The White House vs. Fox News
Posted by dorian on October 23, 2009
Behind the War Between White House and Fox
WASHINGTON — Late last month, the senior White House adviser David Axelrod and Roger Ailes, chairman and chief executive of Fox News, met in an empty Palm steakhouse before it opened for the day, neutral ground secured for a secret tête-à-tête.
Mr. Ailes, who had reached out to Mr. Axelrod to address rising tensions between the network and the White House, told him that Fox’s reporters were fair, if tough, and should be considered separate from the Fox commentators who were skewering President Obama nightly, according to people briefed on the meeting. Mr. Axelrod said it was the view of the White House that Fox News had blurred the line between news and anti-Obama advocacy.
What both men took to be the start of a frank but productive dialogue proved, in retrospect, more akin to the round of pre-Pearl Harbor peace talks between the United States and Japan.
By the following weekend, officials at the White House had decided that if anything, it was time to take the relationship to an even more confrontational level. The spur: Executives at other news organizations, including The New York Times, had publicly said that their newsrooms had not been fast enough in following stories that Fox News, to the administration’s chagrin, had been heavily covering through the summer and early fall — namely, past statements and affiliations of the White House adviser Van Jones that ultimately led to his resignation and questions surrounding the community activist group Acorn.
At the same time, Fox News had continued a stream of reports rankling White House officials and liberal groups that monitor its programming for bias.
Those reports included a critical segment on the schools safety official Kevin Jennings, with the on-screen headline “School Czar’s Past May Be Too Radical”; urgent news coverage of a video showing schoolchildren “singing the praises, quite literally, of the president,” which the Fox News contributor Tucker Carlson later called “pure Khmer Rouge stuff”; and the daily anti-Obama salvos from Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity.
There followed, beginning in earnest more than two weeks ago, an intensified volley of White House comments describing Fox as “not a news network.”
“It was an amalgam of stories covered, and our assessment of how others were dealing with those stories, that caused us to comment,” Mr. Axelrod said in describing the administration’s thinking.
The heated back-and-forth between the White House and Fox News has brought equal delight to Fox’s conservative commentators, who revel in the fight, and liberal Democrats, who have long characterized the network as a purveyor of right-wing propaganda rather than fact-based journalism.
Speaking privately at the White House on Monday with a group of mostly liberal columnists and commentators, including Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann of MSNBC and Maureen Dowd, Frank Rich and Bob Herbert of The New York Times, Mr. Obama himself gave vent to sentiments about the network, according to people briefed on the conversation.
Then, in an interview with NBC News on Wednesday, the president went public. “What our advisers have simply said is that we are going to take media as it comes,” he said. “And if media is operating, basically, as a talk radio format, then that’s one thing. And if it’s operating as a news outlet, then that’s another.”
In a sign of discomfort with the White House stance, Fox’s television news competitors refused to go along with a Treasury Department effort on Tuesday to exclude Fox from a round of interviews with the executive-pay czar Kenneth R. Feinberg that was to be conducted with a “pool” camera crew shared by all the networks. That followed a pointed question at a White House briefing this week by Jake Tapper, an ABC News correspondent, about the administration’s treatment of “one of our sister organizations.”
White House officials continue to interact with Fox News correspondents whom they have complimented as professional, including Major Garrett and Wendell Goler.
But Michael Clemente, senior vice president for news and editorial programming at Fox, said the White House was conflating the network’s commentary with its news coverage. That, Mr. Clemente said, “would be like Fox News blaming the White House senior staff for the Washington Redskins’ losing record.”
“I think we’re doing the job we’re supposed to be doing,” he said, “and we do it as well as anyone.”
Mr. Clemente suggested that the fight was part of a larger White House strategy to marginalize critics. He cited a report in Politico about a strategy session in August at which officials discussed plans to move more aggressively against opponents.
White House officials acknowledged that Fox News did come up at that meeting, although not, they said, as a central topic. A number of issues had been added to the White House’s list of grievances by then, including the network’s heavy coverage of some of the more intensely anti-administration activity at town-hall-style meetings on health care and Mr. Beck’s remark that Mr. Obama “has a deep-seated hatred for white people.”
The first real shot from the White House, however, came when aides excluded “Fox News Sunday With Chris Wallace” — which they had previously treated as distinct from the network — from a round of presidential interviews with Sunday morning news programs in mid-September.
“We simply decided to stop abiding by the fiction, which is aided and abetted by the mainstream press, that Fox is a traditional news organization,” said Dan Pfeiffer, the deputy White House communications director. Later that week, White House officials said, they noticed a column by Clark Hoyt, the public editor of The Times, in which Jill Abramson, one of the paper’s two managing editors, described her newsroom’s “insufficient tuned-in-ness to the issues that are dominating Fox News and talk radio.” The Washington Post’s executive editor, Marcus Brauchli, had already expressed similar concerns about his newsroom.
White House officials said comments like those had focused them on a need to make their case that Fox had an ideological bent undercutting its legitimacy as a news organization.
Fox News Channel certainly seems to be enjoying a row it considers ratings candy, having devoted hours of news coverage and commentary to the fight.
But White House officials said they were happy to have at least started a public debate about Fox.
“This is a discussion that probably had to be had about their approach to things,” Mr. Axelrod said. “Our concern is other media not follow their lead.”
A version of this article appeared in print on October 23, 2009, on page A16 of the New York Times edition
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