Running against the media has a long, rich history. Back in the ’30s and ’40s, Gene Talmadge would travel rural and small-town Georgia railing about “them lying Atlanta newspapers,” stirring the resentment of voters against those fancy-pants big-city folks always printing stories about corruption and other shenanigans. You see a variation of that still today, with candidates such as John Oxendine and Nathan Deal blaming the “liberal Atlanta media” for forcing them to take $120,000 in illegal campaign contributions or spout off about “ghetto grandmothers.”
At the national level, nobody played that game with more gusto than Richard Nixon and his attack dog of a vice president, Spiro Agnew, both of whom turned the media into punching bags. Agnew in particular became the mouthpiece for speechwriter William Safire, who penned such classic attack lines as “nattering nabobs of negativism.”
Traditionally, the tactic has been a favorite of conservatives, but with the advent of Fox News and talk radio, that has begun to change. Back in the ’90s, Hillary Clinton complained quite accurately about “a vast right-wing conspiracy” against her husband’s administration, and the Obama administration is taking that a step farther, publicly dismissing Fox News as a legitimate news outlet.
As White House communications director Anita Dunn told the New York Times:
“We’re going to treat them the way we would treat an opponent. As they are undertaking a war against Barack Obama and the White House, we don’t need to pretend that this is the way that legitimate news organizations behave.”
Dunn made similar charges in an appearance on CNN, claiming that “the reality of it is that Fox News often operates almost as either the research arm or the communications arm of the Republican Party.” The overall strategy, and the thinking behind it, is laid out in a http://www.time.com/time/politics/article/0,8599,1929058,00.html. After a series of overblown “controversies” such as the president’s decision to speak to schoolchildren, Obama officials decided a new approach was necessary:
“… rather than just giving reporters ammunition to “fact-check” Obama’s many critics, the White House decided it would become a player, issuing biting attacks on those pundits, politicians and outlets that make what the White House believes to be misleading or simply false claims, like the assertion that health-care reform would establish new “sex clinics” in schools. Obama, fresh from his vacation on Martha’s Vineyard, cheered on the effort, telling his aides he wanted to “call ‘em out.”
The take-no-prisoners turn has come as a surprise to some in the press, considering the largely favorable coverage that candidate Obama received last fall and given the President’s vows to lower the rhetorical temperature in Washington and not pay attention to cable hyperbole. Instead, the White House blog now issues regular denunciations of the Administration’s critics, including a recent post that announced “Fox lies” and suggested that the cable network was unpatriotic for criticizing Obama’s 2016 Olympics effort.
White House officials offer no apologies. “The best analogy is probably baseball,” says (White House press secretary Robert) Gibbs. “The only way to get somebody to stop crowding the plate is to throw a fastball at them. They move.”
Personally, I like the move by the Obama administration. It’s not going to change Fox’s behavior; to the contrary, Fox understands quite well that it benefits from being cast as Obama’s opponent. That’s its market niche, and it exploits it cleverly. Obama is merely acknowledging what everyone already knew, and adjusting his behavior accordingly.