The relationship between President Barack Obama and the Fox television network, and in particular the Fox News Channel, escalated into a headline-grabbing feud in the fall of 2009, prompting criticism of both the cable network's politically-charged commentary and the administration's reaction to Fox's unfavorable coverage.
An October 23 story in U.S. News and World Report stated that, although the Democratic president and the conservative-leaning news channel have always had fundamentally different political views, "Team Obama was pushed over the brink by a growing list of what it considered outrageous anti-Obama conduct by Fox that showed no sign of stopping." The U.S. News story said Obama staffers reached a "break point" this summer as Fox personalities tried to pressure controversial Obama advisers to resign, and later created the impression that "angry anti-Obama protesters at congressional town hall meetings last summer signaled that Obama's healthcare proposals were dying."
Several news sources cited a surge in hostility between the parties the weekend of September 20, when Obama appeared on five different networks' Sunday morning news shows touting his health care reform plan, but did not appear on Fox. According to a September 21 story in The San Francisco Examiner, the administration referred to Fox as an "ideological outlet," and quoted an unnamed Obama spokesperson as saying "we figured Fox would rather show 'So You Think You Can Dance' than broadcast an honest discussion about health insurance reform," referring to the network's decision to run the popular dance show on its broadcast stations instead of an Obama news conference in July 2009.
On a September 19 interview on the Fox News show "The O'Reilly Factor," Chris Wallace, the host of "Fox News Sunday," reacted to the administration's decision not to appear on his show by calling the Obama White House "the biggest bunch of crybabies I have dealt with in my 30 years in Washington."
In an October 11 New York Times story, White House communications director Anita Dunn spoke out directly against Fox. "We're going to treat them the way we would treat an opponent," said Dunn. "As they are undertaking a war against Barack Obamaand the White House, we don't need to pretend that this is the way that legitimate news organizations behave."
Michael Clemente, Fox's senior vice president for news, answered with a press release on October 12. "Instead of governing, the White House continues to be in campaign mode, and Fox News is the target of their attack mentality," Clemente wrote. "Perhaps the energy would be better spent on the critical issues that voters are worried about."
OnOctober 18, David Axelrod, President Obama's senior advisor, said Fox is "not really a news station," even in their daily news programming. "It's really not news -- it's pushing a point of view. And the bigger thing is that other news organizations like yours ought not to treat them that way, and we're not going to treat them that way," Axelrod said on ABC's "This Week." "We're going to appear on their shows. We're going to participate, but understanding that they represent a point of view."
In an October 23 CBS News story, Dunn said that "FOX News often operates almost as either the research arm or the communications arm of the Republican party."
At times, the conflict moved beyond words. On October 22, the Treasury Department tried to exclude Fox News from pool coverage of interviews with "pay czar" Kenneth Feinberg, but backed down after strong protests from other press outlets. "All the networks said, that's it, you've crossed the line," saidCBS News White House correspondent Chip Reid, in the October 23 CBS News story.
"What gives this dust-up special irony is that Fox News success comes in no small part from its ability to convince its viewers that the 'mainstream' media are slanted to the left," CBS political correspondent Jeff Greenfield said on the October 23 CBS News story, noting that Fox's prime-time voices generally come from the right. "Now, the White House is arguing that the network is not a real news organization at all, and that has brought some mainstream media voices to its defense."
In an October 19 entry on The Washington Post's PostPartisan blog, columnist Ruth Marcus criticized the Obama administration's feud with Fox as being "dumb on multiple levels" and distracting to the administration's goals. "Where the White House has gone way overboard is in its decision to treat Fox as an outright enemy and to go public with the assault. Imagine the outcry if the Bush administration had pulled a similar hissy fit with MSNBC," Marcus wrote. "Certainly Fox tends to report its news with a conservative slant - but has anyone at the White House clicked over to MSNBC recently? Or is the only problem opinion journalism that doesn't match its opinion?"
In an October 26 Associated Press story, AP journalist Ben Feller characterized the hostility between Obama and Fox as consistent with the administration's previous reactions to criticism, stating that "publicly singling out one news organization is but the most highly publicized push-back from an Obama White House that began back during last year's presidential campaign building a reputation for aggressively confronting reporters over stories it didn't like and using hardball tactics to try to get its way."
Martha Joynt Kumar, a political science professor at Towson University who studies White House communications, told the AP that all presidents will inevitably complain about their treatment in the press.
"The press is there as a surrogate for the public, to ask the questions the public wants answers for," Kumar said in the October 26 AP story. "Their job is not to stand there and provide him an opportunity to talk on any subject he wants."
In an October 28 column, The Wall Street Journal's Thomas Frank said the Obama administration was right to call Fox a partisan organization. "To point out that this network is different, that it is intensely politicized, that it inhabits an alternate reality defined by an imaginary conflict between noble heartland patriots and devious liberals - to be aware of these things is not the act of a scheming dictatorial personality. It is the obvious conclusion drawn by anybody with eyes and ears," Frank wrote. "Still, one wishes that the Obama administration had taken on Fox News with a little more skill. As cultural criticism goes, this was clumsy, plodding stuff. What the situation required was sarcasm, irony, a little humor. Simply feeding Fox a slice of raw denunciation was like dumping gasoline into a fire. It did nothing but furnish the network with a real-world validation of its long-running conspiracy theories - and a nice bump in its ratings."
- Jacob Parsley
Silha Fellow and Bulletin Editor