Mark Twain famously advised against picking fights with people who buy ink by the barrel. He was referring, of course, to newspapers, but the adage works equally well in these early days of the 21st century. Don’t pick fights with people who can beam themselves into living rooms 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
But then, Mark Twain was not as thin-skinned as Barack Obama.
The White House assault on Fox News, led by White House Communications Director Anita Dunn, is actually pretty mind-blowing. Politicians have long selected whipping boys in the press. Conservative politicians have been quick to point fingers at “the liberal media” even when it’s not particularly appropriate. Liberal politicians have been trying to paint horns on Rush Limbaugh’s head for many years now…when Timothy McVeigh’s bomb went off in Oklahoma City, President Clinton ridiculously tried to blame the terrorism on hate speech as heard on Rush Limbaugh’s radio show.
The success or failure of these political games is largely dependent on how true the statement is. Yes, Virginia, there really is a liberal media, so that accusation has resonated with the American people. No, Rush Limbaugh is not a racist, hate-filled, homophobic, sexist, fire-breathing zealot, so that accusation is generally accepted only by those who want to believe it because it reinforces their view of what conservatives think.
But this is the first time in my knowledge that a White House has resorted to an “it’s-my-ball-and-I’m-going-home” mentality when dealing with an entire network. Indeed, the most popular news network in the country.
Since August, not a single White House official has appeared on the Fox News Sunday program because the network fact-checked an interview with the assistant secretary to the administrator of Veterans’ Affairs Tammy Duckworth. You can read the full transcript of Wallace’s conversation with Duckworth here, but the main thing to take away from it is that Duckworth sat there and either was woefully misinformed, in which case she was set up to fail, or she repeatedly lied through her teeth. Wallace, a good journalist, called her on the misstatements and then went back the following week and fact-checked her.
Apparently Anita Dunn does not dispute that what Duckworth said was untrue. She is simply appalled by the idea that a Sunday morning show would dare to fact check someone from the administration. A while back, I referred to Barack Obama as the “crybaby-in-chief” and this latest offensive against Fox News is further proof that Barack Obama has lived an incredibly sheltered political life. For his entire political career he has been wrapped in swaddling clothes by a Chicago political machine that pinned its hopes on the bright kid with a gift for golden oratory. As a state senator, he voted “Present” over 100 times; as a U.S. Senator, he spent his time running for President and smiling for the cameras. As President, he has allowed Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid to do the heavy lifting, while he does the photo op and the stacked town halls. Barack Obama’s greatest fear is that someone will see past the smile and recognize that behind the speeches lies a vast emptiness.
This is evident in how he handles dissent. He mocks those he disagrees with because he can not compete on the battleground of ideas. He sends out attack dogs (Anita Dunn is only the latest) to marginalize and ostracize his perceived enemies who are really no more than critics. He uses the media that refuses to look behind the smile to get out his message. Anita Dunn recently spoke of the Presidential campaign at a conference to the Dominican government at which she bragged about the White House “control” over the media:
“Very rarely did we communicate through the press anything that we didn’t absolutely control,” said Dunn.
There are two stories here: one is of a President who is, frankly, such a wuss that he cannot tolerate anybody out there with a differing opinion and a public megaphone with which to voice it. The other is the story of a press that is so partisan that they willingly neglect the very things that they are supposed to do: fact check the Administration, make sure quotes are sourced, investigate the people who have been elected to do our bidding. It’s no surprise that news outlets are willing to help the Administration in their goals: Fox News is competition, and if the President of the United States wants to say through his spokespeople that Fox is “not a news organization,” why should CNN get in their way?
Is Fox a conservative news network? Yes, in the sense that the news shows give conservatives equal time, which is something MSNBC or CNN or the networks won’t do. It is true the opinion shows on Fox tilt conservative. Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Greg Gutfield are all conservative. Bill O’Reilly leans Republican but take it from this card-carrying member of the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy: Bill O’Reilly is no conservative; he’s a populist. But there are liberal shows on Fox News as well. Shepard Smith is, according to things I’ve read, fairly liberal. Greta van Sustern is liberal. O’Reilly and Hannity routinely feature liberal guests. The news shows with Chris Wallace, Bret Baier, and the shows throughout the day all feature liberal guests and conservative guests. The political affiliations of Baier, Bill Hemmer, Martha McCallum, Julie Banderas are completely unknown to me, and that’s as it should be. I assume Chris Wallace is a liberal because his father is the poster boy for the “liberal media.” Megyn Kelly’s conservative leanings are known to me only because she has appeared as a guest on O’Reilly and spoke her mind about the issues of the moment. The Fox and Friends show tends to be conservative, but they have liberal guest on all the time.
The point of this is that a news network that features an even mix of conservatives and liberals in its news shows is apparently way too hostile for the thin-skin of Barack Obama to handle. Nobody is surprised that Obama doesn’t want to engage directly with Glenn Beck, but Chris Wallace? Because Wallace called out an official administration spokeswoman on her blatant untruths?
I’m not worried about Fox News in this fight. They’re the big boys on the block and can take care of themselves. I worry that we’re seeing a Presidency that after only 9 months in office is already degenerating into Nixonian listings of media enemies and paranoia. This is the same Administration that wanted you to email them with rumors you had heard about the downside of health care reform, after all. In the meantime, if you want to know about Green Jobs czar Van Jones’s radical beliefs, or Anita Dunn’s philosophical love for Chairman Mao…well, you’ll find those stories only on Fox.
The truth of it all is that the vast majority of news outlets and their reporters are ready, willing, and able to give Barack Obama a free ride, and that’s just the way the administration likes it. And if that means they have to demonize and make enemies of a news organization they feel isn’t a good team player…well, that’s just the Chicago way.