Sunday, October 25, 2009

Obama outs Fox, but reveals a big flaw

Surely President Barack Obama and his advisers don't really think that their feud with Fox News will do anything but enhance the cable network's viewership. A deeper problem is what the flap reveals about Team Obama, which seems to be more comfortable with campaigning than governing.

I'm not happy about that. It does not fill me with glee to see Fox News star Sean Hannity joyfully replaying Obama's 2004 come-together speech about how we're "not red states or blues states" but "the United States of America" and asking where is Obama's promise now?

I don't agree with Hannity on much. He's only a tad more serious-minded as a news clown, in my grumpy view, than his colleague Glenn Beck. But, as much as my wife might run from the house when she hears me say it, Hannity's right on this one.

Sure, it is disingenuous for right-wing pundits to accuse Obama of dividing the country, considering the five-star job they have done in turning us against each other. But if Obama is being judged by a different standard of civility, it is a standard he set for himself. He promised to bridge Washington's culture wars, not fire them up.

That's why it was disappointing to hear what every administration does sooner or later, blame media for their problems. White House communications director Anita Dunn started the fracas by calling Fox "opinion journalism masquerading as news." Senior adviser David Axelrod and Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel offered similar views and urged other media not to be led around by Fox on any stories.

Obama defended his team while also noting that he didn't spend much time thinking about Fox. Right. So why talk about Fox in such harsh terms? When powerful people lash back at the media that cover them, they only make the media look sympathetic. They boost their adversary's audience with curiosity seekers who wonder what all the fuss is about.

They also provoke a classic reflex: Other media and pundits from all sides circle their -- Our! -- wagons in solidarity, even when our embattled brothers and sisters make us feel like holding our noses while we defend the move.

In fact, Fox is what their defenders say it is, not a political organization but a news operation. It just happens to have some strong right-wing voices like Beck and Hannity who happen to be two of Fox's biggest audience attractions. Such phenomena were forecast in the movie "Network" in 1976. Back then the idea of a half-deranged demagogue set loose on a national audience for the sake of ratings still sounded far-fetched. These days the movie looks almost like a documentary.

But love Fox or hate it, it is a major news channel. Fox's credibility got a boost from two recent scoops that eventually caused other media to play catch-up: They hounded "green jobs" czar Van Jones into resigning, mainly because years earlier he signed a loony 9/11 "truther" petition, and they crusaded against the poor people's activist group ACORN, famously assisted by two young conservative freelance undercover reporters.

So the White House is pushing back. The administration's real goal: raise questions with other reporters so they'll double-check anything they hear on Fox before they run with it. Try to isolate and marginalize Fox's voice. Cut off Fox's influence before it blossoms into the rest of the mainstream media.

It's the sort of strategy that pops up when you're in campaign mode, a mode to which Obama's team is intimately familiar. But there also comes a time to ignore the yammering from the press box and pick up the olive branches of negotiations, compromise and reconciliation.

That was the big take-away in Sen. Lamar Alexander's thoughtful speech last week. The Tennessee Republican, who worked for President Richard Nixon, cautioned Obama against creating a Nixon-like "enemies list" of media, industry or congressional adversaries. That's a wise warning, even if the "list" in Obama's case appears to have only one name on it.

Hardball has its place. Obama doesn't have to cave in to his adversaries to get things done. But his inner circle could use the pragmatic, independent, old-school voice of, say, Ronald Reagan administration veterans like David Gergen, enlisted by Bill Clinton's White House, or Colin Powell, who has informally advised Obama.

Every president needs campaign experts. But every president also needs people who know how to slip off to the private meeting and bring leaders together in ways that also bring the country together. That's the change we're waiting for.

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