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White House vs. Fox News: Who’s Winning the PR War?

As the adage goes, you should never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel. So, what’s behind the White House’s PR offensive against Fox News?

When Obama communications director Anita Dunn first referred to Fox as not a news organization, but, rather as an arm of the Republican party, I was surprised. It seemed to run counter to conventional communications strategy, if not good sense. First, it provided several days’ worth of distraction from actual policy discussion. It also served to put a spotlight on Fox, which wasted no time in casting itself as a victim of Nixonian partisan politics. And, the administration’s interview boycott – in theory – deprives it of access to an audience that is surely broader than the most hardcore conservatives.

The PR war would also seem to go against the president’s own “brand” persona. Though the Obama campaign took plenty of shots at Fox before the election, he was supposed to be the guy who would heal our wounds, bridge the political and cultural divide, and bring us together as a nation. The White House has been careful to use surrogates in its criticism, leaving the president somewhat above the fray. But, he still risks looking partisan, or even petty. What happened?

My take is that the White House isn’t really going after Fox. At least, not solely. Sure, it probably wants to show more spine after the beating it’s taken over healthcare. But its true goal is to delegitimize the Republican party. The prize? Independent voters. A classic strategy to woo the middle ground, after all, is to marginalize the other guy.

The initial White House statement didn’t call Fox a mouthpiece for “conservatives” or “right-wingers.” Nope, it equated it with the GOP. If the administration can identify the entire Republican party with its most extreme advocates – the ranting, fist-shaking, conspiracy-spotting “mad men” like Glenn Beck – it can perhaps capture the independent-minded middle. Meanwhile, Fox also continues to position itself as serving the ordinary American. What it really comes down to is a contest to see who can be perceived as more mainstream.

Is it working? Both sides, of course, are claiming advantage. Fox says its ratings are up. The White House points to a new Washington Post/ABC news poll in which only 20 percent of Americans identify as Republicans – a  26-year low for the party.

But, it’s far too early to tell who’s going to come out on top in the PR war. Network ratings are up and down all the time with the news cycle. (Last week, “balloon boy” actually drove everyone up.) And, Republican poll numbers took a dive long before the election. As usual, the real winners are the pundits. But, the show sure is fun to watch.

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Comments

  1. Don Ryerson

    Thanks for this. I agree with you that the real target of the White House offensive isn’t Fox. The Glenn Becks of the world are good for ratings, but they’re not helping the Party attract more moderate voices – or voters. However, I think Obama should call off the boycott to reach the Independents who watch the network.

  2. Emily Perkins

    Does the motivation or target of either the White House or Fox really matter? Perhaps most Americans only see the result – the media becoming more and more identified with soap opera, politics becoming more and more ineffective (is that possible?), and the American psyche more and more disheartened. The Obama dream isn’t being helped by the administration’s defensiveness. To use healthcare terminology, the dream suffers from “failure to thrive.” It looked healthy at birth but was abused by Fox, print media, right-wing Republicans and its own insecurities.

  3. Dorothy Crenshaw

    Well, for the record, his communications director says there’s not a boycott per se, and that he could appear on the network at any point…but I’m not holding my breath.

  4. Dorothy Crenshaw

    Nice analogy. But, from a communications strategy perspective, it matters, particularly to Democrats. There may be a method to the madness, and all that. But, I agree, it’s not making either side look particularly good.

  5. George R. Gallagher

    What the White House and all the pundits are overlooking
    is the fact that Beck takes shots at McCain, Bush 1 & 2,
    Teddy Roosevelt, Romney, etc.(REPUBLICANS ALL!) on a regular basis. He attacks any politician he perceives as big-government, tax-and-spend and “progressive.” In his lexicon, “progressives” are behind the ineluctable trend toward government control in all aspects of our lives. The classic liberal responses seem to be just name-calling and labeling. This does not work in the public debate anymore. It’s time for facts and documentation instead of the “usual stuff.” It’s pretty hard to refute the filmed and recorded statements Beck provides about “the other side” which can’t be easily dismissed. So, “bring on the usual stuff” will continue to be the standard liberal tactic.

  6. Edward Bruce Williams

    It’s impossible to tell if the Republicans get their talking points from Fox News or Fox News gets theirs from the Republicans since they are in lockstep, but there is no need for the White House to link the Republicans to the Glenn Becks of the world, the Republicans have already done that themselves.

    More interestingly, the Republicans have chosen to be judged by their criticism rather than by their proposals for governance, since they never have any. This gets them immediate press, but may cause them problems in the mid-terms. After the Bush years the American people lost confidence in the Republicans ability to govern. They have little to show to change that opinion. As they rant and rave in the coming elections about this and that, someone is going to ask “OK, but now what?”

  7. Dorothy Crenshaw

    But, is it really the standard Dem response? It feels like Obama has been accused of being too collegial, even turning the other cheek (e.g., letting Joe Lieberman keep his Committee post), so I’m wondering if it’s also pressure to be “tougher.” But, you’re right that Beck takes shots at plenty of Republicans. I personally thing these guys are driven by ratings, not ideology.

  8. Dorothy Crenshaw

    True. Remember when they were going to be the party of ideas? (But, Gingrich keeps threatening to run in 2012….who knows.) I guess the mid-terms will tell the tale.

  9. George R. Gallagher

    Please note that I didn’t accuse Democrats as being the name-callers and label-givers – it’s the liberals’ bag!
    To wit: Clinton and Carter stating that racism is behind
    the opposition to Obama; Rep. Grayson’s rants(applauded by Obama)against Republicans, etc. Name calling in its purest form! The strategy is to close off all debate, since the person(s) “named” or “labeled” as being racist, haters, etc. can reliably be expected to go on the defensive, as in “No, I’m not!” It then follows that the onlookers will then dismiss the challenger as being a kook or a nut. This has worked very well for the liberals since the Goldwater-Johnson election in 1964, but its time is coming to an end. Even kids as young as high-school juniors are beginning to see that nobody is more illiberal than a USA liberal.

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