Thomas Frank: Obama Is Right About Fox News

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Thomas Frank founded The Baffler magazine in 1988, and he edits it to this day. He has a PhD in American History (U. of Chicago 1994) and is the author of four books, all of them having to do with the cultural inversions of our times: The Conquest of Cool (1997), One Market Under God (2000) and What's the Matter With Kansas? (2004). His book about conservative governance, The Wrecking Crew, was published in 2008.]

Journalism has a special, hallowed place for stories of its practitioners' persecution. There is no higher claim to journalistic integrity than going to jail to protect a source. And the Newseum in Washington, D.C., establishes the profession's legitimacy with a memorial to fallen scribes, thus drawing an implicit connection between the murdered abolitionist editors of long ago and the struggling outfit that gave you this morning's page-one story about cute pets in Halloween costumes.

But no journalistic operation is better prepared to sing the tragedy of its own martyrdom than Fox News. To all the usual journalistic instincts it adds its grand narrative of Middle America's disrespectful treatment by the liberal elite. Persecution fantasy is Fox News's lifeblood; give it the faintest whiff of the real thing and look out for a gale-force hissy fit.

As the Obama administration has discovered by now. A few weeks ago, after Fox had scored a number of points against administration figures and policies, administration spokesmen decided it was time to start fighting back. Communications Director Anita Dunn called the network "a wing of the Republican Party," while Obama himself reportedly dismissed it for following "a talk radio format."

The network's moaners swung instantly into self-pitying action likening the administration's combative attitude to Richard Nixon's famous "enemies list."

They should remember that it wasn't just the keeping of a list that made Nixon's hostility to the media remarkable. Nearly every president—and probably just about every politician—has criticized the press at some point or other. What made the Nixon administration stand out is that it also sued the New York Times to keep that paper from publishing the Pentagon Papers. It schemed to ruin the Washington Post financially by challenging the broadcast licenses for the TV stations it owned. It bugged the office of Joseph Kraft, a prominent newspaper columnist. One of its most notorious henchmen was G. Gordon Liddy, who tells us in his autobiography that under certain conditions he was "willing to obey an order to kill [columnist] Jack Anderson."

It is interesting to note that Mr. Liddy, that friend of the First Amendment, appeared frequently in 2006 on none other than the Fox News network. In fact, the network sometimes seems like a grand electronic homage to the Nixonian spirit: Its constant attacks on the "elite media," for example, might well have been inspired by the famous pronouncements on TV news's liberal bias made by Mr. Nixon's vice president, Spiro Agnew.

And, of course, the network's chairman, Roger Ailes, was an adviser to Mr. Nixon in the 1968 presidential campaign; his signature innovation back then was TV commercials in which Mr. Nixon answered questions from hand-picked citizens in a town-hall style setting...

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