No Access? No Problem!

What's so bad about not having access to the White House?

The Obama administration’s high-profile shunning of Fox News seems, at least in the short run, to have been a publicity boon for the conservative cable network. Other news outlets—in print, online, and on air—have grabbed on to the issue, devoting column inches and airtime to Fox’s standing with the White House. And Fox, never shy about becoming part of the story, has jumped in with both feet: not just infotainment purveyor Glenn Beck, who was busy doing his Beckian best (worst?) with the topic Monday evening, but also serious journalist Chris Wallace, who devoted a thirteen-minute segment of the latest Fox News Sunday to his inability to book administration officials on the show.

But if Wallace tires of self-pity—and expands his Rolodex beyond the likes of Terry McAuliffe and Karl Rove, his guests for the aforementioned segment—he might find that his apparent predicament is actually a stroke of good fortune, and one that could have real journalistic benefits. That’s because getting the evil eye from the White House frees him from the D.C. access game, and the peculiar passive-aggressive relationship it often fosters between journalists and people in power. It also gives him an opportunity to do something radical with his show: invite on interesting people who have interesting things to say.

As a rough sketch, these are the rules that govern Sunday morning: the shows compete to get the biggest “newsmakers” they can, then do their best to catch them in a gaffe. That’s a formula that turns political reporting into political theater (starring, of course, the shows’ hosts). Worse, most of the time, the theater is deadly dull. Gaffes are rare, and message discipline is tight—top government officials having, in most cases, learned how to speak on camera on their way to becoming top government officials. What we are left with, then, is politicians saying things they’ve said before and will say again.

Consider the episode that first called attention the Fox/White House feud: Barack Obama’s tour of five talk shows in one Sunday morning, from which Fox News Sunday was pointedly left out. A mere month later, does anyone remember anything that Obama said? Even at the time, what attracted attention was the stamina required to pull off something akin to “the full Ginsburg,” and the fact that Fox was excluded. The president’s actual words? Not so much.

Sometimes, of course, a modicum of news is made on the Sunday shows. That was the case this past weekend, when Rahm Emanuel appeared on CBS and CNN, where he said that the U.S. would postpone a decision on sending more troops to Afghanistan until the political situation there is resolved. And in a case like that, the role of the shows in bringing that news to light amounts to… turning on the lights and the cameras. The White House had a message that it wanted to get out to the American people and the Afghan government, and it used CNN and CBS to do so. That’s a victory of sorts for those stations, but if Emanuel had opted for ABC and NBC—or, for that matter, Fox—would anyone have noticed a difference?

The fun—and the value—in being a journalist is not being the first to tell people something they would have known anyway. It’s giving people facts, information, and ways of seeing the world that they wouldn’t have otherwise had. If your outlet is a television talk show, one way to do that is not by competing for the same guests as a half-dozen other shows, but by identifying interesting people who wouldn’t normally have a platform. Being cut off from the usual suspects, rather than being a punishment, could actually be a prod in the right direction—one that Fox, if it were serious about living up to its self-presentation as a corrective to the “mainstream media,” would be well-poised to follow. This could, in theory, be an opportunity to not just present the predictable “conservative” slant, but to step off the access train and really find alternative voices and sources of news.

Now, I don’t actually expect Fox—even the “hard news” programs, as distinct from the Beck/Hannity crowd—to turn its excommunication to journalistic advantage. In a move that will surprise none of its critics, the network seems to have decided—probably correctly—that the biggest ratings gains are to be found by calling as much attention to this feud as possible. And even without White House access, there are plenty of familiar faces and conventional-wisdom suppliers that the network can call upon: see the roster of CEOs, senators and other establishment-types that have warmed the chair in Wallace’s studio of the past month. Still, here’s hoping that one day, someone among the talking heads and their bookers will look beyond the denizens of the halls of power (and, for that matter, the perpetual punditocracy) who now rotate through the Sunday shows.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.