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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.

"I suppose that's part of the overall frustration with Fox News. Grown-ups living in reality should be able to simply acknowledge reality -- the network is an appendage to the Republican Party. The pretense is paper thin. Reasonable people should be able to acknowledge this plain fact without it being controversial."

Ed Morrissey sees a boomerang effect, saying that "the all-opinion, totally non-journalism model at MSNBC has been tanking during the era of Hopeandchange. After all, if opinion trumps journalism, then NBC's alter ego should be sailing to the ratings championship. Instead, it's dragging anchor, with its viewership in sharp decline during the Obama administration.

"In truth, all three competitors practice mainly opinion journalism. On MS-NBC, they have zero straight journalism, Fox has its Special Report hour and some business news shows during the day, and CNN does somewhat more of it than Fox. Fox gets better ratings than before (they were consistently beating both before the election, too) because its opinion journalism offers something different than the Obama Hosannah Hours that appear on CNN and MS-NBC. Fox offers a product that the other two cablers and the networks don't offer, which is why their audience continues to grow.

"With that kind of product line, it doesn't hurt to have the White House contributing to the marketing campaign, especially for free. That's why the White House campaign is ill-advised, and why it backfires on them."

Baltimore Sun critic David Zurawik challenges the White House strategy, saying that "Dunn is absolutely wrong about Fox's coverage of the election last fall. I did watch it every day and wrote about it several times a week for this blog. And while I didn't like a lot of what I saw with soft interviews and only favorable coverage of Sarah Palin, it wasn't all about Bill Ayers and ACORN by a long shot. . . . I was suprised to hear a senior White House staffer sounding so uninformed and blantantly biased. This campaign by the Obama administration is dangerous to press freedom, and it should concern everyone in the press, not just Fox. You have to wonder who else is on this administration's enemies list."

Feeling Dissed

While Anita Dunn's comments were on the record, there's another cybertizzy over a quote from an unidentified "adviser." It began when CNBC's John Harwood reported the following in a story about Sunday's gay rights demonstration and left-wing criticism of the president: "Barack Obama is doing well with 90 percent or more of Democrats so the White House views this opposition as really part of the Internet left fringe. . . . For a sign of how seriously the White House does or doesn't take this opposition, one adviser told me those bloggers need to take off the pajamas, get dressed, and realize that governing a closely divided country is complicated and difficult."

This draws a blast from Americablog's John Aravosis:

"If we're all insignificant children who don't understand politics, and who the White House doesn't worry about, then why did a White House official feel the need to lash out at us via the NBC Nightly News? I'm not feeling very insignificant at the moment, are you?. . . .

"So the gay community, and its concerns about President Obama's inaction, and backtracking, on DADT and DOMA, are now, according to President Obama's White House, part of a larger 'fringe' that acts like small children who play in their pajamas and need to grow up. (And a note to our readers: The White House just included all of you in that loony 'left fringe.')

"I wonder how the Human Rights Campaign is going to explain how the White House just knifed our community less than 24 hours after he went to their dinner and claimed he was our friend. Someone in that White House needs to be fired."

But who is that someone? That's the problem with leaks -- no one knows who to go after.

Gay Patriot sees the president as all talk, no action:

"Aravsosis is onto something. The administration seem to think they can 'buy off' gay people by playing nice with the heads of various gay organizations (and prominent community activists), inviting them to the White House for cocktails, speaking to HRC's dinner. They are aware of how gay leaders fawned all over Bill Clinton in the 1990s while that Democrat said all the right things, but, (almost) never did anything which he feared could hurt him politically, even when it meant breaking the promises he made to gay people on the campaign trail."

Firedoglake's Jane Hamsher sounds fed up:

"That is just classic. After pandering to LGBT leaders Saturday night the truth comes out. Dear gays: grow up and let us get about the serious business of governance. Signed, some dude who's too afraid to give his real name."

Hamsher e-mailed Harwood, who "confirmed that the quote came from 'an Obama adviser.' He did say that the comments weren't specifically directed at 'the LGBT community or the marchers,' but 'referred more broadly to those grumbling on the left about an array of issues including the war in Afghanistan and health care and Guantanamo.' "

A Question of Weakness

One of Obama's most persistent critics, Fred Barnes, is trying to tar the president with a new label:

"George Will suggested last week that President Obama's self-referential speech on behalf of Chicago's bid for the 2016 Olympics may lead to his being known as the 'vain' president. Maybe, but worse things have been said about a president and probably will be if Obama declines to send substantially more troops to Afghanistan and rejuvenate his counterinsurgency strategy. He'll be called a 'weak' president. And the label will stick.

