The Battle Between the White House and Fox News

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The Obama administration, which would seem to have its hands full with a two-front war in Iraq and Afghanistan, opened up a third front last week, this time with Fox News.

Until this point, the conflict had been mostly a one-sided affair, with Fox News hosts promoting tax day “tea parties” that focused protest on the new president, and more recently bringing down the presidential adviser Van Jones through rugged coverage that caught the administration, and other news organizations, off guard. During the health care debate, Fox News has put a megaphone to opponents, some of whom have advanced far-fetched theories about the impact of reform. And even farther out on the edge, the network’s most visible star of the moment, Glenn Beck, has said the president has “a deep-seated hatred for white people.”

Administration officials seemed to have decided that they had had enough.

“We’re going to treat them the way we would treat an opponent,” Anita Dunn, the White House communications director, said in an interview with The New York Times. “As they are undertaking a war against Barack Obama and the White House, we don’t need to pretend that this is the way that legitimate news organizations behave.”

Ah, but pretending has traditionally been a valuable part of the presidential playbook. Smiling and wearing beige even under the most withering news media assault is not only good manners, but also has generally been good politics. While there is undoubtedly a visceral thrill in finally setting out after your antagonists, the history of administrations that have successfully taken on the media and won is shorter than this sentence.

Not that they haven’t tried. In his second Inaugural Address, Ulysses S. Grant said he had “been the subject of abuse and slander scarcely ever equaled in political history.” President William McKinley labeled a gathering of the press a “congress of inventors,” and President Franklin D. Roosevelt assigned less favored press members to his “Dunce Club.” Sometimes the strategy worked — or caused no lasting damage. McKinley, like Grant, was elected to a second term. Roosevelt also won a third and fourth.

As Americans turned to TV for news, enmity from presidents soon followed. Vice President Spiro T. Agnew said “self-appointed analysts” at the Big Three networks exhibited undisguised “hostility” toward President Richard M. Nixon, subjecting his speeches to “instant analysis and querulous criticism.” Later, in the dispute with The Times over the Pentagon Papers, Mr. Nixon’s national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, accused the newspaper of treason...

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