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Exploring Tensions Between Presidents and the Media

October 19, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Jeffrey Brown speaks with media experts about the ongoing feud between the White House and Fox News channel.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And we take a closer look now with Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a research organization, and Jane Hall, a media professor at American University. She was, until recently, a contributor to a weekly media watch program on FOX News.

Welcome to both you.

Tom, you have been watching this relationship for a long time go from bad to worse. What’s going on? What do you see?

TOM ROSENSTIEL, director, Project for Excellence in Journalism: Well, this is not what without precedent. The Bush administration hit pretty hard against, of all things, The New York Times, particularly in the first term of the administration.

I think part of what’s going on here is a sincere feeling on the part of people — some people in the White House that FOX is — operates by a different M.O. than at least than CNN. And a part of it is that I think they want to peel away some of the people who watch FOX.

When they say that it’s an arm or a wing of the Republican Party, we have to remember that more than 30 percent of the American public now identifies themselves as independent.

And the Republican Party itself is not as big a magnet as it once was. And if you can peel some of those independent voters away from believing FOX and — and — and disparage FOX, that may have some political benefit for the White House, at a time when its numbers are dropping.

JEFFREY BROWN: Jane Hall, I referred to Michael Clemente at FOX claiming that the White House is confusing the opinion from the news division.

FOX has, though, defined itself and grown through these talk show hosts, correct?

JANE HALL, American University: Yes, it has.

And, you know, I was on “Bill O’Reilly” for a long time. I was on our media show for many years. I think that you do need to differentiate between Major Garrett, who is a White House reporter, and Chris Wallace, who has a Sunday show, and Glenn Beck and Hannity.

I think, personally, if I were advising the White House, that you call out Glenn Beck, I think reasonably, for saying Obama’s a racist, for saying Obama is going to take away your freedoms. I personally believe that’s dangerous talk, and they should be called out. He should be called out.

JEFFREY BROWN: That’s crossing the line, you’re saying?

JANE HALL: That, to my mind, crosses a line.

But I think Obama did himself good by going on “O’Reilly” before the election. I think that they — they also — I think Obama runs the risk, they run the risk of looking small, of looking as if they care that much.

And all it’s going to do is drive up the ratings for talk show hosts, because they have a cadre of people who believe what they’re saying. Glenn Beck has a strong cadre. So, when he does that whole shtick, that doesn’t help Obama. I don’t think it gets more independents. It only helps FOX News’ pundits drive up their ratings. I don’t think it accomplishes much.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, yet, Tom, you said there might be a reasonable sense at the White House that they have to do something.

TOM ROSENSTIEL: Well, their numbers are dropping. And you want to change the environment. You want to change the landscape.

You also have a situation where you have had a few stories that sort of had their origins or first got voice on FOX, the Van Jones story, where — in which a White House official ultimately had to step down, the ACORN story. And I think they wanted to try and put a stop to that.

The other thing here is that, you know, you have got various constituencies when you’re the White House that you’re trying to pummel and refs that you’re trying to work. The other media are one of them. Casual viewers of FOX are another one.

Presumably, part of their calculation is that the people who are die-hard fans of O’Reilly or Hannity are not going to be won over by the Obama White House, and you don’t need to worry about them.

Inside the media 'echo chamber'

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, can I stop you, though? The other media part, explain that a little better, a little bit more, because that's the echo chamber that we talk about a lot here.

Something may happen in one piece of the media world, and it could be that kind of coarse talk, but then it gets out.

TOM ROSENSTIEL: Yes.

Well, and part of that echo chamber are even journalists within FOX, who see themselves as part of what Jane describes as, you know, the other part of FOX, who, if they aspire to certain sorts of journalistic norms, you know, may not want to -- may want to distance themselves from some of the programming on FOX.

Now -- and you can have a subtle impact on folks like that. There is an echo chamber. I mean, the media are all in the same metaphorical room. And they all are influenced by the same messages.

You know, we have an old saying in the news business that you're only as good as the dumbest guy at the press conference because you're -- everyone is going to assume that you all asked that dumb question.

JANE HALL: You know...

JEFFREY BROWN: Go ahead, Jane.

JANE HALL: ... I think what else is going on is the bifurcation in the media.

MSNBC has financed itself as the anti-FOX. They have said, basically, we're going to have our hosts, Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow, we're going to have those hosts. They got into some dispute even within NBC about having their hosts be their news anchors to convention coverage.

This -- they have fashioned themselves, among their hosts, as: We're going to be the alternative. We're going to go after the people that we think are, you know, libeling Obama.

So -- and CNN is trying to play it, I think, down the middle. And we have got a climate today where opinion is what drives the news, much more than it used to. And, you know, Tom can speak historically to this. But we have a, I think a very unusual situation where it's -- there's not a lot of percentage, if you look at who gets the most attention, in doing just the facts, ma'am.

You know, that kind of journalism, I think, a lot of people value, but the ratings are driven by chair-throwing and by -- now we have one channel that is fashioning itself, at least among its pundits, one way, and another, another way. CNN is trying to play it straight.

FOX is having the highest ratings, I think, they have had in all the years that they have had by what they have been doing about Obama.

Role of opinion media

JEFFREY BROWN: So, does -- well, go ahead.

TOM ROSENSTIEL: Well, I was just going to say that that is not out of the ordinary. When a party is out of power, it's typical for the opinion media representing the disempowered to rise up.

I mean, The Nation benefited, in terms of circulation...

JEFFREY BROWN: The Nation magazine.

TOM ROSENSTIEL: The Nation magazine, a very liberal magazine, when Bush was in power. "The American Spectator," on the other hand, a very conservative magazine, really thrived when Bill Clinton was in office.

This is a somewhat new phenomenon, to have a cable channel or two cable channels decide that they're going to operate very much in that realm and sort of become the voice of the anger and the frustration and the outrage and the sense of impotence that the far ends of a party may feel when the other guys have all the toys.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, we just have a minute here.

Briefly, so, you thought that, in this case, the president should -- he shouldn't avoid FOX, right? He should...

JANE HALL: I think he shouldn't avoid FOX. I mean, I think he did well for himself on "O'Reilly."

I think you go back where you think you're going to get a fair shot on any of these networks. I think you run the risk -- just as when the White House said, send us those e-mails.

Remember? They had that whole thing. E-mail us e-mails you think are questionable.

I think you look weak if you -- you know, people are saying on that network, well, you can talk to -- you can't talk to us; how can you talk to the president of Iran?

It's too good a target. It's too fat a target.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. And do you see -- does history suggest there is an alternative to jawboning this...

TOM ROSENSTIEL: History suggests that, when you're the president, you can cut people off and turn them back on. The Bush administration did this with The New York Times and others.

No one is going to not talk to you if you're the president. You really have the -- you're in the catbird seat.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Tom Rosenstiel and Jane Hall, thanks very much.