Bill Ketter, CNHI Senior Vice President
Washington has become a mad political war zone. Republicans and Democrats are responsible, tossing partisan grenades at each other on nearly every issue, including the role of the press in our democracy.
The situation is only getting worse as we celebrate Sunshine Week across America this week, a time to reflect on the value of open government and free speech to the public welfare — and the news media’s duty to ensure it.
The Democratic National Committee fired the latest salvo last week. It was so angry at the Fox News Network’s s snuggly relationship with President Trump it banned Fox from hosting any of the several debates planned for the throng of Democratic presidential candidates.
No moderating and questions from Chris Wallace, Bret Bair or Martha McCullum — respected journalists on the news side of Fox. In the mind of the DNC, they are guilty by association with the Trump cheerleaders on the opinion side represented mainly by Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson and Fox and Friends.
DNC Chairman Tom Perez said tight ties between Fox and the White House raised the issue of the network hosting a “fair and neutral debate.” He cited a recent story in the New Yorker magazine describing the close relationship as evidence of the network’s bias.
President Trump promptly tweeted he would consider retaliating by excluding the “fake news networks” from his general election debates with the chosen Democratic nominee for president. He didn’t name the networks but he often describes CNN, NBC and MSNBC as “fake news.”
In most instances, you might dismiss this as usual tit-for-tat politics.
Except it discards fairness and the intent of presidential debates, which is to allow Americans, regardless of ideology or party preference, access to questions from journalists of all stripes who report on the candidates’ past, where they stand on the issues of the day, and details of their agenda for the future.
The Democratic primary debates are particularly important this go-round because of the volume and the diverse views of the candidates seeking the party’s nomination. A baker’s dozen have already declared they are in the race and more are expected as the filing deadlines approach for next year’s primaries and caucuses.
Excluding Fox Network from the debates to sort out the candidates is a bad tactic. As is Trump’s threat to reciprocate against his least favorite networks in the general election debates. Both perpetuate the current hard political divide based on the notion you are either with us or against us.
This zero-sum game means millions of Americans will likely opt out of watching the debates because they are not hosted on their favorite network. The Democrats and Trump have made the debates a partisan conflict when it wasn’t necessary to do so. Debates should not be a crosspurposes issue. The national media, in the spirit of Sunshine Week, can help correct the problem. They can urge the Democratic National Committee to reverse its Fox Network decision in the same manner Washington journalists, including those from Fox, rallied in support of CNN correspondent Jim Acosta five months ago when Trump had his White House press credentials suspended.
This time, Fox is a victim of partisan policy gone off the rails.
Fox commentators are overly friendly to Trump, for sure. But their opinions do not define the journalists on the network’s news side just as the editorial page of a newspaper does not define the paper’s news staff.
Longtime Fox journalist Bret Bair defends the network’s news operation, saying it has a proven record of asking “tough but fair” questions in debates, town hall gatherings and on news programs that feature Republicans and Democrats.
Like Fox or not, the DNC might consider a basic principle of free speech coined by English writer Evelyn Beatrice Hall in her book about the friends of 17th century philosopher Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to death your right to say it.”