LOS ANGELES — I work for Fox News as a commentator. I say whatever I want. I'm the blonde on the left, figuratively and literally - the one who's usually smiling because it's TV, not the Supreme Court or Congress, and I find civility more effective in any event.
Besides, why shouldn't I be smiling? Prior to working for Fox, I worked for ABC and NBC, spent a lot of time at CNN, and almost ended up at CBS. I worked for a bunch of local stations in Los Angeles and had a talk-radio show at KABC for six years. In other words, I'm fortunate enough to have been around, and Fox News is the best place I've ever worked.
I've come to expect the jabs at Fox News - because being a liberal, I get more than most. I work there in part because, six or seven years ago, they offered me a better deal than NBC at the time; and because, as a feminist and a Democrat, I think it's particularly important to have a dialogue with people who aren't already members of the same choir - that's the way we will ultimately have to win elections.
I also work there because of my respect for Roger Ailes, the man who created it, and hired me, and to whom I am extremely loyal for reasons having nothing to do with ideology and everything to do with integrity. The jabs have gotten stronger with success. No surprise there. When you get to No. 1 as fast and as impressively as Fox News has, it's a bull's-eye, and Mr. Ailes would be the last person in the world to expect his competitors to go gently.
But things have taken a personal turn in the last week or so, as the targets have shifted from the institution as a whole to the individuals within it. The criticisms have gotten personal, the tone has changed, the volume is up, and the value is down. Neil Cavuto? Brian Wilson? Under attack by a Washington press corps for not probing enough on Iraq (Cavuto) and being too tough on Howard Dean (Wilson)? Give me a break.
Mr. Cavuto, a Fox News anchor, sat down to do an interview with George Bush last week on his business show. He didn't discuss Iraq. Cavuto doesn't cover Iraq. As far as I know, he had nothing new to ask him, nothing new to add, and no important new question to pose. In fact, the president had nothing new to say on the topic. There was no news to be made on Iraq. So Cavuto didn't use the opportunity either to beat up on the president or to let him say something we'd heard a hundred times. Instead, he asked him questions he didn't know the answer to, where he might get an answer he hadn't already heard.
For this, he's been summarily beaten up by the press corps - the same one that still can't figure out why it got it all wrong about those weapons of mass destruction that justified the war.
Then there's Brian Wilson's great sin. In his case, the problem wasn't not asking a question, but trying too hard to ask tough ones of the Senate minority leader and the party chairman who'd joined together to make it look as if there was no problem when there very obviously was.
The Dean charge is, of course, the more serious one, particularly since the party chairman has taken to attacking Fox News. There certainly is disagreement among Democrats as to whether party leaders such as Joe Biden and John Edwards should have gone public with the obvious criticism that Dean had gone too far in calling Republicans a party of white Christians who don't work.
But I'm hard-pressed to think of anybody who'll tell you privately that in the midst of debates about such issues as Social Security and the deficits, it's a good idea for the party leader to be turning himself into the issue by engaging in class and religious warfare.
This is precisely what congressional leaders and Dean agreed Dean wouldn't do when he became party chair. He was supposed to leave the message to them. Because Dean hadn't done so and had been criticized for it by two possible presidential candidates - neither of whom is even a conservative - Sen. Harry Reid was trying to put a perennial good face on a bad situation, while Brian Wilson was trying to puncture it.
And that's what the press is supposed to do.
Asked to respond to Vice President Cheney's comments about him to Fox's Sean Hannity, Dean said: "My view is that Fox News is a propaganda outlet for the Republican Party, and I don't comment on Fox News."
Three times as many people watch Fox every day as watch CNN. There were certainly times during the last campaign where I disagreed with decisions made by young Fox producers. But without exception, every time I raised an issue, I won. The joke was that I would tell them to set their stopwatches and transfer me to Ailes, so they could time how long it would take me to get their decisions reversed.
It never came to that, but everyone understood the commitment not to make decisions that would even give the appearance that Dean so cavalierly bandies about.
Is Fox News different from the other places I've worked? Sure. But all of the rest were pretty much alike, which is the larger point that Dean ignores.
• Susan Estrich is the Robert Kingsley Professor in Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California Law Center. ©2005 Creators Syndicate Inc.