When Obama Went to War on Fox News

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President Barack Obama listens as he participates in his last news conference of the year at the White House in Washington, U.S., December 16, 2016. Reuters

“Attacking the news media is a time-honored White House tactic,” says media critic Brian Stelter, but “to an unusual degree,” this administration has “narrowed its sights to one specific organization,” which it has deemed “part of the political opposition.”

Stelter quotes a top White House staffer: “We’re going to treat them the way we would treat an opponent,” she says. “We don’t need to pretend that this is the way that legitimate news organizations behave.”

Stelter didn’t write those words about President Donald Trump, and the rogue media organization isn’t Stelter’s current employer, CNN. Nor is the White House aide defending the strategy of open hostility from Sarah Huckabee Sanders or Kellyanne Conway.

Stelter wrote those words in 2009, for The New York Times, and he wrote them about President Barack Obama, who was then in the midst of furious battle with Fox News. In many ways, it was a protracted fight that presaged the one Trump is now waging against CNN and the rest of the mainstream media.

There are several key distinctions between then and now. Fox News commentators—in particular, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly—frequently maligned Obama and misrepresented his views, often in ways that seemed racially charged. On the converse, Obama didn’t tweet out doctored pro wrestling GIFs or obsessively rail about “fake news” and ratings.

The Obama-Fox News feud is a reminder that presidents frequently clash with media outlets. In 1993, for example, Jacob Weisberg wrote in Vanity Fair about the White House press corps under Bill Clinton: “Four months into the new administration, relations between president and media hit what may have been their post-Watergate low.” Eleven years, Ken Auletta wrote in The New Yorker that George W. Bush “sees the press as ‘élitist’ and thinks that the social and economic backgrounds of most reporters have nothing in common with those of most Americans.”

To supporters of Trump, his criticisms of the press don’t differ in substance from those of his predecessors. Rather, the key distinction is that those criticisms are filtered through his bombastic, hyperbolic personality. They are then relayed to the public not through agents of that very press but via Twitter, where those opinions have no constraint but the social network’s 140-character limit.

Yet a comparison of Obama’s relationship with Fox News to the near-daily skirmishes between Trump and CNN highlights just how remarkable is Trump’s war on the mainstream media, how far outside the bounds of normal antagonisms between the White House and the men and women charged with covering it.

Obama’s anger at Fox News was justified. In January 2007, Fox & Friends made the false claim that Obama had attended an Islamic school in Indonesia. Two months later, a Democratic debate that was to have been hosted by Fox News was cancelled after the network’s chairman, Roger Ailes, deliberately confused Obama’s name with that of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, telling media executives in a speech, “It’s true that Barack Obama is on the move.”

Once he became president, Obama decided he had had enough, much as Trump has with CNN. Six months into his presidency, Obama gave an interview to CNBC’s John Harwood. During their conversation, Harwood observed that Obama remained the recipient of largely favorable media coverage.

Not so, Obama countered. “I've got one television station entirely devoted to attacking my administration.”

“I assume you're talking about Fox,” Harwood said.

He was. Obama had in mind segments like the one in which Fox News commentator Sean Hannity mused, “Is President Obama disloyal? One White House aide says, ‘Yes.’ We have the shocking details.” About three weeks after the Harwood interview ran, an op-ed published on the Fox News website called the economy “Obama’s Katrina,” a reference to George W. Bush’s inept handling of the devastation that followed the 2005 hurricane that pummeled the Gulf Coast.

“Obama will get the blame for his slow response to the current recession,” that article said. To the contrary, Obama has been praised for rescuing the economy and bringing the jobless rate down to historic lows.

In discussing that interview on his own show, O’Reilly offered an assessment that mirrors what many have said of Trump: “He's a sensitive guy. And when he gets criticism, he's not used to it.” Of course, Obama wasn’t tweeting about Fox News at five in the morning.

The feud deepened that September, when Glenn Beck, the right-wing radio host who’d recently arrived to Fox News from CNN, “got his first scalp,” as one blogger put it, by forcing the resignation of White House green jobs adviser Van Jones, whom Beck had depicted as “an avowed, self-avowed radical revolutionary communist.” (Jones has recently been a ferocious critic of Trump as a CNN commentator.)

Days later, Fox News picked up on a covert video recording in which the community group ACORN, which had supported Obama and was widely disliked by the right, was seen offering advice on tax evasion to a sex worker and her pimp. The video seemed to play on white fears—and prejudices—about rampant leftism, corrupt democracy and a federal apparatus in the hand of the nation’s first African-American president.

Those fears coalesced in the Tea Party, a populist movement openly supported by Fox News. On September 12, an estimated 75,000 conservatives affiliated with Tea Party groups marched on Washington. The event was partly sponsored by 9-12 Project, a group affiliated with Beck. Fox News, in other words, was more explicitly tied to the resistance to Obama than CNN has been to Trump.

Several days after that, top Obama adviser David Axelrod met at a Manhattan steakhouse with Ailes, the Fox News chairman. According to reporting by Jim Rutenberg of The New York Times, Ailes had sought the meeting “to address rising tensions between the network and the White House.” Axelrod, in turn, is said to have countered with the view that “ Fox News had blurred the line between news and anti-Obama advocacy,” in Rutenberg’s words.

One wonders what the American public today would think of a secret meeting between CNN chief Jeff Zucker and Trump’s top political adviser Stephen K. Bannon. Conspiracy theories would flourish. Then again, this White House will make peace with North Korea before it makes peace with CNN.

Fox News didn’t turn to moderation after the Ailes-Axelrod steakhouse summit. It continued its relentless assault on Kevin Jennings, an openly-gay educator appointed by Obama as the assistant deputy secretary for the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools. In 1988, Jennings, then a teacher, had declined to report a 15-year-old male student’s relationship with an older man. As far as Fox News was concerned, this made Jennings a sexual predator. “Did 'Safe School Czar' Encourage Statutory Rape?” was the headline on Fox Nation, a news site within the Fox News constellation.

By the time Stelter wrote his column in mid-October, any possibility of a détente seemed remote. “Instead of governing, the White House continues to be in campaign mode, and Fox News is the target of their attack mentality,” charged high-ranking Fox News executive Michael Clemente. The network continued to attack Obama for the next seven years, often with unsubtle intimations of racism. In 2011, for example, Fox Nation referred to Obama’s 50th birthday party as a “Hip-Hop BBQ.”

Obama sometimes hit back. “Few things seem to pique President Obama like Fox News,” wrote Jeremy W. Peters of The New York Times in the summer of 2012, in the midst of that year’s presidential contest. Peters noted that Obama had taken to sometimes making jokes about Fox News to audiences on the campaign trail.

“I think it lowers the office,” Clemente of Fox News lamented about Obama’s jabs. Four years later, Clemente jumped the Fox News ship just as that ship was beginning to sink, with lawsuits and press reports depicted a workplace rife with sexual harassment, as well as enough political paranoia to give Richard M. Nixon pause (Clemente's departure was not related to the sexual misconduct allegations that deposed Ailes and, later, O'Reilly).

As far as lowering the office, the right seems to have few qualms for treating press freedom with all the solicitude of a bloated despot in some forlorn post-Soviet backwater.

Unlike presidents before him, Trump doesn’t criticize the press when he feels his policies have been misrepresented or maligned. Attacking the press is the central policy of his administration. In fact, it may the only one.

 

The article has been updated to more accurately depict the conditions under which Clemente departed Fox News.