Firing Back

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 13, 2009; 9:29 AM

The White House is now fighting a three-front war: Iraq, Afghanistan and Fox News.

I found myself in the middle of that conflict on Sunday when my interview with Anita Dunn aired on CNN's "Reliable Sources." Within hours the thing went viral; stories and video of the White House communications director's remarks spread to the Huffington Post, Daily Beast, Media Bistro, Politico, Mediaite, Hot Air and many other sites.

I had thought Dunn might try to smooth things over with the country's highest-rated cable news network, as guests often do in front of a television camera, but instead she was determined to ratchet things up: "The reality of it is that Fox News often operates almost as either the research arm or the communications arm of the Republican Party. . . . Take their talking points and put them on the air. Take their opposition research and put them on the air, and that's fine. But let's not pretend they're a news network the way CNN is."

I don't think she was freelancing; there are meetings in every White House about what message to put out on the Sunday shows.

Dunn acknowledged that the president had intentionally stiffed Fox for this reason when he did that Sunday morning blitz a few weeks back, but added: "Obviously he'll go on Fox because he engages with ideological opponents. . . . When he goes on Fox, he understands that he is not going on -- it really is not a news network at this point. He's going to debate the opposition."

Leaving aside the distinction between Fox reporters and the likes of O'Reilly, Hannity and Beck--Dunn admitted that Major Garrett is a fair journalist--does this sort of frontal attack make political sense? Could Obama score points with part of Fox's audience by engaging, as he did by going on the "Factor" during the campaign? Or does the cable channel provide a useful foil for a Democratic administration?

Plus, if you look at MSNBC's lineup after 6 p.m., Fox isn't the only network that goes heavy on the opinionated hosts.

At the Nation, Ari Melber calls Dunn's criticism "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."

Washington Monthly's Steve Benen says Dunn offered a reality check:

"I don't doubt these comments will cause a stir at the GOP news network, but given how obviously, painfully accurate Dunn's observations are, I'm actually looking forward to seeing how the channel denies what is plainly true.

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