ALEXANDRIA, La. (BP)–Whatever you may think about the mainstream media in general and the major television news outlets in particular, it is clear they are in solidarity when it comes to the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. And that is a good thing.
On Oct. 22, White House officials tried to bar Fox News White House correspondent Major Garrett from a press pool event. The administration was making Executive Pay Czar Kenneth Feinberg available for interviews, and Fox was told that while other members of the pool would have access to Feinberg, it would not be allowed to participate.
The White House press pool is a five network rotation that shares the cost and responsibility for providing daily coverage of the presidency. It has been in place for decades and Fox News has been a member since 1997.
When the four other members of the pool — ABC, NBC, CBS and CNN — were apprised of the Administration’s decision to bar Fox News, they told the White House that if Fox was not allowed to participate then none of them would participate in the event. The interviews all were to use the same camera crews.
Faced with a potential boycott by all the members of the press pool, the White House relented and Fox News was allowed to participate. In recent days the White House has made it clear that is does not appreciate or respect the editorial content that airs on Fox News, going so far as to say it is not a legitimate news organization.
While the White House is certainly entitled to its opinion concerning Fox News, it is not entitled to selectively apply the Constitution — especially the freedom of the press. “The First Amendment is often inconvenient,” someone once said. “But that is beside the point. Inconvenience does not absolve the government of its obligation to tolerate speech.”
Most news organizations, whether print or electronic, present two major type of content. One type is news and the other is editorial or opinion content.
News content should be, in the words of one of Fox’s catch-phrases, “fair and balanced.” Editorial content is likely going to be slanted toward the bias of the publisher. That said, some news organizations sometimes even carry editorial content that dissents from their particular bias.
The news content reports the who, what, where, when, why and how of a situation or event. The editorial content focuses on debate and discussion. News content is about facts; editorial content is about judgment, criticism and sometimes speculation.
Of the five networks that make up the White House press pool, Fox News has by far the most conservative editorial content. As a result, the White House is under constant scrutiny and criticism by the hosts of editorial programs like Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity and Glen Beck. On the news front, Fox News tries as hard has any news organization to report the facts of every situation or event, seeking to live up to another of its catch phrases, “We report, you decide.”
It appears that the White House simply does not like the treatment it receives from the editorial watchdogs at Fox News. I can sympathize. Who wants to be constantly questioned and criticized? However, public scrutiny is part of the price one must pay as an elected official in the United States.
America’s Founders understood that good government is possible only when leaders are held to account for their decisions. Accountability is only possible when citizens are kept informed of the government’s activity. And the primary reporter of government performance is the press.
Leadership that is unwilling to be accountable, face tough questions and endure criticism is leadership that cannot be trusted. America’s Founding Fathers understood this well. Hence, with the First Amendment they ensured that the press would be free to report and editorialize on the actions of the government.
The Constitution is the foundation of not only our liberties, also our democratic republic.
“This democracy, we know this, only works with a free and unfettered press to provide information,” Baltimore Sun television critic David Zurawik said in commenting on the Fox News controversy.
Our Founders would agree with Zurawik’s statement. More importantly for us, by refusing to allow the White House to exclude Fox News from a press pool event, the major news networks of our day have shown that they, too, agree.
ABC, NBC, CBS and CNN all deserve kudos for taking a strong and principled stand in favor of the First Amendment of the Constitution.
Kelly Boggs is a weekly columnist for Baptist Press and editor of the Baptist Message (www.baptistmessage.com), newsjournal of the Louisiana Baptist Convention.