- The Washington Times - Monday, October 26, 2009


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?

On the other hand, the White House clearly crossed a line and created a backlash even among Fox’s competitors when, late last week, it attempted to exclude a Fox reporter from participating in a shared “pool” interview with executive compensation czar Kenneth Feinberg. The result was a threat by all the other competitor TV news organizations to boycott the interview unless the decision to exclude Fox was reversed. (It quickly was.)

This sympathy generated for Fox as a result of the White House’s error reminded me of the famous sarcastic line from the movie about the Watergate scandal, “All the President’s Men.” Washington Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee told Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein when they misreported an accusation about H.R. Haldeman, President Nixon’s widely despised White House chief of staff: “You guys certainly did it: You found a way to create sympathy in this town for Haldeman.”

On the other hand, I also don’t quite understand the overheated reaction of Fox News hosts and guests to the criticisms by the Obama White House. They can dish it out pretty good; you would think they wouldn’t have such thin skin when they got some of their own medicine back.

Nor could I take seriously the criticism by Fox hosts and guests that President Obama chose to meet with liberal MSNBC talk-show hosts Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow, liberal New York Times columnist Frank Rich, and other liberal pundits. The hypocrisy is too laughable. There was certainly no criticism from Fox hosts when President Bush invited conservative talk-show hosts - including a leading Fox host - to meet in the Oval Office.

On the other hand, I question the wisdom of the White House’s decision to skip “Fox News Sunday” when the president went out to do all the other Sunday morning shows. Host Chris Wallace is a pro, and his show is a good platform with an influential, certain opinion-leader audience to help shape Monday morning headlines. (On the other hand, I did find Mr. Wallace’s interview of former President Clinton to be overly provocative and unfair; maybe that was a factor in the decision.)

Nor does it makes sense to me that the White House boycotts all of the Fox evening shows. Fox has by far the largest audience in the evenings - larger than MSNBC and CNN combined. The demographics show that the Fox audience contains substantial numbers of Democrats and independents.

I see no advantage in not trying to speak to this audience. Most of them are what pollsters call “persuadables.” I am a liberal Democrat and a strong supporter of Mr. Obama and his policies on these shows. When I choose to accept an invitation to be on Fox (I was briefly a paid Fox contributor during both conventions, but now appear as a volunteer), I am always given a chance to present my point of view. I hope I am persuading those watching who have open minds.

It is a fact that at least the Olbermann and Maddow shows on MSNBC are not only openly liberal and pro-Obama (which is fine with me), but unfortunately, they rarely if ever invite conservative Republicans on to present an opposing viewpoint. Even I don’t get invited onto Mr. Olbermann’s and Ms. Maddow’s shows, although I agree with their views 90 percent of the time and Mr. Olbermann is an old friend from Clinton Wars days.

On the other hand, unlike the aberrant slice of the American population who live and breathe politics 24/7 and thus watch cable TV political shows in the morning, at night and sometimes all day (such as your truly - I know, I am pathetic), I am guessing most Americans think this whole battle of the White House vs. Fox is irrelevant to their daily lives and to what they really care about - irrelevant to health care, unemployment, record deficits and public debt, the threat of global warming, two wars, the frightening danger of another terrorist attack, and the potential of Iran’s radical mullahs possessing a nuclear weapon.

These are just a few issues that most normal people think are far more important than the White House’s anger toward Fox, and Fox’s anger at the White House’s anger.

On the other hand …

There is no other hand.

• Lanny J. Davis, a Washington lawyer and former special counsel to President Clinton, served as a member of President George W. Bush’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board. He is the author of “Scandal: How ‘Gotcha’ Politics is Destroying America.” This piece is also published at https://pundits.thehill.com/ author/lanny-davis.

• Lanny Davis can be reached at .

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