Obama and Freedom of the Press

Over the last couple of weeks the Obama administration has been critical of Fox News, and has even gone so far as to attempt to exclude Fox News from participating in press conferences, and to encourage other media outlets to sever ties with Fox News because, according to Obama’s top political adviser, David Axelrod, Fox News is “not really a news station”, and other news organizations “ought not to treat them that way” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O-w7-G8PLyc).

These recent events raise some important questions:

  1. Is Fox News a legitimate news organization?
  2. Why is the White House upset with Fox News?
  3. Should the White House try to exclude Fox News?

Is Fox News a legitimate news organization?
To answer that question, first we have to decide what a legitimate news organization is. In an ideal world, news organizations would report the facts with zero bias. Unfortunately, that is not possible because every news reporter brings their biases into their stories, whether intentionally or not. The bias comes through in their decisions about what stories to cover, how much ink a story gets, their choice of vocabulary, who they choose to interview and what quotes to include or exclude, what video and photos to show or leave out, and what research they do or don’t do into the circumstances surrounding the news story. While there are certainly some news reporters who work harder than others to avoid bias, the idea that any reporter or collection of reporters can be unbiased is false.

So to claim that bias by Fox News means it is not a legitimate news organization is not a valid argument. If so, then there are no legitimate news organizations. For years conservative American’s have decried Fox News’ major competition, CNN, ABC, CBS and NBC, as being biased towards a liberal viewpoint. Independent research backs up the liberal bias claim.

During the 2008 presidential election campaign the Pew Research Center interviewed voters and asked them who they though most reporters want to see win. 70% of voters believed the media wanted Obama to win, while only 9% believed that the media wanted McCain to win. Only 8% said they didn’t think the media favored one or the other. This same poll has been conducted in prior election years, and every year more voters believe that the media as a whole is pulling more for the Democrat candidate than for the Republican candidate (http://pewresearch.org/pubs/1003/joe-the-plumber). According to these polls the voters have spoken: The media is biased toward Democrats/liberals.

According to Pew Research Center’s “The Project for Excellence in Journalism“, “The media coverage of the [2008] race for president has not so much cast Barack Obama in a favorable light as it has portrayed John McCain in a substantially negative one” (http://www.journalism.org/node/13307). Their studies show that overall news media coverage of the 2008 presidential campaign was biased toward Democrats, with 853 news stories covering Democrats versus only 535 for Republicans (38% less coverage), while 74% of coverage of Democrats was either positive (34.8%) or neutral, and only 66% of stories on Republican candidates were positive (26.2%) or neutral (http://www.journalism.org/sites/journalism.org/files/topline_0.pdf).

Specifically regarding 2008 election party bias by the three major cable news networks (CNN, FOX, MSNBC), The Project for Excellence in Journalism’s research shows that FOX News was no more biased toward Republicans than CNN and MSNBC were towards Democrats. Here is a chart of their results:

Cable Total
Democrat / Republican
Democrat / Republican
FOX News
Democrat / Republican
Democrat / Republican
Number of Stories 330 / 247 112 / 74 95 / 75 123 / 98
Positive 33.9 / 28.7 27.7 / 13.5 24.2 / 32.0 47.2 / 37.8
Neutral 40.6 / 40.9 49.1 / 45.9 38.9 / 46.7 34.1 / 32.7
Negative 25.5 / 30.4 23.2 / 40.5 36.8 / 21.3 18.7 / 29.6

source: http://www.journalism.org/sites/journalism.org/files/topline_0.pdf

Visits to the Fox News, CNN and MSNBC web sites show that all three have basically the same format. They have various news categories, including U.S., World, Business, Politics, Tech, etc. And they all have opinion sections and well known social and political commentators. CNN and MSNBC’s opinions tend to be liberal, while FOX News’ opinions tend to be conservative. Does that make FOX News less of a news organization than the others?

Why is the White House upset with FOX News?
The short answer is because FOX News isn’t making things easy for the Obama administration. FOX has the highest ratings among the cable news networks, and is reporting on various Obama initiatives from different angles than those taken by more liberal-leaning media establishments. Recently this is especially true in the area of health care reform / socialized medicine, which the Democrats want to pass as quickly as possible. More negative viewpoints and associated debate slow down the process, and could ultimately end up either stopping or altering the legislation.

The legislative process was designed by our Founding Fathers to be slow and deliberative in order to ensure adequate debate and to help prevent unnecessary and bad legislation. Shouldn’t the White House want the best possible policies and legislation? Wouldn’t a healthy public debate that covers all angles and represents all constituents help achieve that? Won’t rushed legislation have a higher likelihood of a bad outcome? Shouldn’t what the White House is doing be able to stand up to intense public scrutiny?

Thomas Jefferson said that “the man who fears no truths has nothing to fear from lies” (to George Logan, 1816).

Should the White House try to exclude Fox News?
Freedom of the press, or of the news media as we call it today, is a fundamental founding principal of the United States of America. The First Amendment of the United States Constitution states that no law shall be made that abridges freedom of the press. The Obama administration’s dispute with FOX News hasn’t involved legislation, so the White House isn’t violating the First Amendment, right? Maybe. Then again, maybe not.

