MEDIA
03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

White House Versus Fox News: A War In Need Of An Exit Strategy

Yesterday, we took up the issue of the White House's merry little media war with the folks over at Fox News. The administration's decision to openly criticize Roger Ailes' outfit has raised eyebrows in some circles. Jake Tapper pressed his own concerns with White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, asking him to explain "why it's appropriate for the White House to decide that a news organization is not one."

But so far as I know, no one is proposing any sort of draconian regulation that would force us into a "First they came for Fox News..." moment. As documented yesterday, Fox has "left the fold" of news organizations in precisely the fashion the White House describes and indeed puts little daylight between the open opposition of its on-air editorializers and the way it reports the news. What's going on is simply that the White House has decided to recognize the Fox News operation as a political opponent, not a tough-but-neutral news organization.

So, is the White House's strategy in this regard defensible? Not only is it defensible, it is sensible. But that raises the next question: is the particular tactic they've seized upon -- publicly engaging in battle with the network -- a wise way of executing this strategy? Speaking only for myself, that answer is no. In fact, I think it's a pretty stupid idea.

Once upon a time, going to war with somebody meant inflicting as much collateral damage on an opponent as possible in an effort to destroy them utterly. Nowadays, of course, counterinsurgency strategy is in vogue, which means we identify persuadable entities amid our opponents, attempt to win them to our side, and isolate the dead-ender enemies by out-competing them in the provision of security and well-being.

I'm having a hard time understanding how the White House is going to achieve either aim. Clearly, the White House is not going to destroy Fox News by marshaling sentiment against them or attempting to outdo them in the arena of public bellicosity. Similarly, I'm not seeing the path by which an open declaration of war with Fox is going to end up bringing any Fox News viewers or Fox News on-air entities over to their side. The actions the White House has taken are likely to only entrench the opposition against them. Already, we see this playing out in the way Sean Hannity is selling White House disapproval as a point of pride. This is similar to what happens when you place Iran on your "Axis of Evil" list -- you drive the reachable portion of the population back into the arms of the mullahs.

Furthermore, I am at a loss to explain what the White House's rules of engagement are in this war. Will the White House refuse to go on Fox? Terry McAuliffe, who went on Fox News Sunday this past weekend after supposedly consulting with the administration, says no. Will Anita Dunn be blogging about the White House's grievances against Fox on a daily basis? This would be an exercise in high-concept, taxpayer-funded redundancy. Do they mean to persuade other news organizations to take up this cause? That's a bit clueless. While rival talking-heads will gleefully train their barbs at Fox from time to time, the fact that the White House has opened up a new, shiny war on a political opponent is only going to give everyone else a chance to indulge themselves in the who's-up-who's-down narratives on which they prefer to report. Democratic activists have escalated this angle with a call to all Democratic lawmakers to refuse to go on Fox. I don't know what this achieves, other than to make Democratic activists feel good about themselves.

It's obvious that the White House must, as a matter of course, pay attention to the narratives that emanate from Fox News, and counter them keenly and intelligently. I just think this can be achieved without all the blue facepaint and barbaric yawping.

But look: plenty of people disagree with me, and find the White House's tactic to be sensible. (Want to share your opinion? Please leave a comment.) Take Michael Wolff, for example:

So I am revising my theory of what the Obama administration is doing in its frontal assault on Fox: I think they want us to take sides. Are you a Fox person or not a Fox person? And I think they want to identify Fox as the standard bearer of American conservatism. If you're a conservative, you're for Fox (ie, is that who you want to be?).

They are going to combine this triangulation with their passing of a health care bill. I think they believe that, once this has been passed, to have opposed it will be like opposing Social Security.

Hence, Republicanism = conservatism = Fox = rabid opposition to an incredibly popular piece of legislation = hopeless marginalization = new liberal consensus.

There may be something to this, but I have my doubts. Seems to me that Wolff is indulging himself in the old "Obama is playing a game of three-dimensional chess" supposition that's supposed to be Obama's solution to everything. But, if you're not putting your faith in the president's alleged mastery of Star Trek games, here's Dave Weigel:

The upshot for the White House is that its criticism of Fox News is painful but it's working. During the campaign, Obama's team boxed out Fox for its guilt-by-association stories, always packaged as news that the liberal media, being "in the tank" for Obama, was too cowardly to report. Robert Gibbs memorably asked whether Sean Hannity was an anti-Semite because he invited the notorious anti-Obama smear artist Andy Martin on his show. During the election this made sense, because local media coverage in swing states was obviously more important than a national cable channel that's mostly influential in the beltway. Now, Fox's coverage is so obscure and so disconnected from the White House's political problems -- it's 9.8 percent unemployment, not Anita Dunn quoting Mao -- that it seems worth ignoring again.

What I like about Weigel's take on the matter is that explicitly emphasizes the way in which Fox, in opposing the administration, boxes itself into warped, less credible news priorities. But let's recall that the Gibbs-Hannity tete-a-tete Weigel mentioned came about because the Obama campaign engaged their enemy. Gibbs showed up to have a good-faith, congenial interview with Hannity, and he only hit Hannity with his ties to Andy Martin only after the pundit gave him an opening. That sort of effective opposition is possible without a declaration of war. In fact, the lack of said declaration probably enhances its effectiveness.

In the end, what I am trying to understand is this: What is the White House seeking, in terms of results? What does "victory" look like? It seems to me that the reason any battle of ideas gets waged is to win a greater share of public support. I don't know how the White House's tactics will achieve this. Those who are predisposed to support Fox's point of view are only going to be hardened in their opposition. But in terms of potential support for Obama's policies, this cohort represents a sunk cost anyway. On the opposite side, there's clearly a significant number of people who will cheer the White House on in this effort, but that's a population that Obama's already won over, and needs no further convincing.

Meanwhile, I like to think that there's a equally significant number of people who don't care for Fox News's politics or point of view that nevertheless believe that the president is obligated to show up every day, stare down his opponents, make his argument with all the intelligence and passion he can muster, take his lumps, reflect on his failures, and wake up the next morning prepared to do it all again. If such people exist, they are poorly served by this strategy. And let's further acknowledge that the vast majority of Americans are concerned about unemployment, wars, the economy, the environment, the cost of health care, and any number of other things, and they can't possibly understand why on earth the White House has made a media spat into an actionable priority.

So, why is the White House doing this? Well, the conventional wisdom says that this is a short term gambit in which Anita Dunn, who will be leaving the White House in a few months, draws a little heat away from the White House's efforts to pass legislation and decide on a strategy in Afghanistan. The cynical take is that the White House knows that the hoped-for robust health care reform is going down to defeat, and battling with Fox is a cheap way of showing up for a liberal base that will soon have cause to be disappointed.

Obviously, this White House is going to have to contend with Fox News as a political opponent. You'd have to be daft to think otherwise. But I think in reality, the White House embarked on this "war" without much of a clue as to what they were going to specifically do and what end result they hoped to achieve. For their sake, they'd better have an exit strategy.

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