"A weak president is vulnerable, politically and otherwise. In Jimmy Carter's case, being seen as weak in dealing with Iran and the Soviets was a major factor in his defeat by Ronald Reagan in 1980. Americans don't like pushovers, especially pushover presidents. Obama is at risk of becoming a pushover.

"Afghanistan is his test. Public support for the war has fallen sharply this year, especially among Democrats. And Obama's liberal base is pushing him to rebuff General Stanley McChrystal, the commander in Afghanistan, and scale back the war effort. Reversing course on a critical issue of national security because of domestic politics -- that's an act of pure weakness."

Maybe so. But what if the president's shift is based not on domestic politics, but on a conclusion that the Karzai government stole the elections -- and therefore the war is militarily unwinnable with a corrupt partner?

The Politics of $%*#!!

Politico:

"President Barack Obama called rap star Kanye West 'a jackass.' Vice President Joe Biden told a senator to 'Gimme a [blank]ing break!' Economic adviser Christina Romer declared that Americans had yet to have their 'holy s' moment over the economy.

"Those who pay attention to political rhetoric say an unusual amount of profanity has emanated from this White House -- even without counting famously colorful White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel. But before this statement becomes fodder for yet another partisan debate (with conservatives saying Obama is disgracing the presidency, and liberals that the media are once again being unfair), they quickly add that Team Obama is no crasser than administrations past. It's just that they are being quoted more accurately.

"What's different, according to linguists, media analysts and reporters who've covered past administrations is the media: Networks and newspapers have become far more willing to run with quotes, video and audio of political figures and their aides saying things that never used to be repeated. They attribute the growth of the political potty mouth alternately to the proliferation of recording technologies; intense interest in all things Obama; the explosion of new media platforms that both circumvent and push traditional media while sharpening competition; a general coarsening of the public dialogue; or some combination of all of those factors."

It is true that media standards are changing. A decade ago you couldn't print in a family paper that something sucks; now it's fairly routine. And Keith Olbermann has been doing a WTF segment.

Glenn Goes Global

Glenn Beck, Time's cover guy, has no shortage of fans and detractors in America. But the Daily Beast's Alex Massie says he is now an international star:

"Glenn Beck has busted out of the United States. Thanks to Rupert Murdoch's Sky Television, which carries the Fox News Channel in the United Kingdom, political junkies in Britain are able to tune in to the Great Entertainer's latest plans to awaken the United States from sleepwalking toward disaster.

"Watching Beck, who sometimes resembles a snake-oil salesman's dim-witted assistant accidentally promoted to the top job, makes a foreigner wonder just what's happening to American conservatism. I confess that I find it impossible to determine whether Beck's show is serious or, as seems more probable, an elaborate practical joke played on his unwitting audience. I don't want to seem forward or rude, but one can't help but ask: Have you people lost your minds?

"Beck's show is more than a mere entertainment; it also demonstrates how far American popular conservatism has diverged from its counterparts in Britain and the rest of Europe. There have always been differences, some of them major, between the GOP and Britain's Tories, but until recently they were recognizably members of the same family, sharing common ancestors and a particular worldview. The relationship between Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher was based on their shared philosophical understanding of conservative values as much as it was on their personal affinity.

"But while British Tories share elements of the U.S. conservatives' analysis of foreign-policy threats, domestically their paths have diverged. David Cameron's 'progressive Tories' bear little resemblance to the Republican Party of Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee. Increasingly, British Tories wonder what has happened to their American relatives. It's as if your favorite cousin had a nervous breakdown, found religion, and became an evangelist for an apocalyptic cult prophesying the imminent end of the world as we know and love it."

Twitter Traffic

Which Twitter big shots are most successful in getting other big shots to follow them? Atlantic has the answer:

"The winner: Arnold Schwarzenegger. He's got the most followers (68) among the 168-member-strong elite political community. But the runner-up may surprise you: Nansen Malin, a blogger who sits on the Washington State GOP Executive Board, comes in a close second with 67 followers among the political Twitter elite.

"(In terms of overall followers, CNN Breaking News and President Obama are tops, with 2,759,654 and 2,240,540 followers, respectively.)

"Other notables among politicians are Sens. Mark Warner (D-VA) and Jim DeMint (R-SC); among the strategists/media figures/bloggers category, behind Malin are George Stephanopoulos and Patrick Ruffini; among news organizations, LA Times' Top of the Ticket blog wins the political-Twittersphere popularity contest, with Right Wing News and NPR Politics coming in second and third."

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