Over the weekend, White House communications director Anita Dunn announced the official beginning of the Obama administration’s war with Fox News. Of course, the battle has been openly brewing for months now. Even during the campaign, Obama’s team gave up on sending surrogates to the network. “It was beyond diminishing returns,” Dunn told the New York Times. “It was no returns.” But now the war is out in the open. “We’re going to treat them the way we would treat an opponent,” she told the paper. “As they are undertaking a war against Barack Obama and the White House, we don’t need to pretend that this is the way that legitimate news organizations behave.” Yesterday on CNN, she clarified: “Fox News often operates almost as either the research arm or the communications arm of the Republican Party.”
The White House’s logic seems to be that there’s no point in trying to be fairly portrayed on Fox News. Even if they send administration officials to try and reason with its hosts and viewers, the way the information gets presented eliminates any net benefit. (Especially when hosts like Glenn Beck make up facts and present them as sincere truth — the Times cited a moment when even fellow Fox reporters were angered that Beck claimed Fox White House correspondent Major Garrett was “never called on” in the briefing room, when he had in fact been called on that very day.) It’s also helpful to have a foil to fight against. In the continuing effort to portray tea partiers and birthers and the like as a sort of faux-patriotic lunatic fringe, the act of isolating Fox is an easy way to draw some lines in the sand. (We think online slideshows are just as effective, frankly.)
But there are plenty of negatives to this take-no-prisoners approach. To begin with, each regular Fox News viewer does not only represent one vote lost to President Obama. There is literally no limit, other than cholesterol-induced high blood pressure, to how angry this constituency can get. And an angrier group — which, we have seen, is easily organized and mobilized by the network — is one that is more likely to try to win over other voters, more likely to donate and raise money, and more likely to engage in the kind of meaningless, but attention-getting, tactics that make their views seem more widely held and genuinely American than they actually are. Yes, this kind of thing alienates some moderates, but in this era of endless, confusing news input, coverage is everything. (Remember the health-care town-hall protests? Suddenly the opinions of this guy were reaching hundreds of thousands of viewers, and not just through Fox.)
So if Team Obama ignores Fox, it just gives the network’s talent the chance to further caricature him as a socialist, foreign, effete, America-hating Other. It isn’t a racist portrayal, necessarily, but is certainly one that gives actual racists a lot of comfort. Not countering that will help Fox viewers conveniently forget that Obama is intelligent and well spoken. George Bush, who certainly wasn’t the latter, came across as human and likable in interviews. It was one of his greatest strengths (and for critics, one of his most confounding attributes).
Recognizing Fox as an enemy worth fighting is an admission of weakness for a president whose appeal has been partly predicated on the promise of unity. Glenn Beck, with his 3 million viewers, has been called a “cultural phenomenon.” You know what? So is Glee, a show with well more than twice that many viewers. Hysterical conservative hyperbole isn’t America. A showtune-singing multiracial gang of hopeful high-school losers, including a gay kid and a pregnant teen — that’s America. Beyond the fact that Fox will use this White House move to boost their ratings (Obama winning the election has always been their golden ticket — they’re on track now for their best year ever), it makes it seem as though they’re actually wounding the president. When you’re winning, acknowledging the enemy isn’t necessary. (Remember when Obama wouldn’t do those ten town halls with McCain?)
And this will allow mike-toting bullies like Glenn Beck to claim that they’ve cowed the president. No doubt we will hear in the coming weeks that Obama is “afraid” of Fox News. When he spoke to every network except for Fox last month, host Chris Wallace called his administration “the biggest bunch of crybabies I have dealt with in my 30 years in Washington.” Glenn Beck would never have the balls to say to Obama’s face what he’s said on air over the past few months. And now he’ll never have to. Bill O’Reilly, at least, during the election, went toe-to-toe with Obama. But he was positively docile, for him, when he did it — distinctly more polite and deferential than he is to almost any other liberal-leaning guest. O’Reilly, whatever you think of him and his opinions, is undoubtedly an intelligent, well-researched guy who is quick on his feet and firm in his convictions, which are largely unhysterical. Glenn Beck doesn’t have the wit, the knowledge, or the spine of Bill O’Reilly — but now we’ll never get the chance to see that proven.
Barack Obama himself doesn’t need to answer all of the insane rhetorical questions asked of him by Glenn Beck and his compatriots. That would obviously be a mistake. But legitimizing Fox News in this manner seems nearly as bad. Either way, he’s playing their game.