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Information War on Fox: No Upside for Obama Administration

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Last week, one of my former students wrote me about the Whitehouse/Fox News Channel hullabaloo.  

Jennie was enrolled in the first class I ever taught at the Annenberg School of Communication, University of Southern California.  The class was “War, Media and Propaganda,” and I taught it in spring 2002.  I was writing a book then called Information War: American Propaganda, Free Speech & Opinion Control Since 9/11.  

Information War was a direct response to the Bush-Cheney administration and government propaganda efforts to silence dissent in the media and among citizens.  

In 2002 it was like shooting fish in a barrel to find examples of the last administration’s opinion control efforts.  Bush and company certainly benefited from a close ideological tie to the Fox News Channel programming as well as most talk radio.   

But it’s not just ideology alone that directs people to certain favored media.  It’s a perceived tone.  It’s shared values.

Fox News Channel has a programming style that comes across as less media elite than MSNBC or CNN.  I’ve had many a conversation with my FNC-viewing friends who say that they feel an affinity with the network for not making fun of or dismissing their more conservative social and economic values.   

So my student Jennie wondered what I thought about certain members of the Obama administration telling other news networks not to treat Fox like a real news organization.   

My response was this:

It’s utterly ridiculous for the Obama administration to call out Fox News Channel. They don't know what they are up against; it's not just a cable news network.

Many FNC viewers consider themselves part of a social movement. Whether or not one agrees with everything discussed on FNC isn't the point.

It's very dangerous territory to tread for the Obama administration elite troika of Rahm Emanuel, Anita Dunn and David Axelrod.  Anita Dunn started the finger pointing with her appearance on Howard Kurtz’s Reliable Sources. She said, "Fox News often operates almost as either the research arm or the communications arm of the Republican Party."  David Axelrod followed with his revelation that Fox News “is not really news.”  “It’s pushing a point of view.”  Rahm Emanuel told CNN that President Obama considers Fox News “not a news organization so much as it has a perspective.”  And so what?

Is this really what we’re paying these government officials to do for the American people?

I’m sure these comments earns brownie points with those who loathe Fox News Channel and its “Foxification” influence on other cable news networks.  These same comments strengthen the core beliefs of conservatives but also marginalize independents who want a government in Washington that transcends petty partisan diversions.    

This is an administration put in office on a campaign pledge of practicality over ideology.  In the Fox case, it is treading on ideological terrain.  I don’t think it is the job of Obama’s top staff to use government time to go after Fox.  

Obama got it right earlier this week when he was asked about the information war between the White House and his administration. He said, "It's not something I'm losing a lot of sleep over.”  To further emphasize his point, he said, “I think the American people are a lot more interested in what we're doing to create jobs or how we're handling the situation in Afghanistan.”

You are right, Mr. President.  Jobs at home and global interventions seem a bit more important these days, especially on the eve of your first year anniversary in the White House. 

Dr. Nancy Snow is associate professor of public diplomacy at Syracuse University where she teaches in the Newhouse and Maxwell Schools.  Her most recent book is Persuader-in-Chief: Global Opinion and Public Diplomacy in the Age of Obama.