Should Fox "News" have a seat at the table?
Last week, the Democratic National Committee, citing a recent story in The New Yorker that painted the network as a propaganda machine for the Republican Party and its lamentable leader, said No. It pointedly disinvited Fox from hosting any of the forthcoming Democratic primary debates.
That decision raised howls of protest from some observers. NBC's Jonathan Allen tweeted that if Democrats boycott Fox, maybe it's because they "don't have good answers." Jack Shafer of Politico wrote that, "Any politician who can't hold his own against a journalist from the other team should be disqualified from running." And CNN's Anderson Cooper said the decision "seems shortsighted."
But all this hand-wringing is precious, if not downright naive, because this one isn't even close. In being banned by the DNC, Fox is getting what Fox deserves. And here, let us stipulate two things:
The first is that the DNC's critics are right in calling the party disingenuous for tying its decision to The New Yorker piece. Though the story supplied new color and detail, it told us little we didn't already know about Fox's incestuous relationship with the GOP and Donald Trump. Indeed, it's worth noting that Fox actually hasn't been allowed to host a Democratic debate in more than 15 years.
The second stipulation is that the critics are also right in pointing out that Fox does have some talented, tough-minded journalists, Shepard Smith and Chris Wallace prominent among them.
But those two rights don't make a wrong. And to pretend the DNC's disingenuousness or Smith's journalistic credibility are mitigating factors here is to miss the point. Namely, that Fox does not deserve to be treated as a legitimate news organization because it violates journalistic norms on a daily, almost hourly, basis.
Real news organizations frown on their reporters or pundits being cozy with political leaders. Fox doesn't. They do not allow themselves to be used as platforms for racists, misogynists and cranks. Fox does. And no real news organization would ever -- as The New Yorker story alleges (and Fox denies) -- kill a scoop because it embarrassed a candidate.
No, Fox is not -- as CNN's Rick Santorum argued -- simply the conservative analog to left-leaning MSNBC. How many times has that network's Rachel Maddow campaigned with a president, as Sean Hannity did in November? The answer is, she hasn't. You see, MSNBC, for all its liberal tilt, is a news organization. Fox is a propaganda machine that pretends to be a news organization when that suits its purposes.
Yet these critics are implicitly asking the DNC -- and, by extension, us -- to forget all that, to legitimize and normalize Fox and to ignore what a bizarre outlier, what a clear and present danger it is. To which, the only patriotic answer is: No.
That answer is given advisedly. Every day that passes only proves again how prescient Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson was 10 years ago when he wrote of Americans as a people undergoing "a kind of spiritual secession from one another." To deny Fox, viewed by millions of mistaken Americans as a journalistic enterprise, the right to render this prestigious service to democracy can only exacerbate that sense of secession.
But the alternative is to pretend the network is what it is not, to give it an imprimatur of respectability it manifestly does not deserve. So the DNC is right. And if Fox wishes to be treated like a legitimate news organization, its mandate is simple.
Act like one.