Obama and the Freedom of the Press

History recalls, United States presidents –but Richard Nixon—have refrained from directly attacking specific media networks or particular journalists. Furthermore, it tells us presidential figures have followed a communications strategy that embraces protocol in its treatment to the press, regardless of the political leaning of the outlet in question.  At least, they have followed the non written rule of not placing themselves in evidence, when disliking the treatment they are getting from certain media.

As the old saying recites, it is never a good idea to pick a public fight with someone smaller than you are, as it diminishes you and elevates the opponent.  Well, this is exactly what President Barack Obama and some of his administration officials have been doing to tackle criticism and prevent others from following the trend. Not a smart but yet, a risky strategy.

The last two weeks have been extraordinarily intense in this regard. The White House has escalated its grievance about the FOX News Channel from a condemnation on the White House Web-site blog challenging the political orientation of FOX commentators, to the administration passing over Fox News in a recent round of Sunday morning interviews and to White House communications director Anita Dunn saying that Fox News is not really a news organization.

“The reality of it is that Fox News often operates almost as either the research arm or the communications arm of the Republican Party (…) Obviously he [the President] will go on Fox because he engages with ideological opponents and he has done that before. He will do it again. I can’t give you a date, but frankly, I can’t give you dates for anybody else right now.”

In response to Dunn’s remarks, Fox News senior vice president Michael Clemente said the following:

“An increasing number of viewers are relying on Fox News for both news and opinion, and the average news consumer can certainly distinguish between the A-section of the newspaper and the editorial page, which is what our programming represents.

So with all due respect to anyone who might still be confused about the difference between news reporting and vibrant opinion, my suggestion would be to talk about the stories and the facts rather than attack the messenger, which over time has never worked.”

But Obama seems pretty determined in his effort to persuade other news organizations to depart from the Fox News information leaning, as White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said on CNN that it is important “to not have the CNNs and the others in the world basically be led in following Fox,” while White House political chief David Axelrod appeared on ABC last Sunday, to reiterate that “[FOX] it’s not really news.”

Reactions have poured in to the extent that Sen. Lamar Alexander took to the Senate floor to urge president Obama and his aides to cease their attacks on White House critics; at the time he accused Obama of using Nixon-style tactics, as building an ‘enemies list.’  Alexander condemned the president’s tactic of going after political opponents and members of the media, as Rush Limbaugh, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Fox News commentators.

One of the latest attempts from the Obama administration to boycott Fox News happened just Thursday, when the Treasury Department tried to prevent this organization from interviewing the executive pay czar.  In an action of solidarity –perhaps colleague’s interests protection- ABC, CBS, CNN and NBC all refused to interview unless FOX was included; there it was the presidential pool standing up altogether for freedom of the press.

This was an outrageous and embarrassing Constitution violation attempt on behalf of the White House. To the First Amendment to be specific, only prevented –thankfully, to the fact that the whole press pool –despite ideologies- stuck to the principles and ethics of journalism. It was inspiring to see their love and respect for the profession, beyond the potential intimidation of the WH apparatus and power.

In the other hand, the truth is that it has taken a while the mainstream media -especially the self identified liberal media- to pick up on stories from FOX, or they’re simply reluctant to do so; as it was the case, for instance, of Van Jones or ACORN.

With the poll numbers being down, and critical problems accumulating, is understandable the Obama administration is under a lot of stress. However, the attempt to quarantine FOX is not a smart idea; both by principle and for practical reasons as FOX’s three nightly newscasts have about 20 million viewers and because, as per the PEW center, the network’s audience is composed by a very diverse crowd in the political spectrum, including conservatives, liberals and moderates.

Even liberal media has labeled the White House ‘hunt’ against FOX, ‘over the line.’ David Zurawik, Baltimore Sun’s TV Critic, expressed to media:

I think is outrageous that the White House that, that’s my first reaction; my second reaction is I am really cheered by the other members saying no, if Fox can’t be part of it, we won’t be part of it. What is really about to me is the executive branch of the government trying to tell the press how it should behave.”

Certainly, it is very hard to believe that living in a Democracy as the U.S.; president Obama is directing his efforts to depict opponents -including FOX, the only major conservative news outlet- as illegitimate. The option to social and political debate it’s indispensable for the sake and balance of any nation. What is happening in the U.S. is astonishing, as even in democracies of the so called third world as Mexico, people have become extremely critical of the performance of the government, participating vigorously in the public debate sustained off and through the mass media. In that sense, the case of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, would be the last we want to see in the Americas.

For the sake and the preservation of journalism, its media role should be understood as the watchdog of private, as well as public entities and officials, including its ability to denounce corruption and fraud when the occasion arises.

