Obama: Crazy Like a Fox?

| Wed Oct. 21, 2009 9:35 AM EDT

In a column for PoliticsDaily.com, David Corn ponders the White House-Fox feud and observes that the Obama crew might be wasting too much firepower on the conservative network. After noting that it's ridiculous for Fox to deny it's a rightwing media outfit, he points out:

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.

Corn writes that it's unclear if the Obama White House has attacked Fox as part of some master political strategy craftily designed to whip up its own base and isolate conservative opposition in a Fox corner.

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. (MoveOn.org, 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.

Media watchers will be staying tuned to this channel to see if the White House, with its attack on Ailes & Co., turns out to be crazy like a fox.

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