Obama vs. Media Critics: Stop Whining

John Nichols writes about politics for The Nation magazine as its Washington correspondent.

The Obama administration really needs to get over itself.

First, the president and his aides go to war with Fox News because the network maintains a generally anti-Obama slant.

Then, an anonymous administration aide attacks bloggers for failing to maintain a sufficiently pro-Obama slant.

These are not disconnected developments.

An administration that won the White House with an almost always on-message campaign and generally friendly coverage from old and new media is now frustrated by its inability to control the debate and get the coverage it wants.

But before the president and his inner circle go all Spiro Agnew on us, they might want to consider three fundamental facts regarding relations between the executive branch and the fourth estate:

1. Since the founding of the republic, media outlets (the founders dismissed them as "damnable periodicals") have been partisan.

White House communications director Anita Dunn was not exactly breaking news when she told CNN's "Reliable Sources" that Fox was neither fair nor balanced. "What I think is fair to say about Fox -- and certainly it's the way we view it -- is that it really is more a wing of the Republican Party," grumbled Dunn. "They 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."

Fox hosts do go overboard in their savaging of Obama and the Democrats -- sometimes ridiculously so. But their assaults on the president are gentle when compared with the battering that Benjamin Franklin Bache's Philadelphia Aurora administered to John Adams (appropriately) or the trashing that Colonel McCormick's Chicago Tribune gave Franklin Roosevelt (inappropriately).

To suggest that Fox is not a news network simply because Sean Hannity echoes RNC talking points would be like suggesting that the Aurora was not a newspaper because it took cues from Tom Jefferson or that the Tribune was not a legitimate member of the fourth estate because it was sweet on Alf Landon.

2. Presidents are supposed to rise above their own partisanship and engage with a wide range of media -- even outlets that are hard on their administrations.

In fact, presidents should go out of their way to accept invites from media that can be expected to poke, prod and pester them. The willingness to take the hits suggests that a commander-in-chief is not afraid to engage with his critics. It also reminds presidents, who tend to be cloistered, that there are a lot of Americans who get their information from sources that do not buy what the White House press office is selling.

When Dick Cheney kept giving "exclusive" interviews to Fox "personalities," there were those of us who ridiculed both the personalities and the former vice president for going through the ridiculous exercise of lobbing softballs and swinging at them.

Obama should be better than Cheney. But aides are not helping the president prevail in what ought to be an easy competition.

Cheney saw newspapers such as The New York Times and news channels such as CNN as little more than branches of his Democratic opposition.

When Dunn was asked whether the president refused to accept interview requests from Fox because the White House sees the network as "a wing of the Republican party," the communications director responded: "Is this why he did not appear? The answer is yes."

That is such a radically wrong response that it calls into question the whole communications strategy of an administration that has somehow managed to take a man who was elected with a mandate and lodge him in a corner where there are now serious questions about whether a Democratic president and an overwhelmingly Democratic Congress can enact basic elements of the Democratic agenda.

Obama should sit down with Fox reporters and anchors and do interviews. That does not mean that the president has to put up with the emotional wreckage that is Glenn Beck. But there is no reason why he shouldn't go another round with Bill O'Reilly (as Obama did during the 2008 campaign) or sit down with Chris Wallace (as Bill Clinton did).

If the Fox interviewers are absurdly unfair, the American people will respond with appropriate consternation. On the other hand, if they are aggressive and pointed in their challenges, Obama will rise or fall on the quality of his responses. His aides, if they have any faith in their man's abilities, should bend over backwards to accept some Fox interviews. They should also accept an invite from PBS's Bill Moyers, who would pose tougher -and, yes, more informed - questions than the Foxbots.

3. The worst mistake a president or his administration can make is to try and "whip" relatively like-minded writers and reporters into line.

Yet, that appears to be what the Obama team was trying to do with the silly "policing action" of having a White House "adviser," speaking on condition of anonymity, encourage liberal bloggers to "take off their pajamas" and get serious about politics. On Sunday, when gay rights marchers challenged the Obama administration to make real the equality rhetoric of the president, NBC White House correspondent John Harwood:

For a sign of how seriously the White House does or doesn't take this opposition, one adviser told me today those bloggers need to take off their pajamas, get dressed and realize that governing a closely-divided country is complicated and difficult.

Harwood told Huffington Post:

"My comments quoting an Obama adviser about liberal bloggers/pajamas weren't about the LGBT community or the marchers. They referred more broadly to those grumbling on the left about an array of issues in addition to gay rights, including the war in Afghanistan and health care and Guantanamo -- and whether all that added up to trouble with Obama's liberal base..."

The bloggers took offense. The White House tried to "disassociate" itself from the comment. But that's standard operating procedure: toss the bomb and then avoid the fallout.

The bloggers shouldn't be worried.

They should take the criticism as a compliment -- as Fox's ratings show, White House griping harms the White House more than it does the target of the complaint.

The bloggers should also take the criticism as confirmation that they are right when they suggest that this administration is increasingly out of touch with the progressive base that secured Obama the Democratic nomination and ultimately propelled him to the White House.

The fact is that the results of the 2008 election did not reveal "a closely-divided country." Obama arrived at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue with the most muscular mandate accorded any Democrat since Lyndon Johnson's 1964 landslide.

The bloggers are right when they argue that the Obama administration can and should be doing more with that mandate.

As for the Obama administration, whether the grumbling is about Republicans on Fox or bloggers in pajamas, there's a word for what the president and his aides are doing. That word is "whining." And nothing -- no attack by Glenn Beck, no blogger busting about Guantanamo -- does more damage to Obama's credibility or authority than the sense that a popular president is becoming the whiner-in-chief.




By John Nichols:
Reprinted with permission from The Nation
The all new
CBS News App for Android® for iPad® for iPhone®
Fully redesigned. Featuring CBSN, 24/7 live news. Get the App