Fox News responds to Obama administration’s criticism (video)

The WH reasons for Fox veto

The very first major issue known to cause Obama’s irritation was the Reverend Jeremiah Wright controversy. Although the story originally broke on ABC, it was closely followed by FOX, raising the question of the type of association that the –then- presidential candidate, had with the preacher and his ideology; ideology of the same man Obama credits for the title of his book “The Audacity of Hope.”  Wright –just retired- gained notoriety by his frequent divisive statements made from the pulpit.  Within others, in his first sermon after the September 11 attacks, the reverend said that the U.S. had brought on the attacks “with its own terrorism;” making reference to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Then, the Bill Ayers controversy came along; the story was essentially covered by FOX as the only major network. It was very badly received by the White House.  Ayers, depicted as a ‘domestic terrorist,’ belonged to an anti-Vietnam War group that protested U.S. policies by bombing the Pentagon, U.S. Capitol and other government buildings; but despite his own confession when he wrote in his book Fugitive Days “I don’t regret setting bombs. I feel we didn’t do enough,” Ayers avoided prison when charges were dropped due to a lack of evidence. The president has always maintained he didn’t know Ayers.

The Ayers-Obama relationship became a news topic as details of the support given to his first run for the Illinois Senate and a small contribution to the 2001 Obama’s campaign, became public. Other information disclosed in the reports was that Ayers served simultaneously with Obama -between December 1999 and December 2002- on the board of a couple of nonprofit organizations, one of which (Chicago Annenberg Challenge,) was charged with doubtfully spending millions of dollars.

FOX also made a very meticulous follow up of the cabinet selection process, as several Obama administration nominees had failed to pay their taxes. Within them, former senator Tom Daschle, originally nominated to be health secretary but had to step down due political pressure for not paying about 128,000 dollars in back taxes plus some 12,000 in interest. Other prominent Obama’s nominees followed the trend, within them, a key piece for the new administration, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who admitted mistakes on past tax returns, but survived through Senate confirmation, despite his belated payment of $34,000 in due income taxes.

In early September, the Van Jones resignation as the White House environmental adviser was attributed to the pressure of some republicans, and to the extensive coverage that FOX provided to its viewers over the case. Van Jones faced accusations for his association with a Marxist leaning group, for past activism that has been considered as radical, including  signing a petition that placed the 9-11 attacks as a U.S. government conspiracy, permitted by Bush administration officials “as a pretext for war.”  Although Jones offered a public apology in consideration to the 9-11 victims’ relatives, he also said he wouldn’t spend precious time “defending or explaining my past.”

Another FOX exclusive broadcast –at the beginning mostly ignored by the rest of the media, was the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) prostitution’s corruption case. The story broke big when FOX aired the fourth of a series of amateur videos, showing an employee at the ACORN office in San Bernardino, California, responding to inquiries of a pair of freelancers posing as an underage female prostitute and as a male pimp, respectively, who requested help in setting up a child-prostitution ring.   The scandal provoked the firing of the employees involved, the opening of a criminal investigation and that many federal instances –including the U.S. Census Bureau and the Internal Revenue Service- decided to sever all ties with the ACORN organization.

During the FOX transmissions, mentions of the president’s ties to ACORN were singled out, particularly on its editorial-opinion formatted programs. Following the story, other media has also reported that Obama as a candidate praised his background as a “community organizer,” and other links were exposed, as the fact that the Obama campaign had paid more than $800,000 to an ACORN “offshoot” for “get out the vote” projects. In February 2008, the ACORN Political Action Committee endorsed Obama over Hillary Clinton, and Obama’s campaign Web site, Organizing for America, bragged of the candidate’s support for the group.  Within others, FOX had been also reporting about the biggest case of voter-registration fraud committed in Washington State by ACORN.

The case of the ‘safe schools’ czar Kevin Jennings reported by FOX is a polemic one.  The controversy arose when Jennings admitted that he “should have handled [the] situation differently” when he didn’t report a 15-year-old student who told him that he was involved in a sexual relationship with an older man he met in a bathroom. House Republicans accuse the school safety czar of neglecting “the sexual abuse of a child.”

Jennings has been also criticized for openly supporting a gay teaching agenda in public schools and for authoring the foreword for a book titled Queering Elementary Education, which argues for the teaching of sexual “identity” (what some say is “initiation”) to the children in the elementary education; and for admitting past drug use.  The controversy grew as a former FBI agent interviewed by FOX, has made very disturbing accusations about the North American Man/Boy Love Association, an organization praised by Jennings.  No other major media has followed the story, other than a few reports after 53 republicans demanded his firing.

Other FOX coverage that has irritated the White House includes several videos showing schoolchildren singing the praises , literally, of the president, which the network named as ‘indoctrination;’ and the White House Communication Director Anita Dunn’s video, where she is praising Communist and mass murderer Mao Tse Tung, as a role model.

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