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Missing The Point In The Fox-White House Spat

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Ruth Marcus of the Washington Post has a remarkable column today about the White House's decision to ostracize Fox News. She's entirely right about this both being a waste of time and creepily reminiscent of the anti-media jihad waged by the Nixon-Agnew regime. I've already said as much, as have others. But what's remarkable about Marcus's piece is the depressing conventionality of its circle-the-wagons rationale, something I've grown accustomed to seeing whenever the mainstream media seeks to protect one of its own.

"Certainly Fox tends to report its news with a conservative slant -- but has anyone at the White House clicked over to MSNBC recently?" Marcus asks. "Or is the only problem opinion journalism that doesn't match its opinion?"

Pardon my sarong but is she for real? Why straddle the fence to project a phony objectivity when most regular Americans - the 99.9% who don't work at mainstream media outlets - can figure out when they're getting the story with a dash of opinion on the side. I don't believe the White House accomplishes much by keeping this story alive, but it's hard to take MSM bloviators seriously when they claim to be shocked - shocked - that someone is calling out Fox for being sympathetic to conservatives and the Republican Party.

Don't fret about the psychological repercussions on Rupert Murdoch and his minions at Fox. They're big boys and girls over there and they can take criticism. (Well, sometimes.) But after serving as a sounding board for the Bush administration's two terms, this may be the network's high water mark. Management must revel in being a White House target. Taking on the most powerful institution in the world - well, it doesn't get any better than that. Just the other night, in fact, Bill O'Reilly was triumphantly reporting on his show that the spat had done wonders for Fox's ratings. Wolf Blitzer can be excused for banging his head against the wall in frustration.

Give it up for Roger Ailes. Fox' programming guru has come up with a winning formula and viewers have embraced the porous division between the network's "opinion" shows and Fox's "straight news" programming. (Check out Steve Benen's post for more about this.) Unfortunately, I spend too many hours watching cable news - Fox, in particular - and it's all too easy to spot when things become less than fair and balanced. Some anchors slant their questions, others crinkle their little noses in disgust while a few have mastered the air quotes thang to express astonishment at the dumb and clueless ACORN-loving politicians and czars surrounding the Liberal-in-Chief. (Megyn Kelly is my particular fave: she can do all three.)

Unfortunately for the White House, the decision to stir it up with Fox is boomeranging. Someone in power should have known it was only a matter of time before this would feed the mainstream media's martyrdom complex. Since everyone knows we're on the side of the angels, any institution of power that casts doubt on the journalistic pursuit of ultimate truth must, by definition, be in league with Satan. Witness this exchange earlier today during the daily press briefing between Robert Gibbs and ABC's Jake Tapper:

Tapper: It's escaped none of our notice that the White House has decided in the last few weeks to declare one of our sister organizations "not a news organization" and to tell the rest of us not to treat them like a news organization. Can you explain why it's appropriate for the White House to decide that a news organization is not one –

Gibbs: Jake, we render, we render an opinion based on some of their coverage and the fairness that, the fairness of that coverage.

Tapper: But that's a pretty sweeping declaration that they are "not a news organization." How are they any different from, say –

Gibbs: ABC -

Tapper: ABC. MSNBC. Univision. I mean how are they any different?
Gibbs: You and I should watch sometime around 9 o'clock tonight. Or 5 o'clock this afternoon.

Tapper: I'm not talking about their opinion programming or issues you have with certain reports. I'm talking about saying thousands of individuals who work for a media organization, do not work for a "news organization" -- why is that appropriate for the White House to say?

Gibbs: That's our opinion.

Let it go, Jake. To be sure, Gibbs and his confederates should man up and stop whining. They're only playing into Murdoch's hands. But if they want to describe Fox programming as being borderline partisan, there's ample evidence to prove the point. So be it if some quarters consider that to be blasphemous but the (MSM) boys on the bus should stop having a cow over nothing. (Leave the palpitations and phony outrage to the usual crowd. It's much more entertaining.)

There's a bigger issue and only Josh Marshall of TPM nails it. This is less about Fox News and MSNBC canceling each other out - a channel for the lefties and a channel for the right wingers - than it is about the quality of the material they generate.

"The more interesting question is whether and (I would say) how news organizations with strong editorial viewpoints can maintain the highest standards of journalistic integrity, fairness and reportorial excellence. That's a critical question for journalism today because in many ways that is the direction much if not all reportage is going. But it's a conversation Fox isn't even a part of except as the paradigmatic example of how it's not done."

Deal with it. Now, can we move on? Please.

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    Charles Cooper is an executive editor at CNET News. He has covered technology and business for more than 25 years, working at CBSNews.com, the Associated Press, Computer & Software News, Computer Shopper, PC Week, and ZDNet. E-mail Charlie.