It's not unusual for a correspondent or even a group of them to fall out of favor with the White House, bringing about his or her limited access or even banishment often followed by demands that the parent organization assign someone else or withdraw a story. The Kennedys were infamous for it.
However, it is rare if not unprecedented for an administration to take those actions against an entire organization that is obviously a major player in disseminating information to millions of viewers. But that seems to be the intent of Obama and his aides who have been accusing the Fox News Network not only of bias but also, much worse, of not being a legitimate news operation.
The White House ire seems to have grown as other mainline news operations including newspapers and the leading television networks have taken notice of Fox's more aggressive coverage of the president and have urged their own staffs to follow suit, a prospect that clearly has put the administration on edge.
Obviously part of the problem stems from Fox's conservative commentators who are shrill detractors of the president and his programs. The White House views their nightly tirades as irrefutable evidence of unfairness. The president seems unwilling to concede the comparison between the rhetoric of the right and that of the left that emanates from the more liberal opinion pages of the so-called national newspapers, cable networks and other news organizations.
Fox contends that the commentary is separate from its news gathering and reporting and should be seen in that light. It also challenges White House contention that the "straight news content" is laced with biased opinion. Recent efforts between the Fox's top news executive, Roger Ailes, and one of the president's key aides, David Axelrod, to resolve the dispute have been fruitless.
The White House seems to have forgotten two things here. Like it or not the press's role in this free society is constitutionally guaranteed under the First Amendment. Secondly, denying one news organization a place at the table is likely to force everyone else to line up behind them under the theory if they can do it once, why not twice or three times. The members of this club may have to hold their noses to support Fox but they will do it when push really comes to shove or face a threat to their own rights.
The last two presidents, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, both understood that there was little percentage politically in whining about unfair media coverage. Few presidents in my memory have been more demonized than Bush who, if nothing else, knew enough not to complain, at least openly. In fact both were more likely to give access to their critics than those who regularly took their sides.
The legitimacy of the Fox news reports will stand or fall on their own merit. If the public perceives they can't be trusted, their viewership soon will be limited to those who agree with their biased viewpoint, not Americans who are seeking untainted information. In 1912, Roy W. Howard refused to join a cartel of news organizations controlled by governments in Europe and by capitalist publishers in this country. By refusing to do so, he paved the way for the first time for the free flow of information, unfettered by influence, even the most-subtle kind.
President Obama has better fish to fry than spending his time worrying about the constant barrage of babble from the right or, for that matter, the far left. There is every reason to believe that he is too smart to be drawn into an unwinnable squabble with those who buy ink by the barrels or own the networks. If he isn't he deserves what he gets.
Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.