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Why the White House Shouldn't Play Chicken With Fox

5 years ago
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It's war! A rumble in Washington. Two titanic political forces locked in a bloody battle to the very end. A confrontation between good and evil. A clash of civilizations. Of course, I'm talking about the scuffle between the White House and Fox News.

I'm watching this fight as no disinterested observer. For years I was a rare commodity: a liberal commentator on Fox News. I enjoyed working with the bookers and producers at Fox's Washington bureau. But the place often felt like a foreign territory. On air, I was always the visiting team. The routine usually went something like this: A right-wing host (either an out-in-the-open conservative or barely veiled one) would turn to the conservative guest and ask, "You think the war in Iraq is a stunning success. Please tell us why it's going so well." Then s/he would introduce me and say, "Now, I understand you're against fighting for freedom. Can you explain to our audience why that is?"

Context is everything. While there have been decent, hardworking journalists at Fox, the enterprise is indeed colored by its far-right opinion-masters, most notably those on-air: Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck and Bill O'Reilly. Even its supposed straight-news shows tilt right, with panels loaded with more arch-conservatives than strong liberals. (Media Matters, a liberal watchdog group, has convincingly chronicled how the far-right views expressed on Fox's opinion shows shape the network's news coverage.)

Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes have the right to make Fox as right-wingish as they desire. Their network can provide a platform for a host who calls the president a "racist." It can broadcast interviews in which a conservative host asks a conservative guest softball questions. (See Hannity.) It can elect to focus on (real or imagined) foibles of Democrats more than those of Republicans. It can beat the drums for war or recruit foot soldiers for anti-Obama rallies. And it can repeatedly -- and laughably -- assert that it's "fair and balanced." But polite society doesn't have to accept any or all of this.

Neither does the White House. But that doesn't mean the Obama administration has to make a federal case over Fox.

In recent days, the White House has let loose its big guns. On Sunday shows these past two weekends -- as Fox has duly noted -- top Obama officials blasted the network. First, White House Communications Director Anita Dunn slammed Fox as "opinion journalism masquerading as news." Then White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said that the other cable news networks shouldn't be "following Fox." Senior White House aide David Axelrod declared that Fox is "not a news organization." On Monday, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs accused Fox of skewing its coverage to the right for the sake of profits. And the White House has stopped providing guests to "Fox News Sunday." Dunn told The New York Times, "We're going to treat them like we treat an opponent." Now Washington is abuzz over which side will blink first.

The White House-Fox feud has sparked what the political media most relish: a debate about media and politics. New York Times media dissecter David Carr has chided the White House for punching down -- that is, taking on a foe not worthy of the bother. Worse, he says, "the administration, by deploying official resources against a troublesome media organization, seems to have brought a knife to a gunfight."

Media masher Michael Wolff first chastised Obama for losing his all-too famous cool and for failing to realize "you can't fight" Ailes because he "lives off your rage and blood." Then Wolff had a change of heart and congratulated the Obama White House for devising a truly crafty strategy:

I think they want us to take sides. Are you a Fox person or not a Fox person? And I think they want to identify Fox as the standard bearer of American conservatism. If you're a conservative, you're for Fox (i.e., is that who you want to be?).

They are going to combine this triangulation with their passing of a health care bill. I think they believe that, once this has been passed, to have opposed it will be like opposing Social Security.

Hence, Republicanism = conservatism = Fox = rabid opposition to an incredibly popular piece of legislation = hopeless marginalization = new liberal consensus.

Well, it's a theory. But do White House aides -- while contending with health care legislation, a climate change bill, financial regulation reform, assorted bailouts, negotiations over Iran's nuclear programs, two wars, and much more -- have the time and energy to concoct such a sophisticated and cunning scheme? If so, my hat's off to them.

It looks to me that the Obama-ites are in a zone somewhere between following a grand strategy and winging it. After all, it was only a few weeks ago that Axelrod was meeting with Ailes. And during the campaign, Obama had a secret confab with Ailes and pounded him for running a network that was practically equating him with terrorists. So there has been a shift from trying to deal with Fox to treating it as a major adversary. (, the liberal advocacy group, has entered the fray, urging its millions of members to pressure Congressional Democrats to stay off Fox.)

Yet whatever Obama and his aides are attempting, they're doing it with a heavy hand. That's probably a mistake. Fox is a distraction, an irritant. It's true that Beck has been scoring boffo ratings -- topping 3 million watchers on special nights -- which is good for cable but still not a gigantic audience in a country this size. Tom DeLay had seven times or so that amount of viewers when he did his "Wild Thing" on "Dancing With the Stars." (There's no solid figure for Rush Limbaugh's audience, but a decent estimate is that he draws about 14 million listeners a week.)

Rather than react in a huffy manner to Fox -- which provides an alternative reality to outraged conservatives who feel lost in Obama's America -- the White House ought to opt for what I'd call strategic derision. Good-natured belittling -- but belittling, all the same -- would go further than indignation, even if the indignation can be justified. That is, don't demolish Fox, demean it. Gibbs should chuckle when a Fox correspondent asks a Foxian question. After all, if Fox is not to be taken seriously, don't take it seriously. And by all means, don't send Obama officials on Fox shows. But if a White House official is asked about this, he or she should reply with dismissive humor, not anger. ("We'd rather be reading the Senate Finance Committee's health care reform bill.") Obama is well-skilled when it comes to deploying a light-but-cutting touch. That ought to be terms of engagement for his aides involved in the Fox skirmish. Fox is not important enough to be treated as Public Enemy No. 1.

Bashing the conservative network could rally Obama's base. But Obama, for good or bad, did promise to rise above partisan sentiment and the game playing of the Washington political-media circus. With a clever use of strategic derision, Obama and his aides could do this and still stick it to the network. Fox is just not worth a game of chicken.

You can follow David Corn's postings and media appearances via Twitter.

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