The White House's battle with Fox News reached a new high on Sunday, when Communications Director Anita Dunn went on national television to blast Fox as a partisan organization that functions as an appendage to the Republican Party.
"Fox News often operates almost as either the research arm or the communications arm of the Republican Party," Dunn told CNN, adding, "let's not pretend [Fox is] a news organization like CNN is." Dunn also took her beef to the New York Times, saying in a Sunday interview that Fox is "undertaking a war against Barack Obama and the White House [and] we don't need to pretend that this is the way that legitimate news organizations behave."
In the most significant exchange on CNN, Dunn stressed that President Obama now personally views Fox as a partisan opponent, rather than a journalistic organization. "When he goes on Fox he understands he is not going on it as a news network at this point," she explained, "he is going on it to debate the opposition."
That's a big departure from how most of the Democratic establishment engages Fox. It's been a long time coming.
While rank and file Democrats view Fox News as an obviously hostile force, elected Democrats have long struggled over whether to engage or fight the channel. In fact, the Democratic establishment even agreed to empower Fox as an official host and moderator of a debate during the presidential primaries -- but that bit of self-handicapping was scuttled after a coalition of progressive bloggers and activists objected. By the homestretch of the presidential campaign, Obama's campaign dialed up the heat, aggressively confronting Fox with pointed barbs from senior staff, surrogates and sometimes the candidate. (And who can forget Robert Gibbs turning the tables on Sean Hannity on Fox last October?)
When campaign mode ended, however, the Obama team initially struggled with how to counter Fox from inside the White House. There was a wave of Obama-resentment for Fox to ride -- and sometimes stoke off-camera -- and presidents typically stay above the fray of media criticism.
Dunn's new pressure is part of a larger "call em out" strategy, recently telegraphed in Time magazine, to attack lies as "lies" and treat Fox as a place for rough debate with opponents -- not journalistic exchanges. Gibbs says playing hardball will work, and he likens it to, well, hardball: "The only way to get somebody to stop crowding the plate is to throw a fastball at them. They move."