President Obama has yet to decide on deploying more troops to fight the Taliban, but his administration is resolved to defeat at least one pressing security threat: FOX News.
For the past week, the administration has been waging a full-bore political offensive against the cable news network. That campaign officially kicked off last weekend, when two senior administration figures took to the Sunday talk shows to talk down FOX.
Senior presidential advisor David Axelrod appeared on ABC’s “This Week,” where he delivered the judgment that FOX “is not really a news station.” Assuming the role of media critic, Axelrod instructed that ABC should not treat FOX as a legitimate news organization. “The bigger thing is that other news organizations like yours ought not to treat them that way, and we’re not going to treat them that way,” Axelrod advised.
White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel imitated both Axelrod’s anti-FOX potshots and his efforts to dictate media content. During an appearance on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Emanuel claimed that FOX is “not a news organization so much as it has a perspective.” Emanuel also lectured his CNN hosts that they should ignore FOX’s news coverage. “More importantly, is to not have the CNNs and the others in the world basically be led in following FOX, as if what they’re trying to do is a legitimate news organization,” Emanuel said.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs joined the battle shortly thereafter. When asked at a press conference whether the White House was right to dismiss FOX as illegitimate, Gibbs stuck by the charge. “We render opinion based on some of their coverage and the fairness of their coverage,” Gibbs said, singling out FOX hosts Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity as proof that FOX was not, in the administration’s view, a news organization.
What may have seemed like partisan sniping was in fact part of a broader administration strategy to discredit FOX. White House communications director Anita Dunn, having earlier dismissed FOX as “a wing of the Republican Party,” revealed last week that the White House had devised an offensive campaign against the network. “We’re going to treat them the way we would treat an opponent,” Dunn explained, adding that “we don’t need to pretend that this is the way that legitimate news organizations behave.”
This strategy was approved at the very top. In an interview earlier this week with NBC, President Obama was asked whether it was appropriate for the White House to determine what is and is not a legitimate news organization. That was not appropriate, the president allowed. Nonetheless, he backed the strategy revealed by Dunn. In a clear reference to FOX, Obama suggested that the administration would shun media that are “operating basically as a talk radio format,” in favor of those that are “operating as a news outlet.”
With its ominous undercurrent of meddling in the news business, the White House’s smear campaign should have prompted an outcry from the media. Beyond the specific attacks on FOX, after all, the president and his staff were in effect pushing media outlets to adopt their preferred standard for journalistic legitimacy – a veiled threat to the freedom and independence of the press. Yet, with a few notable exceptions – including the far-Left columnist Helen Thomas, who warned the administration to avoid fights with the media and “not kill the messenger” – much of the news establishment stayed conspicuously silent.
Instead, some liberal journalists turned on FOX. Most shameless in this regard was Slate’s Jacob Weisberg, who took to the pages of Newsweek to denounce FOX and proclaim that the administration was right to ignore its “skewed news.” That would be the same Jacob Weisberg who, in May 2005, decried the Bush administration for complaining about a Newsweek story reporting that guards at Guantanamo Bay had flushed a Koran down the toilet. That story ultimately turned out false and was retracted by the magazine, but when the Bush administration voiced criticism of Newsweek, Weisberg raged that this was an intolerable assault on media independence. President Bush was trying to “undermine the legitimacy of the media, or at least that subculture within it that shows any tendency to challenge him,” Weisberg wrote at the time. Now that the Obama administration has assailed the legitimacy of one of the few media outlets willing to challenge it, Weisberg’s anxiety about media independence has suddenly vanished.
Of course, one reason that FOX has found so few allies in the media is that its political outlook is anathema in the profession. But the stridency and one-sidedness of this outlook is regularly overstated. It’s true that some of FOX’s evening talk shows are often critical of the Obama administration. Even so, left-leaning guests are routinely invited to offer an ideological counterpoint – a courtesy that FOX’s liberal competitors rarely feel the need to emulate. Moreover, the network’s straight-news coverage is indeed “fair and balanced.”
The real gripe of the Obama administration, and of the Left more broadly, is not how FOX covers certain stories, but that it covers them at all. One recent example might be the exclusive video of Anita Dunn aired on Glenn Beck’s program. It showed the communications director praising communist despot Mao Tse-Tung as one of her “favorite political philosophers.” It cannot be entirely coincidental that Dunn unveiled the administration’s FOX-bashing strategy just a day after the damaging revelations on Beck’s show.
Still another example would be the devastating video series on corrupt activist group ACORN produced by young filmmaker James O’Keefe. Ignored by most of the establishment press, the videos became a sensation when they were aired by FOX – with heavy political repercussions for ACORN. The exposé has clearly displeased pleased some in the administration. An unnamed White House official complained to Politico earlier this week that the ACORN scandal took off because FOX covered it “breathlessly for weeks on end.” According to the official, the lesson for the media should be to “make sure that we keep perspective on what are the most important stories, and what’s being driven by a network that has a perspective.” This was special pleading disguised as press criticism: At bottom, it was an appeal for flattering coverage from sympathetic media.
Indeed, for all its distress over FOX’s political biases, the administration does not actually have problem with ideologically slanted coverage – so long as it’s slanted the right way. On Monday, for example, the White House held an off-the-record briefing with MSNBC’s unabashedly left-wing personalities, Keith Olbermann and the Rachel Maddow. That FOX News’s “Special Report” broke the story only underscored the cynicism of the administration’s attacks on the network.
As well as hypocritical, the administration’s attacks on FOX are politically shortsighted. While the Left has long viewed FOX as a “right-wing” mouthpiece, Democratic strategists know better. They point out that 50 percent of FOX’s viewership consists of independents and Democrats – the kind of people that the Obama administration depends on for political support.
Buying into the liberal caricature of FOX can only isolate the administration. Had Obama staffers more closely watched the network’s coverage of the Tea Party protests and the health care town halls, for instance, they would not have been caught blindsided by the growing backlash against the administration’s much-maligned stimulus package and its still-stalled health care legislation. Whether FOX’s coverage meets the administration’s test for legitimacy is irrelevant: They report, their millions of viewers decide.
For that reason, feuding with FOX can only be a losing battle for the administration. Focusing its attention on a news channel, especially at a time of more urgent concerns for the country, makes the administration seem petty and vindictive – even as it boosts FOX’s ratings. If the administration wants to talk only to its loyal supporters, it will be talking to a rapidly diminishing segment of the population. In politics as in television, that’s never a winning strategy.