The Fox News war: What's the upside for Obama?

Critics call the Obama administration's criticism of Fox News petty. But if it discredits the network in the eyes of moderates, the strategy might work.

By , Staff writer

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    White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs conducts the daily briefing at the White House in Washington on Thursday.
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The Obama administration has taken a fair amount of grief for its campaign to marginalize Fox News, saying the cable network is "not a news organization" but rather "the communications arm of the Republican Party."

Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus, not a fire-breathing conservative, calls it “dumb on multiple levels” – a distraction from policy messages, a boost to Fox ratings, and, she writes, “it deprives the White House, to the extent it refuses to provide administration officials to appear on the cable network, of access to an audience that is, in fact, broader than hardcore Obama-haters.”

Stephen Hess, a Brookings Institution scholar on White House press relations going back decades, says, “It makes them in the White House look terribly political, and political means petty in our lexicon.”

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The White House has also opened itself up to charges that it is creating an “enemies list,” à la President Richard Nixon – a charge made on the Senate floor Wednesday by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R) of Tennessee, the No. 3 Republican in the Senate with a reputation for collegiality. He also cited recent administration criticism of the US Chamber of Commerce, the insurance industry, and the insurance company Humana, among others.

Obama's strategy

Still, could the administration have planted seeds that could pay dividends down the road? Perhaps, says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

“If the White House could persuade moderates that any story originating with Fox is politically motivated and hence suspect, it might reduce the initial impact of Fox-generated content,” she says. “What the White House appears to be trying to do is reduce the migration of stories from Fox to other cable, broadcast, and print.”

Fox has gotten mileage recently with stories about community organizers ACORN and green jobs “czar” Van Jones, who resigned his White House post after Fox and other conservative media pushed aggressively on his past associations.

“There are two audiences here,” says liberal columnist David Sirota. “There’s the Fox audience, then there’s the rest of the news-consuming public. You’re never going to delegitimize Fox with the hardest of the hardcore base. But if you can delegitimize it in the eyes of the rest of the media, that impacts the rest of the news-consuming audience.”

The anti-Fox campaign

The administration’s anti-Fox drumbeat has been building for weeks.

On Sept. 20, President Obama appeared on all the major Sunday morning news programs except Fox News. Last week, White House communications director Anita Dunn asserted that “Fox News often operates almost as either the research arm or the communications arm of the Republican Party.”

But perhaps the starkest moment came last Sunday, when Obama’s top two political aides unleashed attacks.

Fox News “is not really news,” said David Axelrod on ABC. “It’s pushing a point of view.”

Rahm Emanuel told CNN that Obama considers Fox News “not a news organization so much as it has a perspective.”

When reporters pressed White House spokesman Robert Gibbs later for specifics, he mentioned Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity – two personalities known for their fiery rhetoric (as distinct from briefing room regulars like Major Garrett and Wendell Goler).

Fox’s owner, Rupert Murdoch, says ratings have gone up since the Obama “campaign” began. Obama himself has not engaged in the discussion, but when asked about it on Wednesday in an interview with NBC, he said, “it’s not something I’m losing a lot of sleep over.”

“I think the American people are a lot more interested in what we’re doing to create jobs or how we’re handling the situation in Afghanistan,” Obama said.

Democrats cheer

Some Democratic media strategists say the White House is right to go after Fox – particularly the more incendiary personalities like Mr. Beck.

“I just find the antics of my buddy Glenn Beck absolutely out of control, and I think the problem now is that the rhetoric has been ratcheted up so high,” says Peter Fenn, president of Fenn Communications Group. “To capture an audience, they have to be more shrill and outrageous than the last time they were on.”

Fenn says he also wishes Keith Olbermann, a liberal talk show host on MSNBC prone to over-the-top rhetoric, would dial it back. “I wish he’d stop doing ‘The Worst Person in the World,’” says Fenn.

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Has Obama's Fox News offensive worked?

Media analysts differ on whether the network has changed its behavior at all.

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