The Most Politically Evenhanded Show on National Television, CNN’s “Reliable Sources,” Scores on President Barack Obama-Fox News Controversy

–Richard E. Vatz

As the media continue to be ideologically polarized in their reportage, one major network’s show comes about as close to fair, comprehensive and disinterested analysis as can be found: CNN’s “Reliable Sources” with The Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz as moderator.

The issue of excellent coverage on this show, which is devoted to media criticism, comprises not just being more often than not ideologically blind, but also covering contentious media controversies fully.

“Reliable Sources” has provided superb coverage of the extant fight between the White House and Fox News. The show sported a lengthy interview two Sundays ago with Anita Dunn, the interim Director of Communications for the Obama Administration, who has directed the attack on Fox News, including consistent verbal assaults and stiffing its access to President Obama. The issue is whether the Administration is undemocratically punishing Fox News for criticism, denying it coverage and thus managing the news and promoting a controlled press.

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“Reliable Sources” in two shows, October 11th and 18th, accomplished the following:

1. The first show produced some news, with Ms. Dunn admitting under hard direct questioning in the lead segment by moderator Kurtz that Administration anger at Fox News coverage was the cause for its being left out of the Sunday blitz a few weeks ago, when President Obama went on the other national talk shows, and perhaps in a recent such mini-blitz as well. The interview also sported some of Dunn’s more incendiary quotes, such as calling Fox “a wing of the Republican Party,” “a research arm and communication arm of the Republican Party,” “ideological opponents” of the Obama Administration, and then saying that when the President does appear on that network, that it will be in the role of “debat[ing] the opposition.”

2. The shows covered the two main issues: was the White House assault on Fox News journalistically ethical, and does the freezing out of Fox hurt or help that network. Neither of these issues can be neglected, and “Reliable Sources” took them both on.

3. The shows covered all major criticisms, including Glenn Beck’s (and by implication, Karl Rove’s and others’) that the Obama Administration was putting Fox News on a metaphorical “enemies list,” comparable to the actions of the now apparently detested-by-all-Republicans former President Richard Nixon. It also gave significant time to the allegation that the Administration was not — or choosing not to be — distinguishing between reporters and analysts and furthermore was giving a free pass to, say, MSNBC’s raft of liberal cheerleaders. The concern was raised by Kurtz that, consistent with the Administration philosophy, if and when a Republican was the Chief Executive that liberal outlets could be denied equal coverage.

“Reliable Sources” is not perfect. I have in complimenting them previously pointed out that although they usually present all political sides of issues, the majority of guests tends to be liberal. In addition there is a significant disparity of quality among the media analysts, including, for example, on the right the excellent former speechwriter for Senate majority leader Bill Frist, Amy Holmes, and The Washington Times’ Amanda Carpenter, and on the left the excellent David Zurawik of The Baltimore Sun and bright media observers, otherwise not-well-known, like Lauren Ashburn of USA Today Live, (about whom I have had a positive change of heart). “Reliable Sources” guests in the two weeks of the Administration-Fox controversy were not the A-team, but they weren’t bad, and, unlike some past shows, there was not a small leftwing majority discussing the issues.

One consistently annoying problem is that the show often allows CNN to be cited as an exemplar of excellent journalism (as Dunn did, as well), despite its prevailing leftward tilt. To correct this inaccurate and strategic flattery of CNN on its own show may be a bridge too far for the CNN host, but this much is clear: “Reliable Sources” consistently presents some of the fairest, most thorough, non-insipid media analysis on major media controversies.

The ongoing “Reliable Sources” analysis of the Obama Administration-Fox News war is an example of excellence in fair and comprehensive media analysis.

Professor Vatz teaches an upper-class course titled Media Criticism at Towson University

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