The jousting between the White House and Fox News is drawing grave warnings from pundits to Obama’s team that this is a losing issue for their man. They quote the old tag, “Never pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel.”
Certainly the jabbing has been refreshingly vigorous. Anita Dunn, the White House communications director, explains Obama’s refusal to appear on Fox News by saying, “Fox News often operates either as the research arm or the communications arm of the Republican party. We're going to treat them the way we would treat an opponent.”
“I want to show you right where the enemy is located,” Beck screams to his adoring three-million audience as he circles Rupert Murdoch's Fox News headquarters in green ink on a map of New York. “This is the enemy, America!”
Surely, it was a no-brainer for the White House. Fox’s troupe of right wingers will trash Obama, whatever Dunn says. Why not please your own political base by showing a little backbone and giving Murdoch a slap on the snout?
Besides, history suggests that if the White House keeps up the small arms fire and doesn’t lose its cool, in the end it will carry the day, and edge Fox as a network operation into the Glen Beck insane asylum, viewed with derision by even more millions of Americans.
In the case of the Obama administration there's the added bonus that after surrendering abjectly to every powerful interest group in America, they're at last showing an appetite for a scuffle.
Many presidents have seen political benefit in setting up the press as irresponsible mudslingers, overpaid, lazy and politically biased, which is what most people reckon it is anyway. The champion here was Richard Nixon who unleashed Pat Buchanan and the late William Safire, and those famous lines for vice president Spiro Agnew, including the rather playful “nattering nabobs of negativism.”
Actually it’s a measure of how sloppy the Nixon people were that across the entire Watergate Scandal they failed to excavate Carl Bernstein’s family ties to the Communist Party, nor the fact that every few weeks Bernstein would take time off from his investigative labors with Bob Woodward and drive up to Vermont to visit his cousin Shoshana who at that time was living under an alias in Brattleboro, one jump ahead of the FBI which had her on its Ten Most Wanted list as a radical bomber. People often overestimate the surveillance capacities of the state. One leak of that info to one of Nixon’s pet columnists and the Watergate scandal would have been over.
But in some of the famous exchanges from Nixon-time, it was the president who came out ahead in the eyes of public opinion. I can remember watching the clash between Nixon and Dan Rather in a press conference in 1974 as the Watergate scandal neared its climax. When Rather stood up, Nixon’s people in the room booed and Rather’s colleagues cheered. Nixon, on the stage, looked down at Rather and asked with heavy sarcasm, “Are you running for something?” Dan snapped back, “No, sir, are you?” Many people took Rather’s response as smartass, and out of place. But then, Rather was never the brightest bulb on the block.
Nixon’s chief weapon of coercion before the 1972 election was the Joint Operating Agreement, which suspended normal anti-trust rules so that competing newspapers in one town could, in the name of newspaper preservation, collude in fixing advertising rates. In the ’72 race Nixon collected a record number of newspaper endorsements.
Another weapon in the wars between White House and press was a tax audit or an indictment. In the 1930s, Moe Annenberg, with close mob ties and co-owner of the Race Wire, ATT’s fourth biggest customer, owned The Philadelphia Inquirer and used it to support Republican politicians in Pennsylvania and attack Roosevelt. FDR promptly turned for help to David Stern, publisher of the Philadelphia Record and the New York Post. Stern promoted an IRS investigation and Moe pulled three years in jail. (Moe was the father of a former US ambassador to the Court of St James, Walter Annenberg — who spent many diligent years winching his family’s reputation out of the mud.)
Some presidents, like Kennedy and Reagan, had no need to foment a public feud with the press, since the press in all essentials was in their pockets anyway. Carter furnishes the classic case of someone who simply lost the initiative and fatally allowed the press to make fun of him as a wimp, in his canoe beating off a giant rabbit with a paddle, or passing out during a jog, or whining about “malaise.”
The most intricate story is that of the jousting between the Clintons and the press, from the moment, almost fatal to his initial presidential campaign, that Murdoch’s National Star exposed Clinton’s long affair in Little Rock with Gennifer Flowers in January, 1993.
Hillary Clinton threw down the gauntlet on January 27, 1998, at the onset of the Lewinsky affair, when she told Matt Lauer of NBC that “the great story here for anybody willing to find it and write about it and explain it is this vast right-wing conspiracy that has been conspiring against my husband since the day he announced for president.”
At the time plenty of people made fun of HRC for this, but it was undoubtedly smart politics, just as the attack on Fox News is now. It fired up Clinton’s base, and allowed an extensive cottage industry to thrive, unearthing the rightwing conspirators and their financial backers, such as Richard Mellon Scaife.
Seventy-five years ago, it mattered greatly to FDR what the Philadelphia Inquirer was saying about him. Obama’s White House probably cares about the New York Times and the Washington Post but not much else. The Wall Street Journal has loathed Obama from the getgo. The Fox Network is really the only enemy with mass appeal and as I suggested at the start it’s not political rocket science to go after it. Tone matters here. The barbs should not be whiny, but caustic and good humored, to the effect that this is not a news medium but the propaganda wing of the Republican Party, as Dunn says. It’s essential not to blink. Glenn Beck is connected to sanity by a pretty thin mooring rope. A few months of this and he’ll probably pop, either going back on the bottle or slithering into a psychotic break, though some would say this is a nightly event anyway.
Alexander Cockburn can be reached at email@example.com