When is Barack Obama going to learn that presidents shouldn't play press critic? It didn't work for Richard Nixon. It didn't work for Bill Clinton or George W. Bush. It didn't help John McCain win the White House, and it won't help Obama, who vented his frustration with Fox News during an interview on CNBC yesterday.
"I've got one television station that is entirely devoted to attacking my administration," Obama told John Harwood, who had asked him how he felt about coverage of his administration. "That's a pretty big megaphone. You'd be hard-pressed if you watched the entire day to find a positive story about me on that front."
Fox News (which Obama pettishly declined to name) is indeed a big megaphone -- big and getting bigger. And that's no accident. As I've written before, Fox is big because it speaks to an audience that doesn't feel its concerns represented elsewhere on TV (and, yes, because Roger Ailes is a pro at producing slick, loud, button-pressing programming in general). For Obama to turn his back on that audience because he doesn't feel like he gets a fair shake from Fox would be a mistake. He all but acknowledged that himself during the campaign, when he finally granted an interview to Bill O'Reilly after being hounded for months.
That's not to say Obama has no grounds for complaint. Anyone who watches Fox for a few minutes can tell that its default attitude towards him is skepticism. And that perception of Fox is backed up by research. The Center for Media and Public Affairs, which analyzed evening newscasts earlier this year, determined that Fox was alone in offering more negative than positive comments on Obama. The Project for Excellence in Journalism found much the same when it looked at coverage of Obama's first 100 days in office.
But just because you're right doesn't mean you're well-advised to go around saying so. Obama, who lectured Ailes in person at a secret meeting last summer, may think he can browbeat Fox into being nicer to him. He can't. Fox made its bones on the notion that it, alone among TV networks, is not part of the Liberal Media Conspiracy. For Obama to single out Fox for censure only confirms that impression. Not to mention that Obama's complaining about Fox's darts while gratefully basking in MSNBC's equal-but-opposite tilt sounds suspiciously like whining. (David Zurawik called Obama's diss of Fox News "a childish, silly bit of gamemanship by a president.")
Above all, it's futile. For whatever reason, Fox's ratings have climbed in recent months as the network's stridency towards him has escalated. As long as that trend keeps up, no amount of finger-wagging from the Oval Office is going to make a difference.
Obama takes on Fox News, loses