By Bill Press
Tribune Media Services
No matter how many more troops he sends into battle, President Obama must understand that this is one war he can’t win.
No, I’m not talking about the war between American troops and the Taliban. I’m talking about the war between the White House and Fox News.
War with Fox was declared by Gen. Barack Obama himself on Sept. 20, when he appeared on five Sunday morning political shows but deliberately shunned “Fox News Sunday” and showed up on Univision, instead. Which caused Fox anchor Chris Wallace to sound like a crybaby in calling White House aides “the biggest bunch of crybabies I have dealt with in my 30 years in Washington.”
The war escalated a couple of weeks later when Obama’s Communications Director Anita Dunn took the gloves off. Appearing on “Reliable Sources,” she told CNN’s Howard Kurtz that Fox was little more than “the research arm or the communications arm of the Republican Party.” That’s their business, Dunn added, “but let’s not pretend they’re a news organization like CNN is.”
Joining forces, Moveon.org then issued a call for all Democrats in Congress to decline interviews on Fox for the rest of the year in support of Obama’s decision to do the same. And Slate’s Jacob Weisberg similarly challenged all “respectable journalists” to stop appearing on its programs.
Taking on the biggest of the cable news networks is a risky strategy for the White House. Previous presidents have taken on other news outlets and failed. And I believe the Obama administration will, too.
Why? It’s not because Anita Dunn’s wrong. She and Obama are absolutely correct about Fox. It’s not a news operation, it’s a pure, 24/7, right-wing propaganda network. Its political shows — Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly — all plan their broadcasts based on that day’s Republican Party talking points. And even its so-called “news” shows are stacked with stories with a clear anti-Obama slant.
But Obama also has to accept reality. That’s what Fox is. It’s been the conservative news network from day one. Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes designed it that way. Its slogan should be: “We distort, you decide.” It amounts to little more than right-wing talk radio, with pictures added. And, here’s the important part: they’re not going to change.
And why should they? For years, Fox has been the highest-rated of the three cable news networks. Now, as a result of increased White House attention, their ratings, which had already increased with Obama in the Oval Office, have shot up even higher. For the week of Oct. 12 to 18, Fox News was the no. 4 cable network in primetime, behind only ESPN, TBS and USA. MSNBC ranked 27th in primetime, while CNN came in 28th. This year, the Fox News Channel will post the highest ratings in its 13-year history.
Look at the numbers. Rather than hurt Fox, all this attention from the White House has actually helped the network, giving it a public relations bonanza and marketing blitz it could never have afforded to buy itself.
There’s one other piece of reality in this equation that the White House can’t ignore: At the end of the day, Fox still has the megaphone. And now, an even bigger megaphone. Rather than pretend you can silence or change it, it’s a far wiser strategy, in my opinion, to simply ignore it. Which is the worst thing you can do to any bully.
My advice to the White House? Deal with all the news outlets. Don’t expect preferential treatment from any. Know you will get a fair shake from most. But also know you will never get treated fairly by one of them. And learn to live with it, because there’s nothing you can do about it. Every administration has its media cross to bear. For the Obama administration, it’s Fox News.
As for all “respectable” journalists boycotting Fox? Chalk me up as a disrespectable journalist, I guess. I’ve appeared many times on Fox, and I’d do the same again tomorrow.
After all, it’s no fun always preaching to the choir. At any time of day, there are more eyeballs watching Fox than any other cable channel. As long as I’m invited, I won’t give up the sadistic pleasure of taking my liberal, pro-Obama message right into the enemy camp — and spitting right in their eye.
© 2009 Tribune Media Services, Inc.