It seems wrong somehow for the Obama administration to notice a certain ideological editorial bias on the part of one of the country's news networks. Any implication that opposition media might be treated differently from those that don't dissent so much goes against the American grain and, worse, tends to confirm the supermarket-tabloid level suspicion that the President has a Nixon-style "enemies list." Fox News itself no doubt welcomes the recognition while it denies the charge, and it will certainly confirm the paranoid impulses of some of their talkers. In some eyes, to be identified as opposition media is to be targeted for censorship. The talkers have long feared a revival of the Fairness Doctrine as an instrument of suppression, and some also claim to dread a Venezuela-style denial of routine license renewal as a means of driving opposition opinion off the ether. If the Democrats at all think that this discussion might make Fox change its ways, they're terribly mistaken. It will more likely intensify the network's alarmist tendencies while allowing its talkers to portray themselves as brave dissidents against the great and powerful government.
Before television, Americans took the partisanship of news media for granted. They knew that a Hearst paper or Time magazine would have a Republican or conservative bias, while certain other papers or journals were known to go the other way. But apart from Edward R. Murrow, television news aimed for an objectivity that took the simple negative form of not endorsing candidates for office or otherwise editorializing on issues of the day. Whether there ever can be such a thing as political objectivity is debatable, of course, and TV news's objectivity inevitably took the form of a kind of consensus that in time seemed more obviously to exclude newer viewpoints from Goldwater-style conservatism to hippie radicalism. As Goldwaterism evolved into Reaganism, yet failed to pervade the news media, Reaganites and their successors finally decided that the news networks were not objective, but biased against the entrepreneurial-conservative viewpoint. At the same time, though less loudly, progressives denounced the same media entities as "corporate media" that excluded viewpoints critical of aspects of capitalism. Reaganite efforts to create alternate media, from the Washington Times to talk radio to Fox News, finally provoked a reaction in the turn of MSNBC into a Democratic-progressive vehicle, so that now television news looks pretty much like newspapers did in the 20th century. If anything, we may be heading back to the 19th century, when there were papers known to everyone as mouthpieces not merely for parties but for the administration itself. And some people may want to go all the way back to the 18th century, when partisan papers were sometimes seen as dangerous or even subversive instruments of faction: unprincipled, self-interested or foreign-subsidized opposition.
There is a hostility toward Fox News among Democrats that exceeds, in my view, the critique of "liberal bias" that led to Fox's invention. Fox fans might call it simple resentment of whatever success Fox has enjoyed in persuading people, though I doubt they do more than preach to the converted. The perception that Fox has actually converted people probably does fuel Democratic hostility, but so does a belief that TV, despite the hallowed example of Murrow, has some public obligation to objectivity that newspapers never shared. By "Democratic," in this case, I mean those left-centrists who don't accept the "corporate media" charge of critics further to the left. The assumption that conservatism, however defined, exalts private over public interests may also contribute to the notion that Fox and other conservative media are somehow-illegitimate factions rather than legitimate participants in the national discussion. Whatever the reason, the Reaganite determination to challenge a (to them) outdated consensus, to contest premises formerly taken for granted across the board, certainly rankles intellectually complacent liberals who would rather not hear the challenges than have to answer them. By comparison, the emergence of MSNBC is a healthy development to the extent that it represents a critical engagement with Reaganism, even if MSNBC and Fox together may appear to take TV discourse to a new low level of insult and paranoia. The consensus objectivity of the past was exclusionary (and the American Bipolarchy itself is a creature of consensus), and the more media reject the idea that an obsolete objectivity should prevail, the more people may be emboldened to demand time or a channel for their own viewpoints rather than expect the news establishment to speak for them. The thing to be avoided is a new quasi-consensus based on the assumption that Fox, MSNBC and CNN (presumably representing the center) together represent all the political possibilities available to Americans. But for the moment the thing really to be avoided is the self-righteous assumption that there's something wrong with Fox News having a viewpoint of its own, even if you think that viewpoint is wrong.