The White House's feud with Fox News has caused an irresistible buzz in Washington, but many are wondering precisely what prompted President Obama and his advisers to go ballistic against the network.
Here's the answer: Team Obama was pushed over the brink by a growing list of what it considered outrageous anti-Obama conduct by Fox that showed no sign of stopping. Obama's advisers say that they seethed while Fox commentators used their shows to encourage protests against Obama's healthcare proposals last summer. Team Obama fumed as Fox personalities tried to pressure some controversial Obama advisers to resign. White House officials say that Fox has continued to stir the pot against Obama in a regular pattern—raising a criticism, having Republican congressional leaders comment on it, and then using those comments to keep the criticism alive.
A break point came when Fox tried to create the impression that angry anti-Obama protesters at congressional town hall meetings last summer signaled that Obama's healthcare proposals were dying, a story line that other news organization picked up. White House officials say this was untrue, that those proposals were not dying at all.
Another break point came when Fox commentator Chris Wallace called White House officials "crybabies." A senior Obama adviser tells U.S. News that White House staffers developed "a growing realization" that the president would never get a fair shake from Fox.
White House insiders say that, at some point, White House officials will appear again on Fox, but they will do so expecting an antagonistic atmosphere, as if they were appearing on conservative talk radio. Asked what White House insiders hope to accomplish with the feud, the adviser says, "We are not spending much time here at the White House thinking about Fox" but are focusing instead on the president's agenda, including healthcare legislation, the economy, regulatory reform, Afghanistan, and Iran. "Fox is using this to promote themselves," the adviser says. "Our hope is simply that responsible journalists will not go chasing after Fox stories" as if these stories were legitimate.
And the Fox experience has toughened the White House's attitude about taking on other critics, such as the health insurance industry. "We are not going to allow people to misrepresent the president or his program," a White House spokesman warns. "We won't allow people to attack the president and his programs without making sure the president's voice is heard in the process."
For their part, Republicans say they are delighted that the White House is focusing on Fox, because it distracts the Obama team from more substantive issues and makes it look nasty. The GOP officials see a pattern. "Any time anyone on Capitol Hill or in a news organization challenges the administration, they go to their standard playbook response—to demonize them," says a top Republican strategist.