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Press relations have always been tense

Tensions between the White House and news organizations are as old as the White House itself. Its first resident, John Adams, got things off to a bad start more than 200 years ago when he used his Sedition Act, prohibiting “false, scandalous and malicious writings†against the government, to send editors to jail for printing stories he didn’t like, including one in a Philadelphia newspaper about the “old, querulous, bald, blind, crippled, toothless Adams.â€

The current battle between the Obama White House and Fox News is therefore nothing new, though a little dangerous because the Obama administration is saying Fox is not a legitimate news organization but an arm of the Republican Party.

Fox may be a lousy news organization, but it is a news organization nonetheless. The government, whether it occupies the White House or the selectman’s office, has no business deciding or telling us what is or isn’t a news organization. Neither Fox News, nor The New York Times, nor the paper you’re reading now is required to carry a government license, something the Obama team may have momentarily forgotten.

True, few news organizations have gone as far as Fox in blurring the line between news and opinion, although the liberal MSNBC comes uncomfortably close. While Fox and MSNBC segregate their right-wing and left-wing, respectively, show hosts to the evening hours, the regular newscasts, mostly those on Fox, aren’t always models of objectivity.

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To its credit, Fox has annoyed the Obama White House by breaking some legitimate news that others, including, by their own admission, The New York Times and Washington Post, were slow to recognize. The liberal advocacy group and Obama ally, ACORN, lost its federal funding after Fox showed video of a man and woman imitating a pimp and prostitute getting advice on how to break the law from staff members at ACORN offices. Earlier, there were also Fox reports, tardily picked up by others, that the agency had conducted a fraud-infested voter registration drive before the 2008 election.

But last week, the White House really went over the line and the other media said, “enough.†The Treasury Department made Ken Feinberg, the “pay czar,†available for interviews on the decision to cut the pay of top executives of the companies that received the most bailout money, but excluded Fox from the TV news pool.

The other pool participants, ABC, CBS, NBC and CNN, told Obama press secretary Robert Gibbs if Fox were barred, none of them would interview the suddenly lonely czar, and Gibbs backed down.

I have no doubt that if the Bush administration had ever pulled a similar stunt against, say, MSNBC, the news media would have been truly outraged and rightly so. Fox deserves the same response.

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Many years ago, the Nixon administration sent Vice President Spiro Agnew out to attack the three broadcast news organizations for what he dubbed “instant analysis.†The three networks would have people like Eric Sevareid, Howard K. Smith, Frank Magee and Roger Mudd follow a presidential speech or news conference with a few minutes of discussion of what he said and what he meant, a service sorely needed with a double talker like Nixon in the White House.

The networks, concerned about losing the licenses of their lucrative local stations, caved in and stopped analyzing. I can recall the Travelers Insurance Co. sale of Channel 3 in Hartford to The Washington Post being postponed while the Post fought off a Nixon-inspired attempt to challenge the license of its Jacksonville, Fla., station after it exposed Nixon Supreme Court nominee Harold Carswell’s racist past.

Back then, Sevareid warned his colleagues in the electronic and print media that all of them occupied the same boat and when his end of the boat springs a leak, their end sinks, too.

And long before Sevareid, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote that the First Amendment protects not only the thought of those who agree with us, but freedom for the thought we hate.

Dick Ahles is a retired journalist from Simsbury. E-mail him at dahles@hotmail.com.

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