Assuming good faith and Obama’s Fox problem

How could you question this man's journalistic integrity?

How could you question this man's journalistic integrity?

Let us not forget, for even one moment when we’ve just eaten a healthy breakfast and we’re sitting in a sunbeam or whatever, that the slogan of Fox News is “Fair and Balanced.” They host Michelle Malkin, who called Obama’s Nobel Prize an “act of global affirmative action;” they warned the nation that the President’s address to schoolchildren was an “indoctrination plan;” they covered Obama’s speech to the Congressional Black Caucus with this headline. And they’ve got this guy at right, who can be most charitably described as dressed in a brown shirt, plus Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Karl Rove and a legion of other convicted vampires, all of whom insist that they are reporting the truth, as it really exists, fair and balanced. Obviously, they aren’t. Presumably they know that, and the Obama administration knows that they know that, which creates an interesting dynamic. Fox News gets to put reporters in the White House press room just like the Washington Post does. Robert Gibbs has to call on Griff Jenkins periodically, and respond to whatever insane [sugar] comes out of his wriggling [cake] hole, and the two of them have to smile and pretend that they are not actively trying to destroy each other at all times. Fox News has a higher ratings share than CNN and MSNBC; they call themselves a news organization, and the White House has to treat them like a news organization. To borrow a phrase from Wikipedia, the Obama administration has to Assume Good Faith—even though they know good faith is nowhere near being offered to them—and that creates an interesting problem.

The New York Times discusses that problem today, in an article that itself illuminates the difficulty inherent in Assuming Good Faith. It discusses the increasing hostility between the Obama administration and Fox News, quotes a Fox executive saying that the White House should focus its energy on issues rather than political attacks, and tells us that the first year of Obama’s presidency has been the network’s highest-rated ever.  The lead goes like this: “Attacking the news media is a time-honored White House tactic but to an unusual degree, the Obama administration has narrowed its sights to one specific organization, the Fox News Channel, calling it, in essence, part of the political opposition.”

What’s missing is the generally acknowledged fact that Fox News is part of the political opposition. The Times doesn’t mention it because such value judgments are acts of opinion, and the Times doesn’t put opinion in its news reporting. As a result, the first sentence of the article boils down to “The Obama administration [attacks] the Fox News Channel to an unusual degree.” It Assumes Good Faith on the part of Fox News, which is an explicitly news-gathering organization, and political intent on the part of the Obama team, which is an explicitly political organization. While the article subsequently acknowledges that Fox News is perceived to have a conservative bent, it is forced by journalistic integrity to ascribe this view to “most Democrats,” making the channel’s evident bias a matter of political opinion. Ironically, the Times’s commitment to being fair and balanced forces them to endorse Fox’s claim to same.

Here we see the problem of Assuming Good Faith: in addition to giving enormous power to those who are willing to engage in acts of bad faith, it forces those who would otherwise be good to commit an acts of bad faith themselves. Brian Stelter, who wrote the Times piece, probably doesn’t believe that Fox News Channel is an objective media organization dedicated to presenting a truthful and judgment-free portrait of the Obama administration to the American people. He ain’t stupid. He is, however, writing for the news section of his paper, and if he doesn’t excise every opinionated sentence from his own story, his editor will. The result is a report about the White House’s ongoing war against Fox News, which routinely broadcasts images of our first black President dressed as Adolf Hitler. While that second aspect of the story is implicit to anyone who has access to a television or the internet, anyone with a vested interest can simply ignore it.

Anyone like, for example, Fox News. Their response to the Times story takes full advantage of Stelter’s obligation to Assume Good Faith, rerunning a spun version of his piece under the headline, “White House Escalates War of Words With Fox News.” In a news report that quotes the reporting agency’s own vice president—who asserts that his company maintains a clear distinction between opinion and news—Fox describes a “White House offensive against Fox” that persists “even as observers questioned the wisdom of a White House war on a news organization.” Those “observers” who are not directly in the employ of News Corp are, for the most part, paid Fox News commentators. Clearly, there is a difference between this sort of Fair and Balanced reporting and the sort practiced by the New York Times, but as soon as you point it out, you’re offering an opinion.

Fox News enjoys, therefore, the sociopath’s advantage. They are willing to do what other news organizations are not, including but not limited to demanding that they be treated as a news organization when they evidently aren’t. Their behavior puts the rest of us in the same position as bystanders at the robbery of a chainsaw store: we can stop them, but only if we’re willing to do something gross. If we insist on maintaining our own decency and continuing to Assume Good Faith, we remain at their mercy. If we go on the offensive, as the White House has, we sacrifice the values that make us better than them in the first place.

Normally the solution to such problems is individual conscience. It seems possible that at this time, in certain segments of the conservative media, individual conscience has broken down. So what do good, principled people do when confronted with not good, unprincipled opponents? Assuming we are unable to locate Mad Max, our first step is to remember that our principles are what help us figure out how to be good in the first place, and they shouldn’t be sacrificed even for righteous reasons. Our second step may be to stop Assuming Good Faith, since an objective analysis of that assumption increasingly reveals it to be false. To insist that it obtains, even in the face of overwhelming evidence, is to commit an act of bad faith ourselves.

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