly critical of his policies? (He quickly backtracked and “un-canceled” the subscription.)
And didn’t President George W. Bush’s aides frequently attack CBS News and the New York Times and favor Fox News with interviews and exclusives? As I recall, Vice President Dick Cheney frequently called Rush Limbaugh, not the liberal talk-show host Bill Press.
On the other hand, the White House failed to make the distinction between Fox’s evening “opinion” shows, which clearly have a conservative ideological slant, versus the “news” side of the organization, where there are outstanding, professional reporters such as Major Garrett, Carl Cameron, Shepherd Smith and Wendell Goler. The credibility of the White House’s critique of Fox would have been higher had its spokespersons clearly and repeatedly made this distinction.
On the other hand, it is also true that Fox’s news department sometimes exercises what appears to be partisan editorial judgments, such as its coverage of the conservative “tea parties,” which seemed overdone. Indeed, for Democrats watching, Fox News sometimes seemed as if was promoting the tea party rallies like an arm of the Republican National Committee, rather than covering them as a news organization.
On the other hand, conservatives feel the same way about liberal bias of most mainstream news organizations in their selection of what news to cover and what not. And if Fox was perceived as overplaying the tea parties, conservatives perceived that MSNBC, the New York Times and other mainstream media outlets underplayed or were slow to fully report the ACORN scandal.
So, if we are to be honest, what is “objective” or “legitimate” news coverage is often in the eye of the beholder, isn’t it?