In conversations this week, people have repeatedly asked me two questions:
1. How 'bout dem Phillies, huh?
2. Is Obama doing a smart thing by declaring war on Fox News?
My answer to the first question is obvious. Here's my answer to the second question:
No. The president is actually doing a very dumb thing.
As I mentioned here last Friday, "it's no mystery" why the Obama team would feel tempted to wage war against Fox News, given the network's track record. Indeed, top Obama players ramped up their frontal attacks on Sunday and Monday, vowing that "we're going to treat them like we treat an opponent" because, in their view, Fox is merely "opinion journalism masquerading as news." That description sounds about right, but here's an even better characterization, courtesy of Northeastern University journalism professor Alan Schroeder: "Fox News is an entertainment network that employs the conventions of journalism to promote a right-wing political ideology."
But so what? Just because Fox is Fox, it doesn't necessarily follow that the Obama team is smart to go on the attack. Quite the contrary, it's tactically stupid:
1. Going after Fox serves only to elevate Fox, making it appear that Fox is on an equal footing with the White House. Every president gets unfavorable press coverage; lashing out at the press generally makes a president looks small. In this instance, Fox winds up looking bigger. There's no need for Obama to do that, because he's the one with the biggest megaphone. His last speech to Congress drew 32 million TV viewers, according to the Nielsens. His last appearance on CBS' 60 Minutes drew 10 million viewers. Glenn Beck, on Fox, typically gets 2.2 million; Sean Hannity, 2.1 million. Why go to war with Fox, which only boosts its profile and plays right into the hands of Fox chief Roger Ailes - the ex-Nixon aide who thrives on this kind of pugilism?
2. Speaking of Nixon, the attacks on Fox merely serve to make Obama look Nixonesque. Which is hardly Obama's preferred image. Back in '69, Nixon sent forth his vice president, Spiro Agnew, to wage frontal war against CBS and the other "nattering nabobs of negativism," and it made that president look petty and vindictive. In fact, if George W. Bush had waged the same kind of frontal war against MSNBC, the odds are high that much of the Washington commentariat would have accused him of trying to intimidate the press and despoiling the First Amendment. They would have assailed him as petty and vindictive. Is Obama less so? Or is he getting a pass from most pundits simply because his chosen target is Fox?
3. The war on Fox is an unnecessary public distraction. Obama has a lot on his plate already, most of it very substantive - Afghanistan, health care, the economy, climate change, stuff like that - and his smartest play is to keep his eye on the ball...rather than try and make a big fuss out of an old story about how Fox is conservative.
Maybe Obama would be wise to keep these four aphorisms in mind:
Harry Truman once said, "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen." Every president takes heat, much of it unfair. Deal with it, it's part of the job description.
Dwight Eisenhower once said, "Never get into a pissing match with a skunk." Because you'll just wind up smelling like the skunk.
Barack Obama himself said on Feb. 3, "I don't always get my most favorable coverage on Fox, but I think that's part of how democracy is supposed to work. You know, we're not supposed to all be in lock step here..."
And as yours truly always likes to say, metaphorically speaking: "There are always ants at a picnic." Just ignore the ants, Mr. President, and bon appetit.