Last December 10 was a big news day. U.S. Senate negotiators announced they had agreed to a compromise on health care reform, final preparations were being made for a global conference on climate change, President Obama accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, and new details emerged on five young American men who had been arrested in Pakistan on suspicion of plotting terror attacks. Not to mention that America was involved in two wars and was still in the throes of the worst recession in eighty years.
That night, the main news programs on the three cable news networks—CNN Tonight on CNN, Fox Report on Fox, and The Big Picture on MSNBC—all led with approximately five minutes of coverage of Obama, cutting between video of his acceptance speech and reports from on-the-ground reporters in Oslo. CNN and MSNBC also included on-air analysis of the speech by a variety of commentators. Fox had no such commentary on its news show, just a more-or-less straightforward report on the speech.
This might seem surprising, given the charges of bias leveled against Fox by members of the Obama administration. Charges, for example, like this from Anita Dunn, then the administration’s director of communications, speaking last October on Howard Kurtz’s CNN program, Reliable Sources:
The reality of it is that Fox News often operates almost as either the research arm or the communications arm of the Republican Party. And it is not ideological. . . . What I think is fair to say about Fox, and the way we view it, is that it is more of a wing of the Republican Party. . . . They’re widely viewed as a part of the Republican Party: take their talking points and put them on the air, take their opposition research and put it on the air. And that’s fine. But let’s not pretend they’re a news organization like CNN is.
Dunn’s strong talk set off a round of finger-pointing that hasn’t abated since. Her statement was attacked by political professionals for its form, and by Fox adherents for its content. The pols said the form of the complaint was too overt and thereby bad political tactics, somehow raising the news channel to equal standing with President Obama. The basic advice from this quarter was a president should never stoop to conquer.
Apart from the wisdom of the White House tactics, the content of the criticism was said, mainly by Fox, to be mistaken in that it failed to differentiate between Fox’s news programming and its opinion programming.
A close look at Fox’s operations seemed an obvious way to examine the claims and counter-claims. When I approached Fox to gain access to their studios and staff for a story about the nature of their news operations, I was told that if I wanted to do a piece on Fox, I should do a profile of Shepard Smith, their main news anchorman. I should be careful, they told me, to distinguish between Smith, a newsman, and their bevy of more notorious personalities—Bill O’Reilly, Neil Cavuto, Glenn Beck, and Greta Van Susteren*. They aren’t really news people, I was told; they are editorialists and ought to be analyzed as such. They are analogous, Fox suggested, to the editorial and op-ed opinion pages of newspapers, which ought not be confused with the straight news coverage.
The proposal to do a story on Smith was fair enough, but would not in any way address the central issue: Was Fox a political operation? I declined. A Smith profile would be a wonderful story for another time, I told Fox, but it wasn’t the story we felt relevant at the moment. That being the case, Fox “declined to participate” in my reporting, which is another way of saying I should go do something to myself and possibly the horse I rode in on, too.
I’ve been told worse, so I wasn’t offended, but this put the story in a bind. I had thought a reported story on how Fox assembles its daily programming would be useful. Doing a story on Fox without access and cooperation necessarily changes the nature of the story. So in lieu of talking to Fox, the main thing I did was let Fox talk to me. That is, I watched a lot of Fox News, and I must report the Fox spokeswoman was absolutely correct. Shepard Smith is an interesting guy. He is far and away the most charming personality on Fox. Not that this takes special effort. Generally speaking, Fox doesn’t do charm. O’Reilly, for all of his considerable talents, blew a fuse in his charm machine years ago, and it’s not clear Beck ever had one to blow. Let’s not even start on Sean Hannity and Cavuto.