Presidents usually turn to their secretaries of state for foreign-policy advice. But Barack Obama must have been channeling Hillary Clinton when he decided to attack Fox News.
It was Clinton, of course, who blamed her husband's troubles during Monica Madness on a "vast right-wing conspiracy." Now White House communications director Anita Dunn is accusing Fox of operating as "a wing of the Republican Party."
A vast Fox wing conspiracy?
Every White House, in every age, has blamed the press for its problems. In 1798, at the urging of President John Adams, Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, making it a crime to publish "any false, scandalous and malicious writing." Opposition editors were arrested, and their papers shuttered. Compared to Adams, even Richard Nixon, who kept an enemies list and wiretapped journalists, was a piker.
So Obama is no different than his predecessors when it comes to mauling the media. But that's the problem. He said he WOULD be different. He would rise above the petty partisan bickering that has flooded the capital with verbal acid rain for years now. Apparently, those claims of civility are "no longer operable" (to quote another White House operative, Ron Ziegler, in the middle of Watergate).
The White House has every reason to be frustrated and furious with Fox commentators like Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly who specialize in half-truths and downright falsehoods about the president and his administration. Beck — the latest and shrillest addition to Fox's evening lineup — has called Obama a racist who "hates white people" and compared him, several times, to Hitler.
Clearly, Team Obama is following the same strategy they followed during the campaign — don't be swift-boated, don't let attacks go unchallenged, fight back. The White House is also worried that other media outlets will let the Fox blowhards set the agenda with their unrelenting and often unfounded assaults. Going back to the campaign, Obama has been dogged by a series of lies that will not die: He's a Muslim, a foreigner and a supporter of "death panels."
That's why the president's senior adviser, David Axelrod, warned George Stephanopoulos on ABC's "This Week" not to take Fox seriously: "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."
Still, the campaign against Fox makes little sense. For one thing, the White House is deliberately blurring the line between news shows and talk shows. True, Beck and company's high-decibel, pre-scripted act has more in common with professional wrestling than professional journalism. But Fox also employs many fine reporters and producers, including some Steve has taught at George Washington University, who have nothing to do with the prime-time shout fests.
More to the point, Obama's aides are sounding defensive and small-minded. They are diminishing themselves while elevating their enemies to the status of equals. No wonder the most complete coverage of this spat can be found at foxnews.com. To paraphrase the popular McDonald's ads: They're lovin' it. (And, by the way, we've heard no complaints from the White House about MSNBC's ardently pro-Obama show hosts.)
Strategy that works during a campaign does not always translate to the White House. Voters expect their politicians to be nasty and overheated. But they expect their presidents to be calm and dignified. Obama is really good at cool. So why stoop to Glenn Beck's level? And give him all that free publicity?
Team Obama was spoiled during the campaign by highly favorable press coverage that flummoxed their rivals (just ask Hillary). They benefited from what we have always believed is the most consistent bias in journalism: Reporters are in favor of a good story and against whoever is in power.
Like Obama, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush all profited from being outsiders who challenged a familiar and fatigued establishment. (The only winner in 33 years who followed a different strategy was George H.W. Bush).
Once the election is over, however, the pattern shifts. The press tilts against the man who has gone from insurgent to insider; criticizing a president is a better story than praising him, and that's a good thing. Every president has enormous ability to shape and control what the public hears and sees; only an independent media can keep him honest and hold him accountable.
So the White House should stop whining about a vast Fox wing conspiracy. It goes with the territory.
Cokie Roberts' latest book is "Ladies of Liberty: The Women Who Shaped Our Nation" (William Morrow, 2008). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.