If you step out and ask tough questions, you're somehow seen as a partisan now — even if it's a substantive question and even if it's a fair question. —Ed Henry
NEW YORK — Ed Henry's assignment covering the White House would be a challenge for any journalist, no matter his employer.
Yet Henry works at Fox News Channel. More than anyone, he understands how the natural adversarial role of reporting on the highest level of government has become complicated in recent years by the rise in partisan media and online critics who parse every word reporters and anchors say.
"It definitely puts pressure on all of us," Henry said, "and if you step out and ask tough questions, you're somehow seen as a partisan now — even if it's a substantive question and even if it's a fair question."
Henry, 41, is preparing for four more years on the beat and would like to cover the Obama administration from beginning to end. He came to Fox in 2011 from CNN, for whom he had worked in Washington since 2004 (his wife, Shirley Hung, is a CNN producer). Prior to getting into television, the Queens, N.Y., native worked in print at Roll Call.
He said he brings to his coverage the desire to hold public officials of each party accountable for their actions, and no ideological point of view.
Fox has never denied that prime-time stars like Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity are opinionated. Daytime hours and programs hosted by Shepard Smith and Bret Baier are set aside for news, although it's naive to suggest there's no point of view.
Three recent episodes illustrate the point. Fox aired 27 minutes of Obama speaking during four days just before the election — compared to 168 minutes of Republican challenger Mitt Romney, the liberal watchdog Media Matters for America noted. Author Thomas Rick's interview on Fox recently was abruptly cut short when he accused the network of "operating as a wing of the Republican Party" with its coverage of the September terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya. The Washington Post reported Tuesday that Fox News chief Roger Ailes encouraged David Petreaus to run for president, although Ailes said he was joking.
For a reporter like Henry, Fox "frames the work, you can't escape that," said Frank Sesno, a former CNN Washington bureau chief and professor at George Washington University. The setting adds another layer of scrutiny.
"It's very difficult when you work for an organization where the opinion page is on the front page," said Sesno, who hired Henry as a paid fellow at George Washington last year.
Henry has had two tense moments with Obama at news conferences. At one, Henry asked Obama why it had taken the president several days to express anger about bonuses given to AIG insurance executives. Obama responded that "it took us a couple of days because I like to know what I'm talking about before I speak."
When Henry asked Obama to respond to a Romney comment that "if you do not want America to be the strongest nation on Earth, I am not your president," Obama said that, "I didn't know you were the spokesman for Mitt Romney."
The first incident happened while Henry worked at CNN, the second when he was at Fox.
Arguably, for an interview subject, the first question would be more objectionable: it infers that Obama has been slow to move on an issue. The second was simply asking for a response to a critic's statement, something reporters do every day.
Henry and White House Press Secretary Jay Carney have gone back-and-forth in some briefings, with Carney once suggesting that "you're creating a thing here for Fox." But they appear to have a solid working relationship. Henry said the White House has never retaliated against him for any of his work, or because of anger at his network.
"Like every other professional journalist who covers the White House, we don't like every word that Ed has said on camera, but we work with him every day to provide the access and information that he needs to communicate to a sizable audience what's happening at the White House," said White House spokesman Josh Earnest.
Benghazi has proved an interesting case study. Henry rejects the notion that he works off Fox marching orders in discussing the issue, but said, "I wouldn't lie to you. I see that we're covering Benghazi a lot, and I think that should be something that we're asking about."
He said other news outlets have under-covered the story, since four Americans were killed and there's still some mystery about what the administration knew and when they knew about the attack.
Henry is keenly aware of the "noise machine," bloggers like Media Matters who quickly pounce on work they consider objectionable. He suggested that MSNBC host Chuck Todd, who also works for NBC News, doesn't get the same level of critical attention paid to his work even though MSNBC is clearly slanted left.
As a young reporter, Henry said he looked up to former White House correspondents like Sam Donaldson, famed for shouting questions at President Ronald Reagan. "Now if you shout a question at Obama, you're somehow seen as a bad guy," he said. "I think some people have been cowed."
Donaldson, now 78, recalled angry letters he had gotten from Republicans about his coverage of the Reagan administration. When he covered President Bill Clinton's second term from ABC and asked tough questions, Republicans wrote to compliment him on his maturity, he said.
He had his boss' support and didn't have to look over his shoulder at blogs, said Donaldson, who considers Henry "one of the best" on the beat now.
"It's not that they are all afraid and cringe, because they don't," Donaldson said. "But it's so much tougher to do it in every way."
His advice on dealing with the critics: "You just have to try to ignore them."
Henry said he tries.