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How Hard Should CBS News And Other Outlets Hit Back At Critics?

In today's New York Observer, Niall Stanage opines that the New York Times should respond to any and all critics. "Spokespeople for The Times and other comparable media outlets need to realize that no slur, no matter how crazed, can go unanswered in today's climate," he writes. "If that means offering interviewees to the shrillest talk shows, aggressively slapping down demagogic attacks and employing people solely to stomp on blog-inspired trash, so be it."

Traditionally, most news outlets, including CBS, have been fairly reserved when responding to critics, with one notable exception: Fox News. The Fox public relations department is not afraid to make uncommonly aggressive attacks against the network's enemies, a strategy that some in the industry believe can be traced to the personality of Fox News chief Roger Ailes. Yesterday, for example, Fox Spokesperson Irina Briganti offered this comment to reporter Bill Carter for his profile of frequent Bill O'Reilly critic Keith Olbermann (Not to be outdone, Olbermann subsequently named Briganti one of his worst people in the world last night):

"Because of his personal demons, Keith has imploded everywhere he's worked. From lashing out at co-workers to personally attacking Bill O'Reilly and all things Fox, it's obvious Keith is a train wreck waiting to happen. And like all train wrecks, people might tune in out of morbid curiosity, but they eventually tune out, as evidenced by Keith's recent ratings decline. In the meantime, we hope he enjoys his paranoid view from the bottom of the ratings ladder and wish him well on his inevitable trip to oblivion."
Most news organizations tend to offer up more restrained responses to their critics, or, sometimes, no response at all (though CNN has been known to get into it with Fox). "The CBS press office tries to do its job in as professional and respectful a manner as possible. Along those lines, we are not in the habit of attacking our competitors," CBS Spokesperson and Vice President Sandy Genelius told me. She says that the network deals with all criticisms "on a case by case basis."

It's a basic tenet of public relations that engaging a critic means giving that critic at least some degree of legitimacy, which is part of the reason that networks often decline to respond when attacked. Another is the sheer number of critics out there: "In this age of the proliferation of sources of information and experts – and I'd put experts in quotes – we'd probably have to triple our staff to respond to every single criticism," says Genelius.

There was a time when a high-minded essay in the Columbia Journalism Review was the harshest criticism a member of the media was likely to encounter, at least in print. Today, media criticism is easy to find on the blogs, and attacking the press has become both a political strategy and a cottage industry, in the form of groups like the Media Research Center, Accuracy In Media and Media Matters. In many ways, the rise of these outsider critics has been good for journalism, because they've brought more accountability to the profession.

The downside is that many of the critics can be inaccurate, unfair, or committed more to their ideology than true accountability. Profanity-laced rhetoric about the "Communist Broadcasting System" or allegations that the news division is taking orders from George W. Bush, for example, are not terribly helpful, to put it mildly. And ultimately such rhetoric can cause journalists to retreat into a bubble in which they resist engaging any and all criticisms. I've noticed that many journalists are quick to dismiss criticism from blogs, as well as partisan outfits like the Media Research Center, even before they've heard it, because what they have been exposed to previously has too often been a waste of their time. Is that the right response? Probably not. But it's understandable.

News outlets are now testing ways to engage critics who might in an earlier time have been dismissed without a second thought. Public Eye is one of those ways; The Times' public explanations for its actions are another. At a time when the press' credibility has been eroded by scandal, mockery, and political attacks, we are likely to see more.