Remembering Nixon

Comparisons of White House criticism of Fox News to Richard Nixon are preposterous -- and where were the allegations of Nixonian behavior when George W. Bush was spying on reporters?

The first year of Barack Obama's presidency has seen some absurd media memes, from nonexistent “death panels” to crazy birtherism. But for overall ahistorical (not to mention hysterical) audacity, it's tough to beat the past week's overheated comparisons of Barack Obama to Richard Nixon.

The Obama administration's purportedly “Nixonian” sin is its public criticism of Fox News, a cable channel that has repeatedly tied Obama to terrorists and compared him to Adolf Hitler. Having had enough, White House communications director Anita Dunn, press secretary Robert Gibbs, and others have said that Fox is less a news organization than a partisan political operation.*

Even if we stipulate for the sake of discussion that Fox is a news organization, that's tame stuff by the standards of previous White Houses. You'd be hard-pressed to find an administration that hasn't at times taken a more aggressive approach toward journalists. If you're thinking “Lincoln,” think again. Faced with complaints about his administration's censorship of the press in 1863, Lincoln responded, “I think when an office in any department finds that a newspaper is pursuing a course calculated to embarrass his operations and stir up sedition and tumult, he has the right to lay hands upon it and suppress it, but in no other case.”

And yet the Obama administration's criticism of Fox News -- criticism, not censorship or suppression of Fox's “reporting” -- was greeted with immediate howls of protest and allegations of Nixonian behavior.

Fox foot soldiers like Bill O'Reilly and Glenn Beck and right-wing bloggers like Instapundit led the way, of course, but that's to be expected. People who don't hesitate to compare Obama to Hitler and Mao Zedong cannot be expected to hesitate before comparing him to Nixon -- unless it is to consider whether such a comparison will be seen as a compliment, considering the source.

But Beck and O'Reilly were quickly joined by people who should know better. The Washington Post's Ruth Marcus wrote that the criticism of Fox “has a distinct Nixonian -- Agnewesque? -- aroma.” NPR's Ken Rudin said the criticism is “almost Nixonesque” -- and this was no throwaway comment; Rudin drew out the comparison for a full paragraph. (To his credit, Rudin apologized for the comments the next day, calling them “boneheaded.”) CNN's Anderson Cooper asked, "[D]oes the Obama White House have an enemies list?" and, "[D]o you see shades of Nixon here?" (Even Cooper's Republican guest, Kevin Madden, was unwilling to sign on to that premise.) Baltimore Sun TV critic David Zurawik wrote, “I have compared the current administration to the White House of Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew, and believe me, I did not do that lightly.”

The comparison is preposterous, as Salon's Joe Conason, Media Matters' Eric Boehlert, Washington Monthly's Steve Benen, and others have explained.

In short: The Nixon administration wiretapped journalists' phones and audited their taxes. G. Gordon Liddy and another Nixon henchman even plotted to murder Jack Anderson.** That's “murder” as in “kill.” And “kill” as in “dead.”

Meanwhile, Obama aides have publicly criticized Fox News for lying about their boss.

It is rather obvious that these are not the same things.

You know who would really be outraged by the comparison? Richard Nixon. If a Nixon aide had proposed dealing with a hostile entity like Fox News with a sternly worded public statement rather than a (literal) firebombing, he'd likely have been axed (with luck, figuratively) on the spot.

What makes the comparison of Obama and Nixon really astounding, however, is that the comparison wasn't made with President George W. Bush, whose administration engaged in warrantless domestic spying and other tactics that actually were reminiscent of Nixonian tactics.

In addition to spying on domestic environmental and poverty-relief organizations, Bush's FBI dug into reporters' phone records. Former National Security Agency analyst Russell Tice revealed that the NSA monitored the communications of “U.S. news organizations and reporters and journalists.” James Risen, the New York Times reporter who broke the warrantless wiretapping story, has said, “What I know for a fact is that the Bush administration got my phone records.” The statements from Tice and Risen went all but ignored by the media, as Eric Alterman explained earlier this year.

As far as I can tell, The Washington Post's Ruth Marcus has never compared the Bush administration's surveillance of journalists to the Nixon administration's surveillance of journalists -- she has never described anything Bush did as “Nixonian.” Neither has the Baltimore Sun's David Zurawik, who has repeatedly compared Obama to Nixon. Or NPR's Ken Rudin.

The Bush administration spied on journalists and who knows who else, and Marcus, Zurawik, and Rudin never once thought to note the similarities to Richard Nixon's surveillance of journalists and who knows who else. But Anita Dunn criticizes Fox News for lying, and all of a sudden, they think they're seeing the second coming of Chuck Colson and Gordon Liddy. The double standard and the lack of perspective are simply staggering.

Jamison Foser is a Senior Fellow at Media Matters for America, a progressive media watchdog and research and information center based in Washington, D.C. Foser also contributes to County Fair, a media blog featuring links to progressive media criticism from around the Web, as well as original commentary. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook or sign up to receive his columns by email.

*A brief response to the question some have raised about whether it is appropriate for the White House to decide what is or is not a news organization: Of course it is. The only question is whether it has drawn the line in the right place. Nobody would expect the White House to grant the Weekly World News or the Halliburton corporate newsletter or the author of the Republican National Committee's mass emails the same access they grant ABC and The New York Times. The question isn't whether the White House should make a determination about which news outlets to treat as a legitimate, it's whether it makes the right determinations.

**During last year's presidential campaign, the news media, which were so obsessed with Obama's ties to Bill Ayers, were unconcerned by John McCain's palling-around with Liddy. Then again, Liddy had merely plotted to murder a journalist; he didn't appear on CNN to criticize Fox News.