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Opinion Biden disdains Fox News — but still wants to reach its audience

Rupert Murdoch in New York on Sept. 10, 2017. (Julio Cortez/AP)

President Biden regards Fox News just the way you might expect from a career Democratic politician. He views the No. 1 cable news network “as one of the most destructive forces in the United States,” Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns write in their upcoming book, “This Will Not Pass: Trump, Biden, and the Battle for America’s Future.”

An even more dire judgment extends to Fox mogul Rupert Murdoch, who Biden told an associate was “the most dangerous man in the world.” (CNN’s Brian Stelter first reported on the Martin-Burns exclusive.)

Those condemnations notwithstanding, the Biden team has seen fit to slide occasional exclusives to the network.

Since Biden articulated his Murdoch assessment in mid-2021, the world has received a contextual reset on dangerous men: It’s hard to beat Russian President Vladimir Putin, author of the invasion of Ukraine and its many alleged war crimes. As media moguls go, however, Murdoch represents an enduring threat to a cohesive American democracy, as channeled every night through the hateful rantings of prime-time host Tucker Carlson.

What’s notable about Biden’s quip, however, is that it was made in private. That’s because the president appears to have made a deliberate decision not make such comments publicly — despite his occasional skirmishes with Fox News correspondents, most notably briefing room mainstay Peter Doocy.

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In an October 2021 CNN town hall, Biden joked, “And you know what I find fascinating? I turn on Fox to find out how popular I am.” And in a rambling January news conference, Biden addressed cable news and the country’s polarization. Americans “go to get reinforced in their views, whether it’s MSNBC or whether it’s Fox,” said Biden. “I do know that we have sort of a — put everybody in — put themselves in certain alleys and they’ve decided that, you know, how many people who watch MSNBC also watch Fox other than a politician trying to find out what’s going on in both places.”

Is there any more milquetoast commentary than lamenting both sides’ cable news attachments?

The last Democratic president to face Fox News’s propaganda was Barack Obama, whose administration took aim at Fox News from its early days. The president himself called the network “destructive” in a 2010 interview and kept up the candid, withering media criticism. After Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election, Obama lamented, “In this election, [they] turned out in huge numbers for Trump. And I think that part of it has to do with our inability, our failure, to reach those voters effectively. Part of it is Fox News in every bar and restaurant in big chunks of the country, but part of it is also Democrats not working at a grass-roots level, being in there, showing up, making arguments.”

The peril of presidents attacking Fox News emerged after that last Obama quote, as the network extracted plenty of programming from his comments. Then-host Megyn Kelly said, “In a wide-ranging sit-down, Mr. Obama talked about his legacy, the president-elect and what happened with the election. When he was specifically pressed on the Democrat’s shellacking, the president said it was not his policies or his party. Instead, he blamed Fox News.” (Actually, Obama blamed both.) Others at Fox News also made hay of Obama’s commentary.

Instead of working against Fox News, the Biden White House has worked with the network from time to time. Case in point: On March 10, Fox News digital politics reporter Brooke Singman scored an exclusive on a large group of former state-level attorneys general endorsing the nomination of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court. The network declined to comment on how it got the exclusive, though it’s hard to see how it could have happened without the involvement of the White House.

Another Singman exclusive previewed Biden’s remarks about law enforcement at his State of the Union address, including his opposition to defunding the police.

The friendly treatment of Murdoch’s network predates Biden’s inauguration. In September 2020, the network’s website published an exclusive on Biden endorsements from law enforcement officials and just weeks later did a piece — this one not marked as an exclusive — on Biden endorsements from former Republican national security officials. One of the Biden campaign’s digital advisers told the New York Times, “The headlines from the sources that were the most surprising were the ones that had the most impact. When people saw a Fox News headline endorsing Joe Biden, it made them stop scrolling and think.”

The strategic premise here rests on analyzing the Fox News audience, instead of stereotyping it. Yes, Fox News dominates among conservative viewers, but it also pulls in liberals and independents. Some of these folks, the Biden people have concluded, are persuadable. “I can’t blame somebody for not supporting my perspective if they literally have never heard it. It’s my job to get that view in front of viewers who are tuning in in good faith,” said former presidential candidate and current Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg in November 2020.

Why slam Fox News, in other words, when you can use Fox News?