Reversing Course on Fox

Originally posted: February 19, 2011

Much was made early in the Obama administration when it “reset” relations with Russia. Now the White House seems to be pushing the “reset” button for another nemesis: Fox News Channel.

In the administration’s first two years, the president and his spokesmen repeatedly criticized the highest-rated cable news outlet. White House officials rarely went on Fox programs, and reports surfaced that Democratic analysts were warned to stay off of Fox.

Just more than a year ago, then-White House communications director Anita Dunn said Fox was “opinion journalism masquerading as news” and would be treated “the way we would treat an opponent.” Obama’s senior adviser at the time, David Axelrod, said Fox was “not a news organization” and suggested other news organizations to treat Fox with similar disregard. Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel at the time piled on, commenting about Fox, “It is not a news organization so much as it has a perspective.”

Even Obama once said Fox’s approach to news was “ultimately destructive” for the country. He further complained, “I’ve got one television station that is entirely devoted to attacking my administration,” leaving little doubt about which channel he meant.

The White House approach has clearly changed. While the Obama administration surely still views Fox with disdain, it has nonetheless shown signs of cooperation. The extended, live pre-Super Bowl interview of the president with Bill O’Reilly is an indicator. The president also recorded a segment that was played on O’Reilly’s Monday show, giving “The Factor” a ratings boost.

High-profile administration figures are showing up all over Fox lately. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton granted a prime-time interview to Greta Van Susteren during the Egyptian crisis. A week earlier, Clinton spoke with Chris Wallace on “Fox News Sunday,” a program the White House largely boycotted for months. Wallace once remarked that the Obama administration was a “bunch of crybabies” in reference to his inability to book White House interviews.

Obama senior adviser Valerie Jarrett did a live interview for the Fox morning show to preview the State of the Union address and recently discussed the president’s Chamber of Commerce address with Fox Business Channel.

Chief economic adviser Austan Goolsbee spoke live on Fox when February’s employment report was released. Fox security correspondent Catherine Herridge had exclusive reporting access to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano during the latter’s January trip to Afghanistan.

This White House reset with Fox is good for the administration and for the national dialogue. Pragmatically, it gives the White House the opportunity to speak directly to cable news’ largest audience. If the administration doesn’t speak for itself, somebody else will. Obama campaign strategists no doubt now see the need to get their message to the many independents and even Democrats who watch Fox. The November elections perhaps demonstrated that you can’t win enough voters by just talking to media friends.

Beyond the practical reasons, however, the administration reset broadens the national discussion and shows a grudging acknowledgment that a free press will certainly challenge the government. The president’s comment to O’Reilly was on target when he said that point-of-view journalism is “part of our democracy” and “There is nothing wrong with that.” Obama also acknowledged that the Fox “news guys . . . try to do a good job.”

Fox News is not like its television news competitors. Opinion-driven shows by commentators such as Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck do, indeed, give the White House a rough ride. Fox does have, however, many other shows that are well regarded journalistically, such as Bret Baier’s “Special Report” broadcast and “The Fox Report” with Shepard Smith.

In his second inaugural address, Thomas Jefferson, who helped craft the constitutional free press guarantees, spoke of the “artillery of the press” that had attacked his administration. He said, however, that his public duties deserved his attention, and the press problems should be left to judgment by the public. Richard Nixon, however, kept a running battle with the media throughout his presidency, even putting journalists on his “enemies list.”

Jefferson’s legacy on press freedom has served him well. Nixon’s has not. Obama’s remains to be seen.

Jeffrey M. McCall is a professor of communication at DePauw and 1976 graduate of the University


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