Dictionary.com defines “law” as “any rule or injunction that must be obeyed”. It also says law is “the principles and regulations established in a community by some authority and applicable to its people, whether in the form of legislation or of custom and policies recognized and enforced by judicial decision” (http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/law). Strictly speaking, the White House is attempting to establish a rule or policy that excludes FOX News. So what’s the danger in that?

Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, proclaimed that “our liberty cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press, nor that be limited without danger of losing it” (Thomas Jefferson, 1786). He also wrote that “no experiment can be more interesting than that we are now trying, and which we trust will end in establishing the fact, that man may be governed by reason and truth. Our first object should therefore be, to leave open to him all the avenues to truth. The most effectual hitherto found, is the freedom of the press. It is, therefore, the first shut up by those who fear the investigation of their actions” (Thomas Jefferson to John Tyler, 1804).

Myriads of modern examples of government suppression of press freedom confirm Jefferson’s claims. There doesn’t exist a despotic government that doesn’t seek to, or already have, control over the media. China, Venezuela, Cuba, Russia; whether Communist or Totalitarian, a free media is a serious obstacle to government control, while, on the other hand, a puppet media, whether acting out of compulsion or fear of retribution, is a tool of tyrants.

Some specific recent examples:

In 2000, Russian media tycoon Vladimir Gusinsky was arrested and jailed on questionable charges. Gusinsky’s media organization had been critical of Putin and the Kremlin (http://www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/63/344.html).

In 2008, Chinese officials arrested and jailed journalist Hu Jia for “subverting state authority.” Hu’s specific “crime” was to use the internet to “expose the government’s acts of repression on those who defend human rights” (http://britt-towery.blogspot.com/2009/04/china-still-fears-free-press.html).

Earlier this year (2009), Sri Lanka activated a “press council” with the “authority to jail journalists … seen as critical of the Sri Lankan government” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2009/jun/24/press-freedom-sri-lanka).

Also this year, in Venezuela, Hugo Chavez shut down numerous radio stations. Venezuela’s Attorney General declared that “freedom of expression must be limited”, while Chavez claimed “we haven’t closed any radio stations, we’ve applied the law” (http://vivirlatino.com/2009/08/03/venezuelans-lose-more-media-outlets-as-chavez-takes-over-radio-stations.php). One has to wonder how the laws Chavez “applied” managed to make it onto the books. Perhaps they were rushed through their legislature without adequate debate or public scrutiny?

The Obama administration certainly isn’t the first presidential administration to be criticized by the media, and, we hope, for the sake of freedom, that it won’t be the last. The media has played a mean watchdog role since long before Obama. Thomas Jefferson himself was a frequent recipient of severe press criticism during his presidency, but he took it in stride:

Conscious that there was not a truth on earth which I feared should be known, I have lent myself willingly as the subject of a great experiment, which was to prove that an administration, conducting itself with integrity and common understanding, cannot be battered down even by the falsehoods of a licentious press, and consequently still less by the press as restrained within the legal and wholesome limits of truth. This experiment was wanting for the world to demonstrate the falsehood of the pretext that freedom of the press is incompatible with orderly government. I have never, therefore, even contradicted the thousands of calumnies so industriously propagated against myself. But the fact being once established, that the press is impotent when it abandons itself to falsehood, I leave to others to restore it to its strength by recalling it within the pale of truth. Within that, it is a noble institution, equally the friend of science and of civil liberty.
— Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Seymour, 1807, emphasis added

The Obama administration, rather than revile FOX News, should recognize that the media, including FOX News, play a vital role in the maintenance of civil liberty, and that if the media is engaged in falsehood, that so long as press freedom exists, false media will ultimately be impotent and exposed by others exercising that same freedom. In fact, “no government ought to be without censors, and where the press is free, no one ever will. If virtuous, it need not fear the fair operation of attack and defence. Nature has given to man no other means of sifting out the truth whether in religion, law or politics. I think it as honorable to the government neither to know nor notice its sycophants or censors, as it would be undignified and criminal to pamper the former and persecute the latter” (Thomas Jefferson to George Washington, 1792, emphasis added).

In conclusion, we offer Benjamin Franklin’s eloquent poem on freedom of the press:

While free from Force the Press remains,
Virtue and Freedom chear our Plains,
And Learning Largesses bestows,
And keeps unlicens’d open House.
We to the Nation’s publick Mart
Our Works of Wit, and Schemes of Art,
And philosophic Goods, this Way,
Like Water carriage, cheap convey.
This Tree which Knowledge so affords,
Inquisitors with flaming swords
From Lay-Approach with Zeal defend,
Lest their own Paradise should end.

The Press from her fecundous Womb
Brought forth the Arts of Greece and Rome;
Her offspring, skill’d in Logic War,
Truth’s Banner wav’d in open Air;
The Monster Superstition fled,
And hid in Shades in Gorgon Head;
And awless Pow’r, the long kept Field,
By Reason quell’d, was forc’d to yield.

This Nurse of Arts, and Freedom’s Fence,
To chain, is Treason against Sense:
And Liberty, thy thousand Tongues
None silence who design no Wrongs;
For those who use the Gag’s Restraint,
First Rob, before they stop Complaint.

Benjamin Franklin

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