10.13.09

How Fox News Outsmarted the White House

The White House's war on Fox shows its ignorance of the network's true purpose: show business. And Team Obama is giving Murdoch just what he wants.

After David Axelrod sneaked into Roger Ailes’ office in New York to powwow on Sept. 30, the White House brain trust of David Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel decided that it is shrewd and useful to attack Fox News as a Republican tool—or as White House Communications Director Anita Dunn remarked, as “a wing of the Republican Party.” It is a guess that the president is not annoyed by this tactic. It is a better guess that the White House has not had a chance, in its custard pie-throwing glee, to pause and consider why this is a stupid idea—not only unfair to all other networks that will become suspect, but also guaranteed to give comedy skits about Fox an attention around the globe not achieved since Walter Cronkite’s moon-landing moment.

What’s worse than stupid about the conspiracy theory that Fox News is a pachyderm is that it is wrong. Fox News has nothing to do with the Republican Party or its dreary state. “We go to Fox because that’s the only place that will put us on TV,” a desultory Republican source admits. “But they don’t help us by telling everyone that we suck.”

Axelrod and Emanuel are confusing campaigning with entertaining and then letting this mistake blind them to the fact that the White House is for governing, not just staging.

If Fox News is a Republican research and communication “arm,” as remarked by Dunn, then the results for the last four years are shocking—with a deeply Democratic majority Congress, a Democratic president, and worshipful reception of all Obama administration gestures by the United Nations, the European Union, the Organization of American States, and the Arab League, in addition to the choir-singing on the BBC, Reuters, Al-Jazeera and Xinhua, not to forget the Norwegians of the Nobel Peace Prize committee.

What is also wrong-headed in the Axelrod and Emanuel anxiety is that Fox News is joyously good at what it means to be—a popular platform for its advertisers. Ailes knows how to make the confusion of the news into a nervous and strangely comforting comic opera. Most of the Fox News day’s production is a reading of helter-skelter bulletins into a coherent narrative consistent with themes of super-patriotism, progress, profit, and paranoia. In the evening, Fox News becomes a variety show of cattiness, gossip, chants, and whoppers. Recently Fox News has added the theme of “Survivalism for Dummies,” though this subplot could soon slip into an extended version of the classic Twilight Zone episode “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.”

Alex Massie: Glenn Beck on the Rise in BritainThe decision by the golden-hearted crank Bill O’Reilly to attack the warm-hearted crank Glenn Beck over the latter’s swine flu denial spiel is at once first-rate showbiz and slapstick teamwork. Not since Abbott and Costello have two guys in suits, one tall and impatient, the other chubby-cheeked and childlike, had more fun debating “I Don’t Know’s on Third.”

None of what goes on in the evening has anything to do with government. The president and the Congress are discussed as omnipresent villains in a fairytale that begins with a happy kingdom of worthies, introduces an ogre, a witch, and a curse, and then interviews champions to come forward to rescue the frightened children and save the USA. All the while, Ming the Merciless, aka Rupert Murdoch, rakes up the ratings and the bucks.

The worst mistake Axelrod and Emanuel are making by confusing Fox News with the Republican Party is that they are confusing campaigning with entertaining and then letting this mistake blind them to the fact that the White House is for governing, not just staging.

Fox News is not in the news business; it’s in show business. The Republican Party, like its blood kin the Democratic Party, is in the campaign business. The White House is in the government business, though, from the evidence so far, it doesn’t know how to break out of the campaign business.

Axelrod was responsible for a mythical run for the presidency, but that was last year’s story. Now Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel are responsible for satisfying a ragbag of players—a sweaty task that at least one person in the White House confuses with community organizing—and moving them in the current desired direction of national health-care reform, perhaps also worldwide disarmament, no date given, and through the latest strategic review on Afghanistan before the next strategic review.

None of the Obama administration’s policies, if and when there are policies, requires approval or even acknowledgement by Fox News in order to succeed. Would David Axelrod ask the very clever Peter Gelb of the Metropolitan Opera Company for a moment on stage in Puccini’s Tosca to speak dryly of a second stimulus bill? Then why demand of Ailes that his opera bouffe company treat you as anything other than an interloper? When you are offered the stage, gratis, why go out of your way to deny Ailes the spectacular voice of Obama singing his aria of health-care reform?

To return to the secret, caffeinated “cordial conversation” of Sept. 30, there is plenty of evidence to conclude that Ailes is a genius impresario for fooling Axelrod into thinking that Fox News is not only for the Republican Party but is the Republican Party and the principal opponent against Obama that requires the evil eye of the White House. Fox News thanks heaven each morning for a foil as handsome and boundless as the president, and on its best days sighs over the puny, tongue-tied, bilious characters called conservatives.

It is likely too late for Axelrod to correct his knuckleheadness. Factotums Anita Dunn and Robert Gibbs have committed the White House to years of wiping custard from their own eyes. But it is not too late to be blunt about the wormy state of the Republican Party in comparison to the golden duchy of Fox News and Rupert Murdoch’s Romulan Empire of News Corporation Ltd. The Democrats embarrass themselves when they mention the Republicans at all—just as the White House embarrasses itself when it speaks of the ridiculous zombies such as Newt Gingrich or Rush Limbaugh as vital opponents. The GOP lives in a decrepit Hollywood mansion where Gingrich is its Norma Desmond, always ready for his closeup. The NFL doesn’t look ready to tolerate Limbaugh within 100 yards of a huddle. If the president’s brain trust must have an enemy to bash for attention, try a true comic book roué like Lex Luthor, who has more notoriety and believability with younger voters. The next time Fox News offers the president a bow before the curtain goes up on the evening Fox production of When Worlds Collide, he might accept the perk and take the bow.

Axelrod is a lucky fellow to have Fox News as a kibitzer distracting from his careful avoidance of taking on the truly dangerous opponent that slew George W. Bush, Comedy Central. But don’t expect Ax to order the haplessly grim Dunn or hopelessly glib Gibbs to excommunicate Jon Stewart. Too dangerous. Meanwhile, Ailes, enjoying a reputation and profits worthy of DeMille, has all the laughs.

John Batchelor is radio host of the John Batchelor Show in New York, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and Los Angeles.