So What If Fox Is Conservative?

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On Sunday, two of Barack Obama's top aides took shots at the Fox News Channel. Rahm Emanuel said it was "not a news organization," and David Axelrod said it was "not really a news station." The White House is shunning the network. When the president made the rounds of Sunday shows recently he ostentatiously skipped Fox. White House Communications Director Anita Dunn has called FNC "an arm of the Republican party." Over at Slate, my friend Jacob Weisberg has urged mainstream journalists to avoid appearing on Fox. I think both the White House and Weisberg are making a mistake.

I wouldn't argue that Fox is "fair and balanced." It's a conservative news outlet, and to argue that it's not is ludicrous. That said, there's obviously a spectrum of bias ranging from the straight-style reporting of a Major Garrett at the White House to the rantings of Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity, and some anchors are more Foxy than others. I like it when Media Matters for America calls Fox on its bias, although it's a little bit like calling Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for being anti-Israeli. I don't disagree that Fox News Channel is like the New York Post or The Weekly Standard, which was, until recently, another Rupert Murdoch property.

But for the White House to disengage from a media outlet of Fox's scope and breadth feels like a mistake to me. To do so, in such a pronounced way, seems small minded. Lots of Democrats and independents watch Fox. To disengage from them seems foolhardy. Maybe Axelrod thinks his open dissing of Fox will push the network to be more fair, but that seems foolish, too. Fox is what it is. The question is how to deal with it.

Democratic pols have to make the call on whether or not to appear on Fox, and lots of members of Congress have decided that it's worth the time to make their case even if they're not going to get a fair hearing. Wouldn't the White House be better off flooding Fox with its opinion rather than engaging in a fight with news outlet? My guess is that the Obama charm would work, and he was better off appearing on The O'Reilly Factor, which he did last year, than not.

As for reporters, are we enabling a bad animal by appearing on Fox? I'd appear on Fox and have many times. I'd do it again. It's a big audience, and while there's a range of bias, so what?  Anyone who thinks Fox has become fair and balanced because Mara Liasson of NPR--a friend of mine whom Weisberg singles out by name--appears regularly is delusional. Would the network be better off without her sane voice? Would viewers? 

I'm not a fan of slippery slope arguments, but where does the boycott Fox approach end? Skipping the Simpsons or the NFL because they're broadcast on the Fox network or not reading Harper Collins books or Beliefnet, also owned by a friend, because they're News Corp owned would seem extreme. I know no one is making this argument, but the logic of a boycott ought to extend to an entire conglomerate. If appearing on Fox News is a morally dubious act, why support any part of the company? Engagement has been the mantra of the Obama years. Talk to your enemies. If the White House can reach out to the Iranians and North Koreans, for gosh sakes, they can talk to Shepard Smith. As for me, I'll keep watching Rachel Maddow.

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Matthew Cooper is a managing editor (White House) for National Journal.

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