Yes, it looks bad. Fox announced earlier today that it would not carry Barack Obama’s prime-time press conference on Wednesday, opting to air Lie to Me instead. Now, it is rare for a network to tell a president “no,” but before we accuse Fox of political bias, greed, or abandoning civic responsibility, we should take a look at the record on presidential interruptions — for all networks. In that light, Fox’s decision seems a lot less menacing.
The problem Fox faces is one of perception. Most viewers tend to think of the network as conservative, and think that FoxNews, home of Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity , slants pro-GOP. (MSNBC, by contrast, is widely thought to support Democrats). Plus, Fox was the only network not to air the Democratic response to then-President Bush’s address on Iraq in 2007. Add all that up and it looks like the network simply didn’t want to dish out any of its precious sweeps time to the Democrat in the White House. The thing is, it only looks that way.
For one thing, Obama is not the first president snubbed by Fox. The network didn’t air a 2001 speech by Pres. Bush, then took the same tack three years later, joining all networks in declining to air Bush’s May 2004 speech on Iraq. What aired instead? Fear Factor…on NBC. Plus, if we’re really getting specific, Fox didn’t air two of the 2000 presidential debates, and ABC was the only network that didn’t air then-candidate Obama’s campaign infomercial.
So is it just the almighty dollar, then? Is Fox putting the Tim Roth procedural, Lie to Me (currently trying to attract sweeps dollars even though its ratings are trending downward), ahead of the civic good? Perhaps. But a Fox insider points out that the network typically comes in dead last in the ratings when it airs presidential interruptions (even coming in behind FoxNews most of the time), largely because Fox has no internal news division. There’s no Katie Couric or Brian Williams offering analysis or talking to pundits — which is why most viewers turn to ABC, NBC, CBS, or the cable news outlets whenever the president invades primetime. And let’s face it, this president seems to enjoy interrupting our favorite shows, having already had three previous addresses/press conferences (and pre-empting Lie to Me before).
But we are in a recession. And two wars. And now we’re all freaked about swine flu. So yes, it would be nice if all the networks carried the president’s press conference. (We should note that an insider says Fox’s decision is not a signal from new network chief Peter Rice that Fox will abandon the president indefinitely.) It would also be nice if we all watched, but that doesn’t happen either. Unless and until all of us would rather hear what’s going on with the nation than watch Lie to Me, maybe we should cut Fox just a bit of slack.