Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Fox News Snub

President Barack Obama seems to be just about everywhere selling his presidency in response to sagging poll numbers. Everywhere, that is, except Fox News, where Obama's snub has caused a stir.

Throughout the summer months the president pretty much stood on the sidelines during the health care debate as House and Senate committees battled over the shape of the bill. The president's posture left an opening for those opposing proposed changes in health care to loudly speak out. And the insurance industry and other interest groups joined in the fray in an effort to rile up Americans against reform through advertisements and an aggressive PR campaign. Town hall meetings disintegrated into shouting matches by interest groups. Ridiculous claims like "death panels" were spread with jarring effect.

But make no mistake about it, the shouting also reflects the general frustration many Americans have with their government, period. An economic collapse, huge unemployment, financial and automobile bailouts and deep American involvement in two wars certainly are enough to get most people's ire up. As Rodney Dangerfield might have said, "take my government, please!"

So over the past few days the president began an all out effort to regain control of the debate. His approach was a media blitz of appearances on the Sunday morning talk shows and David Letterman. The approach is intended to counter the endless chatter on cable news, blogs and tweets that make it hard for any message to break through the din of democracy. An axiom among marketers is, "When you are tired of seeing your own advertisement, most of America is just becoming aware of it." This morning polls indicate that President Obama's blitz may have bumped up his numbers. To quote NBC's Chuck Todd, "If you voted for Obama, it helped, and if you voted for McCain, you didn't change your mind." Welcome to the fast paced, dynamic and ever changing world of politics 2.0.

But there was one notable exception to the president's news blitz: Fox News. The White House say that Fox News has been more than an adversary to Obama, it has very much had an anti-Obama agenda. The president's advisers complain about its one sided coverage especially on commentator Sean Hannity's show, or the charges of racism and "eugenics" coming from entertainer and host Glenn Beck. Or they were unhappy the Fox network did not carry President Obama's recent speech to a joint session of Congress.

Advisers to the president no doubt made the calculation that there was no upside in appearing on Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace. Wallace's recent interview with former Vice President Dick Cheney was likened to "teenage girls interviewing the Jonas Brothers" by a prominent conservative columnist. Furthermore, most of the Fox audience doesn't believe in the president and his policies, so he is unlikely to get any converts.

As a senior executive for CBS News, I remember being caught in intensive discussions with White House officials working for Presidents Reagan and Bush '41, who were against Dan Rather interviewing their president. In those days Rather was the top anchor, CNN was new and the only cable news outlet and there was no Internet. So suffice it to say that it is not unprecedented for a White House to ban a network for unfavorable coverage. But it is not a good tactic.

President Obama was wrong not to appear on Fox News at the same time he appeared on every other Sunday talk program. Press bans are a slippery slope and are not healthy to our democracy. Limitations or bans against news organizations by the White House runs counter to the spirit and intention of our founding fathers. While many Fox viewers may not agree with the president's policies, they are Americans too. So, in the words of Thomas Jefferson, "Cherish... the spirit of our people, and keep alive their attention. Do not be too severe upon their errors, but reclaim them by enlightening them."

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