Published October 12, 2009
Calling Fox News "a wing of the Republican Party," the Obama administration on Sunday escalated its war of words against the channel, even as observers questioned the wisdom of a White House war on a news organization.
"What I think is fair to say about Fox -- and certainly it's the way we view it -- is that it really is more a wing of the Republican Party," said Anita Dunn, White House communications director, on CNN. "They take their talking points, put them on the air; take their opposition research, put them on the air. And that's fine. But let's not pretend they're a news network the way CNN is."
Fox News senior vice president Michael Clemente, who likens the channel to a newspaper with separate sections on straight news and commentary, suggested White House officials were intentionally conflating opinion show hosts like Glenn Beck with news reporters like Major Garrett.
"It's astounding the White House cannot distinguish between news and opinion programming," Clemente said. "It seems self-serving on their part."
In recent weeks, the White House has begun using its government blog to directly attack what it called "Fox lies." David Gergen, who has worked for President Bill Clinton and three Republican presidents, questioned the propriety of the White House declaring war on a news organization.
"It's a very risky strategy. It's not one that I would advocate," Gergen said on CNN. "If you're going to get very personal against the media, you're going to find that the animosities are just going to deepen. And you're going to find that you sort of almost draw viewers and readers to the people you're attacking. You build them up in some ways, you give them stature."
He added: "The press always has the last barrel of ink."
Gergen's sentiments were echoed by Tony Blankley, who once served as press secretary to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
"Going after a news organization, in my experience, is always a loser," Blankley said on CNN. "They have a big audience. And Fox has an audience of not just conservatives -- they've got liberals and moderates who watch too. They've got Obama supporters who are watching. So it's a temptation for a politician, but it needs to be resisted."
Nia Malika Henderson, White House correspondent for the Politico newspaper, also questioned the White House offensive against Fox.
"Obama's only been a boon to their ratings and I don't understand how this kind of escalation of rhetoric and kind of taking them on, one on one, would do anything other than escalate their ratings even more," she said.
Dunn used an appearance on CNN's "Reliable Sources" over the weekend to complain about Fox News' coverage of the Obama presidential campaign a year ago.
"It was a time this country was in two wars," she recalled. "We'd had a financial collapse probably more significant than any financial collapse since the Great Depression. If you were a Fox News viewer in the fall election, what you would have seen would have been that the biggest stories and biggest threats facing America were a guy named Bill Ayers and something called ACORN."
Ayers was co-founder of the Weather Underground, a communist terrorist group that bombed the Pentagon and other buildings in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1995, Ayers hosted Obama at his home for a political function and the two men later served together on the board of an anti-poverty group known as the Woods Fund.
The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), which once had close ties to Obama, has been accused by a variety of law enforcement agencies of voter fraud. In recent weeks, the Democrat-controlled Congress moved to sever funding to ACORN after Fox News aired undercover videotapes of ACORN employees giving advice on how to break the law to a pair of journalists disguised as a pimp and prostitute.
As for Dunn's complaint about Fox News' coverage of the Obama campaign, a study by the Pew Research Center showed that 40 percent of Fox News stories on Obama in the last six weeks of the campaign were negative. Similarly, 40 percent of Fox News' stories on Obama's Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain, were negative.
On CNN, by contrast, there was a 22-point disparity in the percentage of negative stories on Obama (39 percent) and McCain (61 percent). The disparity was even greater at MSNBC, according to Pew, where just 14 percent of Obama stories were negative, compared to a whopping 73 percent of McCain stories -- a spread of 59 points.
Although Dunn accused Fox News of being a "wing of the Republican Party," she said the network does not champion conservatism.
"It's not ideological," she acknowledged. "I mean, obviously, there are many commentators who are conservative, liberal, centrist -- and everybody understands that."
Still, Obama refused to appear on Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace on Sept. 20, the day he appeared on five other Sunday shows. At the time, the White House characterized the snub as payback for the Fox Broadcast Network's decision not to air an Obama prime time appearance. But last weekend, Dunn blamed Fox News Channel's coverage of the administration for Obama's snub of Fox News Sunday.
"Is this why he did not appear?" Dunn said. "The answer is yes."
Wallace has called White House officials "the biggest bunch of crybabies I have dealt with in my 30 years in Washington."
Dunn was asked by CNN's Howard Kurtz whether Obama would grant an interview to Fox News by the end of the year.
"Obviously, he'll go on Fox, because he engages with ideological opponents and he has done that before, he will do it again," Dunn replied. "I can't give you a date, because frankly I can't give you dates for anybody else right now."
But last week, Fox News was informed by the White House that Obama would grant no interviews to the channel until at least 2010. The edict was relayed to Fox News by a White House official after Dunn discussed the channel at a meeting with presidential spokesman Robert Gibbs and other Obama advisers.
"What I will say is that when he (Obama) goes on Fox, he understands he's not going on it really as a news network, at this point," Dunn said on CNN. "He's going on to debate the opposition. And that's fine. He never minds doing that."
Dunn also strongly implied that Fox had failed to follow up on a New York Times story about a scandal swirling around GOP Sen. John Ensign of Nevada, although Fox News broadcast the stories on numerous shows, including Special Report with Bret Baier.
Clemente questioned the motives of the White House attack, which comes in the wake of an informal coffee last month between Fox chairman Roger Ailes and Obama adviser David Axelrod.
"Instead of governing, the White House continues to be in campaign mode, and Fox News is the target of their attack mentality," he said. "Perhaps the energy would be better spent on the critical issues that voters are worried about."
Blankley suggested the war on Fox News is unpresidential.
"It lowers the prestige," he said. "If you're president or speaker, at a certain level, you don't want to be seen to be engaging that kind of petty bickering. If you're just a congressman, maybe you can do it."
In an interview over the summer, Obama made clear that Fox News has gotten under his skin.
"I've got one television station that is entirely devoted to attacking my administration," he told CNBC's John Harwood. "You'd be hard pressed if you watched the entire day to find a positive story about me on that front."
At the White House Correspondents Dinner in May, Obama even mocked the media for supporting him.
"Most of you covered me; all of you voted for me," Obama said, spurring laughter and applause from the assembled journalists. "Apologies to the Fox table."
Gergen said the White House should delegate its attacks to outside support groups.
"Why don't they take this over to the DNC, over to the Democratic National Committee, and have their struggles like that fought out over there and not out of the White House?" Gergen said. "I have real questions about that strategy."