Media Critic In Chief

Obama on FOX and objectivity

President Obama used his interview with Rolling Stone to open a new offensive in the White House’s verbal war with Fox News. But he also seemed to be making a more subtle—and more interesting—point.

Said the president:

The golden age of an objective press was a pretty narrow span of time in our history. Before that, you had folks like Hearst who used their newspapers very intentionally to promote their viewpoints. I think Fox is part of that tradition. It is part of the tradition that has a very clear, undeniable point of view. It’s a point of view that I disagree with. It’s a point of view that I think is ultimately destructive for the long-term growth of a country that has a vibrant middle class and is competitive in the world. But as an economic enterprise, it’s been wildly successful. And I suspect that if you ask Mr. Murdoch what his number-one concern is, it’s that Fox is very successful.

Leave aside for a moment Obama’s criticism of Fox News’s point of view as “destructive.” What caught our eye was the president’s correct assessment that the “objective” model of journalism is a relatively recent development, and that we’ve had an unapologetically opinionated press before. In other words, there’s nothing fixed and inviolable about the “objective” model—a model that, as we’ve argued, has some major limitations. And despite the hand-wringing about media bias, the recent breakdown of strict objectivity in some corners of the media (not just Fox, but also MSNBC, and online outlets like The Huffington Post, Talking Points Memo, and Andrew Breitbart’s network of sites) isn’t so unprecedented or terrifying.

Indeed, the debate over Fox can muddle these issues more than it clarifies them. You can believe that Fox is a force for ill in the world, simply because it promotes an ideology you disagree with—indeed, liberals like Obama logically should believe this. But you can also believe—as Obama perhaps appears to—that there’s nothing inherently wrong with the idea of a media outlet having a point of view, and that such a model has deep roots in our history.

Of course, one could also argue that it’s fine for Fox to have an ideology, but that, by selecting only those facts that support its point of view and ignoring contradictory evidence, it often promotes that ideology in a fundamentally dishonest way that runs counter to the basic precepts of any journalism, objective or not. (UPDATE, 2:45pm: Case in point: In the same interview, Obama was asked what music he’d been listening to lately, and mentioned Bob Dylan, the Stones, Maria Callas, Nas, and Lil Wayne, prompting Fox News to declare: “President of the United States Loves Gangsta Rap.”)

Still, the larger point that Obama seems to be driving at remains: we’ve had an opinionated press before, we’re now moving that way again, and it doesn’t have to mean the destruction of the Republic. Whether we think that individual news outlets like Fox or MSNBC are beneficial or harmful will depend largely on whether or not we agree with their point of view.

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Zachary Roth is a contributing editor to The Washington Monthly. He also has written for The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, Slate, Salon, The Daily Beast, and Talking Points Memo, among other outlets.