Fox Holes

In which the White House confuses an ‘aggressive’ press strategy with a petty one

You campaign in poetry, the saying goes; you govern in prose.

Here is some poetry, courtesy of Barack Obama, on the night his election win ushered in his transition from Hopeful Campaigner to President-Elect: “To those Americans whose support I have yet to earn, I may not have won your vote tonight, but I hear your voices. I need your help. And I will be your president, too.”

Poetic? Oh, definitely. Inspiring? Melodic? Suggestive of community and inclusivity and the transcendence of petty partisanship? Yep, yep, and yep.

So, then. Here, now, is some prose—courtesy of White House communications director Anita Dunn, appearing on CNN’s Reliable Sources yesterday morning—outlining the administration’s “new, more aggressive press strategy” for Howie Kurtz and the nation: “Let’s not pretend they’re a news network the way CNN is.”

Prose, indeed. Dunn, you might have guessed, was describing the team at the Fox News Channel—they of dubious Fairness and Balance, they of We Reporting/You Deciding, they of Beck and O’Reilly, and therefore of Operatic Patriotism and Populist Indignation, etc. And the presidential spokeswoman didn’t stop at the they’re-not-news remark. Instead, she continued: “What I think is fair to say about Fox, and certainly the way we view it, is that it really is more a wing of the Republican Party.”

Dunn’s declaration in this case is notable not merely for the melodrama of its partisanship (which would make it worthy, ironically, of Fox), or for its artful embodiment of recent rifts between FNC and the administration (the ACORN story and its offshoots, Fox and Friends’s “typical white person” fiasco, etc.), but also for the shift it signals: from the we’re-in-this-together optimism of the Obama transition to the rather more cynical posture—if-you-want-access-to-the-president-you’d-better-play-by-our-rules—of the Obama White House. (See, for example: the White House’s snub of Fox News during Obama’s five-network media blitz last month.)

On the one hand, of course, this general turnabout is a predictable stop on a president’s traditional path of poetry-to-prose: the business of governing is notoriously untidy, and effective leadership depends in large part on a politician’s ability to recognize that fact. Cynicism, alas, has a place in politics.

On the other hand, though, the administration’s apparent new ‘strategy’ toward Fox News—essentially, to deny that what the network provides is ‘news’ in the first place—is perilous in a particularly prose-y sort of way. Fox News—which is, both in addition to and because of its other notable characteristics, the number-one rated cable news network in the U.S.—has several million viewers daily. In suggesting that those viewers aren’t consuming good-faith information, but rather Republican propaganda, the administration is not only glibly ignoring the substantial disconnect between Fox’s reporting and its pundit-ing; it is also implicitly suggesting that the viewers in question don’t deserve anything but propaganda. Otherwise, wouldn’t the White House, rather than simply alienating the network and leaving it to its wretched nefariousness, redouble its efforts to reach out to Fox’s audience—“I will be your president, too”?

We live in an age of unprecedented choice among our media, which means that we live as well in an age of unprecedented ability to cherry-pick the information we consume. Few things, in the news, are truly universal anymore. One that still is, however, is our president—as a leader, as a narrative-driver, as a maker of news. Indeed, the premise of the presidency is that it is, finally, transcendent of the person who holds its office: whether the Oval occupant is named Clinton or Bush or Obama—and wherever he may fall for you personally on the line between Demigod and Dolt—the fact of the presidency itself is conducive to community. It unites us even in our differences.

If the White House were truly, then, as it seems to be suggesting, to exempt itself from its unifying role—if it were to continue along on its Fox-o-phobic path—it would be doing a grave disservice not only to the huge swath of Americans who watch Fox News, but also to Americans more generally. It would reinforce informational divides, rather than narrow them. It would implicitly reject the notion of an American community itself, abandoning the promise of togetherness that electrified so many on election night in favor of the pettiness of partisanship. It would choose prose, as it were, over the country’s great potential for poetry.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.