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Biting the Hand: When Media Companies Attack (Themselves)

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It’s always entertaining when Fox News takes on Fox Entertainment; nothing better captures the exciting contradictions of Rupert Murdoch’s blend of conservative punditry with anything-goes entertainment. First Sarah Palin attacked “Fox Hollywood” for a Family Guy bit about Down Syndrome that mocked her. And now, as Mediaite points out, Bill O’Reilly critiqued Fox hit Glee (which he misidentifies as a “Fox News” program) for “indoctrinat[ing]” kids with anti-conservatism. (Or at least, making-fun-of-Palin-and-Coulterism.)

It all put me in mind of another mini-brouhaha of the week: Donny Deutsch getting knocked off an MSNBC guest-hosting gig after a segment that criticized Keith Olbermann (among others) on air. (Olbermann has denied reports that he was involved in the crackdown.) This inspired some criticism of MSNBC’s handling of, well, criticism. But honestly, it’s a rare thing for any media outlets to allow—overtly or covertly—public self-criticism.

Though it would be nice if they did.

In a piece about the MSNBC dustup, the New York Times’ Brian Stelter notes that, unlike that network, both CNN and Fox News have media-criticism programs, implying that they criticize themselves. Well, maybe in theory. But as liberal media watchdog Media Matters points out, for instance, Fox News Watch ignored the controversy over Sean Hannity being pulled from a Tea Party Tax Day fundraiser. CNN, meanwhile, has the Howard Kurtz show Reliable Sources (which I’ve gone on, sometimes to critique CNN). But Kurtz himself is really more of a media reporter and host than he is a media critic himself; to the extent that CNN gets criticized on its own air at all, it’s by bringing in people like me to do it.

Now I can certainly see good reasons for people and outlets to avoid self-critiquing. As I’ve written here before, though I’m TIME’s media critic, I make a point of not weighing in, pro or con, on TIME’s own coverage, though like any rational person would, I do have opinions pro and con about what we do. (I do write, unavoidably, about news-media issues that TIME is involved in, obviously.)

And there is a simple reason: it would be a royal pain, in more ways than one. First, I would essentially become the TIME ombudsman. People would want me to weigh in every time they had an issue with something TIME does, whether big (like the Valerie Plame case) or small (any given post on Swampland). No, thank you. Not to mention that because of Poniewozik’s First Rule of Internet Debate—”Always assume your opponent is arguing in bad faith”—I could never credibly praise anything TIME did, because people would take it as singing for my supper. So I don’t want to critique a news outlet that I can only be credibly negative about.

Now, that’s a personal choice. (But let’s be honest: it’s not as though any editor here has ever begged, or even asked, me to write up my honest, unabridged criticism of TIME’s work.) Still–especially for outlets like the cable news channels, which are increasingly opinion-driven–it should at least be an option for opinion hosts.

The cable-news channels are really, by and large, politics channels now. And political debate today—as evidenced by everything from Newsbusters to Glenn Greenwald, Daily Kos to Townhall, not to mention The Daily Show and Colbert—is largely debate over the media. To ignore that—or just as bad, to cover it weakly without judgment—is to ignore a crucial part of their chief subject.

But the best way to do that is to have media criticism by smart, outspoken hosts who are—officially as well as behind-the-scenes—given full permission and editorial freedom to criticize their own outlets without repercussion. (And in fact, they would need to do that in order for their programs to have any credibility, and not be seen as corporate tools existing only to do hit jobs on the competition.)

I don’t expect to see that any time soon, though. But at least Bill O’Reilly is free to take on Glee. It’s always good to see that there are career opportunities in TV criticism.

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