Last Sunday, White House Communications Director Anita Dunn, appearing on CNN’s “Reliable Sources,” called the Fox News Channel “the communications arm of the Republican Party.” “Reliable Sources” host Howard Kurtz says the Obama Administration is picking the wrong fight.
Dead AliveArtist: Kurt Vile
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Last Sunday, White House Communications Director Anita Dunn appeared on CNN’s Reliable Sources and had this to say about the FOX News Channel:
ANITA DUNN: Let’s be realistic here, Howie. They are widely viewed as part of the Republican Party. Take their talking points, put them on the air, take their opposition research, put them on the air, and that’s fine. But let's not pretend they're a news network the way CNN is.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: When asked if President Obama would at some time in the future make an appearance on FOX News, Dunn responded:
ANITA DUNN: Yes, obviously, he'll go on FOX because he engages with ideological opponents.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It’s not unusual for a president or a member of his administration to attack “the media” as overly negative or even unfair, but to call out by name a particular news outlet, not for a single story but for its whole approach, is unusual, although, to be fair, the Bush White House did cast aspersions on The New York Times when it suited them. Howard Kurtz writes the Media Notes column for The Washington Post and is host of CNN’s Reliable Sources.
HOWARD KURTZ: She said it to me while I was sitting [LAUGHS] on the set at CNN.
[BROOKE LAUGHS] And I must say this wasn't just Anita Dunn deciding that she’s fed up with FOX. I have no doubt that there was a meeting or meetings about this and that she was carrying a message that the administration wanted out.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It’s a little hard for the White House to do that, regardless of whether it may be true -- and I think to a large degree it is true -- because MSNBC could arguably be a wing of the Democratic Party.
HOWARD KURTZ: Certainly, MSNBC on the left, if you look at the primetime hosts, it’s one liberal after another. They spent years of bashing George W. Bush, they generally defend Barack Obama, but not necessarily the same situation during the day when you have NBC News reporters among those who are trying to play it straight. Clearly, the Obama White House has made a calculated decision that by going after FOX in this blunt fashion that, a) the administration can score some political points with its liberal base, which despises FOX and is probably cheering, and b) maybe embarrass FOX or somehow produce somewhat better treatment. I don't see that happening. And, in fact, a lot of people, including some liberals, say President Obama should try to reach FOX’s audience. He should go there and sit down with O’Reilly and he should make his case. Leaving aside the people at FOX who get under his skin, it’s a very highly rated cable news channel.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It is the highest rated 24-hour cable news channel --
HOWARD KURTZ: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: -- and has been for some time. FOX News in July apparently had 1.2 million viewers across its broadcast day, which is twice as much as CNN’s, and way more than MSNBC’s 400,000. But still, it’s not a huge number, and it’s kind of exaggerating FOX’s potential impact, don't you think?
HOWARD KURTZ: I'm going to disagree with that, Brooke. Cable news, despite modest audiences, compared to the big broadcast networks, has a disproportionate impact on the debate. Take two examples from FOX, the crusade led by Glenn Beck and others against the White House green job czar, Van Jones, who resigned, and the Acorn story, which the mainstream media was very slow to pick up on, of videotapes of the undercover couple posing as a prostitute and a pimp. In other words, cable can get a story on the front page of The New York Times, can influence the debate among the political elite, so the sheer numbers are less important than it’s a battlefield that journalists maybe pay too much attention to, but they do pay attention.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The more attention you draw to FOX, the more that debate goes into the mainstream, so I think we probably agree that they're making FOX more important.
HOWARD KURTZ: FOX News loves this sort of thing. I knew as soon as I got off the set with Anita Dunn that this would be a prime topic of conversation the next day on Glenn Beck, on O’Reilly, that they would ride this. They love to be under attack. It enables the people at FOX News to position themselves as the only news outlet that is holding the Obama administration’s feet to the fire. They revel in the attention. They have people come on to debate it. So I don't think that [LAUGHS] the White House wanted to help FOX News, but it certainly produced days of coverage at which FOX was at the center.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Nevertheless, the charge wasn't wrong.
HOWARD KURTZ: Why do you say the charge wasn't wrong?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Because FOX News has reflexively reflected the views of the most far right flank of the Republican Party, reliably.
HOWARD KURTZ: I would say that Sean Hannity is out there almost as a spokesman for the Republican Party. I would say Bill O'Reilly can be unpredictable sometimes. For example, he said it was a good thing for America that President Obama had won the Nobel Peace Prize.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
HOWARD KURTZ: That was not the majority view at FOX. And Glenn Beck claims not to like either party, but let's face it, he’s out there bashing the president in a very high decibel way. But, again, if you take the biggest personalities and you don't look at Shepard Smith, who anchors a pretty straight news hour on FOX.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.
HOWARD KURTZ: And you don't look at Major Garrett, who even Anita Dunn says is a pretty straight White House correspondent, Glenn Beck called President Obama a racist. If the White House wants to push back on that, be my guest, but the broad brush approach here, whether it’s warranted or not, I would just say might be counterproductive.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you watch FOX News coverage?
HOWARD KURTZ: I watch all the cable channels all the time. I –
[BROOKE LAUGHS] Part of my job.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I'm so sorry.
HOWARD KURTZ: [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And you don't notice a certain bias in the weight given particular stories, as opposed to other stories?
HOWARD KURTZ: There’s no question in my mind that when FOX News, as an entity, wants to drive a particular story, it does have a way of being at the top of the regular newscasts, as well as the primetime opinion shows. And sometimes that completely, you know, exaggerates the impact of a Bill Ayers controversy, for example. On the other hand, the Acorn story the rest of the mainstream media was slow on. It turned out to be a legitimate story. Congress voted to cut off funding.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: They were late on the Acorn story, and we can always point to an example here or there, but the fact is, the mainstream media have been holding Obama’s feet to the fire.
HOWARD KURTZ: I think you've hit on the key point, because in that original Time Magazine article where Anita Dunn took her first shot at FOX News, she also took shots at The New York Times and The Washington Post. They are frustrated and, frankly, I think it’s because they are not used to what is the typical aggressive and sometimes almost confrontational coverage from the media. This is what we do. We're not supposed to get along with these people. They're not our friends. We're supposed to hold them accountable. So FOX stands in the White House pantheon as the most aggressive and unfair, they would say, news outlet, but they're not all that happy with the rest of us, either.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Howie, thank you very much.
HOWARD KURTZ: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Howard Kurtz is a columnist for The Washington Post and host of CNN’s Reliable Sources. And here’s FOX News Channel’s Glenn Beck savoring the moment.
GLENN BECK: See that phone? That phone is directly to Anita. She is the only one that has the phone number. We have confirmation that she has the phone number. She is the one that the White House has put in charge to lead the campaign against FOX News and this program. Call me, Anita. Call me. I'm begging you, call me, correct me. Tell me, tell me what I put up on the chalkboard yesterday --