The Obama administration must walk a fine line in their response to Fox. It is perfectly legitimate for them, as it is for any person, to point out the fact that Fox is not a legitimate news organization. Suddenly conservatives who ignored real civil liberties issues under George Bush, and who never seemed to realize the Bill of Rights contained anything other than the right to bear arms, are making unjustified claims of civil liberties issues here. With conservatives trying to make a false equivalency between this and Richard Nixon’s enemies list, as well as falsely claiming there are First Amendment issues, it would be counterproductive for the Obama administration to risk going overboard in their treatment of Fox.
Fox is an organization established to promote conservative views, often using the format of news shows which are actually promoting their viewpoint. To honestly state the facts about Fox is permissible. Obviously to act to suppress their right to express their views, including making false statements or falsely claiming to be “fair and balanced,” would be a violation of the First Amendment. Taking too hard a line against them verbally runs the risk of giving the appearance of violating the First Amendment.
David Corn has a good response to this dilemma. He has experience in dealing with Fox:
I’m watching this fight as no disinterested observer. For years I was a rare commodity: a liberal commentator on Fox News. I enjoyed working with the bookers and producers at Fox’s Washington bureau. But the place often felt like a foreign territory. On air, I was always the visiting team. The routine usually went something like this: A right-wing host (either an out-in-the-open conservative or barely veiled one) would turn to the conservative guest and ask, “You think the war in Iraq is a stunning success. Please tell us why it’s going so well.” Then s/he would introduce me and say, “Now, I understand you’re against fighting for freedom. Can you explain to our audience why that is?”
Context is everything. While there have been decent, hardworking journalists at Fox, the enterprise is indeed colored by its far-right opinion-masters, most notably those on-air: Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly. Even its supposed straight-news shows tilt right, with panels loaded with more arch-conservatives than strong liberals. (Media Matters, a liberal watchdog group, has convincingly chronicled how the far-right views expressed on Fox’s opinion shows shape the network’s news coverage.)
Rather than react in a huffy manner to Fox — which provides an alternative reality to outraged conservatives who feel lost in Obama’s America — the White House ought to opt for what I’d call strategic derision. Good-natured belittling — but belittling, all the same — would go further than indignation, even if the indignation can be justified. That is, don’t demolish Fox, demean it. Gibbs should chuckle when a Fox correspondent asks a Foxian question. After all, if Fox is not to be taken seriously, don’t take it seriously. And by all means, don’t send Obama officials on Fox shows. But if a White House official is asked about this, he or she should reply with dismissive humor, not anger. (“We’d rather be reading the Senate Finance Committee’s health care reform bill.”) Obama is well-skilled when it comes to deploying a light-but-cutting touch. That ought to be terms of engagement for his aides involved in the Fox skirmish. Fox is not important enough to be treated as Public Enemy No. 1.
Bashing the conservative network could rally Obama’s base. But Obama, for good or bad, did promise to rise above partisan sentiment and the game playing of the Washington political-media circus. With a clever use of strategic derision, Obama and his aides could do this and still stick it to the network. Fox is just not worth a game of chicken.