Attacking the news media is a time-honored White House tactic but to an unusual degree, the Obama administration has narrowed its sights to one specific organization, the Fox News Channel, calling it, in essence, part of the political opposition.
“We’re going to treat them the way we would treat an opponent,” said Anita Dunn, the White House communications director, in a telephone interview on Sunday. “As they are undertaking a war against Barack Obama and the White House, we don’t need to pretend that this is the way that legitimate news organizations behave.”
Her comments are only the latest in the volatile exchange between the administration and the top-rated network, which is owned by the News Corporation, controlled by Rupert Murdoch. Last month, Roger Ailes, the chairman of Fox News, and David Axelrod, a senior adviser to President Obama, met for coffee in New York, in what Politico, which last week broke that news, labeled a “Fox summit.”
While neither party has said what was discussed, some have speculated that a truce, or at least an adjustment in tone, was at issue. (Mr. Ailes and Mr. Obama reportedly reached a temporary accord after a meeting in mid-2008.) But shots are still being fired, which animates the idea that both sides see benefits in the feud.
Fox seems to relish the controversy.
“Instead of governing, the White House continues to be in campaign mode, and Fox News is the target of their attack mentality,” Michael Clemente, the channel’s senior vice president for news, said in a statement on Sunday. “Perhaps the energy would be better spent on the critical issues that voters are worried about.”
Fox’s senior vice president for programming, Bill Shine, says of the criticism from the White House, “Every time they do it, our ratings go up.” Mr. Obama’s first year is on track to be the Fox News Channel’s highest rated.
One Fox executive said that the jabs by the White House could solidify the network’s audience base and recalled that Mr. Ailes had remarked internally: “Don’t pick a fight with people who like to fight.” The executive asked not to be named while discussing internal conversations.
Certainly, Fox continues to aggressively bolster its on-air talent, most recently with the hiring of John Stossel, the libertarian investigative journalist from ABC News, for its spin-off channel, Fox Business. The business channel is also keen on another administration critic, Lou Dobbs, who met for dinner with Mr. Ailes last month, according to two people with direct knowledge of the meeting.
The shift for Fox News — the favorite network of the Bush administration, now the least favored one of the Obama administration — has financial implications for the News Corporation, especially given the network’s status as a growth engine in a perilous time for media companies.
Fox’s programs have drawn record numbers of viewers this year. Through last week, Fox averaged 1.2 million viewers at any given time this year, up from one million viewers through the same time last year. Previously, the channel peaked in 2003, the year the Iraq war started, with nearly 1.1 million viewers.
But controversial comments by the host Glenn Beck have also prompted an ad boycott. And the perception of Fox News as an opposition party has also affected its news correspondents, including Major Garrett, its chief White House correspondent, who Ms. Dunn says is a fair reporter. Mr. Garrett and other Fox correspondents have been directed by Mr. Clemente not to appear on the channel’s most opinionated programs.
Still, Paul Rittenberg, who oversees ad sales for Fox, said the channel existed in a climate where viewers choose cable news channels based on affinity. His channel, he said, stresses in its pitch to advertisers that “people who watch Fox News believe it’s the home team.”
To many Democrats, of course, the “home team” is conservative, a view only compounded by Fox’s at times skeptical coverage of Mr. Obama this year.
“I’ve got one television station that is entirely devoted to attacking my administration,” he said in June, though he did not mention Fox by name. He added, “You’d be hard pressed if you watched the entire day to find a positive story about me on that front.”
The White House has limited administration members’ appearances on the network in recent weeks. In mid-September, when the White House booked Mr. Obama on a round robin of Sunday morning talk shows, it skipped Fox and called it an “ideological outlet,” leading the “Fox News Sunday” anchor Chris Wallace to appear on Bill O’Reilly’s prime-time show and call the administration “the biggest bunch of crybabies I have dealt with in my 30 years in Washington.”
Ms. Dunn called that remark juvenile and stressed that administration officials would still talk to Fox, and that Mr. Obama was likely to be interviewed on the network in the future. But, she added, “we’re not going to legitimize them as a news organization.”
In an interview, Mr. Clemente suggested that there was an element of “shoot the messenger” in the back and forth. “Sometimes it’s actually helpful to have an organization or a person that you can go up against for whatever reason,” he said.
Fox argues that its news hours — 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and 6 to 8 p.m. on weekdays — are objective. The channel has taken pains recently to highlight its news programs, including the two hours led by Shepard Smith, its chief news anchor. And its daytime newscasts draw more viewers than CNN or MSNBC’s prime-time programs.
“The average consumer certainly knows the difference between the A section of the newspaper and the editorial page,” Mr. Clemente said.
The White House rejects the news and editorial page comparison, and officials there can rattle off any number of perceived offenses. They date to the month before Mr. Obama formally started his presidential campaign, when one of the network’s morning hosts falsely claimed that he had attended a madrassa, an Islamic school. (The incident happened on what Fox calls an entertainment show, “Fox and Friends”; the mistake was corrected on the air later.)
More recently, Fox hosts have promoted tea party rallies against big government and steered attention toward a number of White House czar appointments. Mr. Beck, in particular, was credited with forcing Van Jones, a low-level White House adviser for environmental jobs, to resign last month. Mr. Beck devoted numerous segments to Mr. Jones and called him a “communist-anarchist radical.”
“If it wasn’t for Fox or talk radio, we’d be done as a republic,” Mr. Beck said in the wake of the resignation.
Mr. Beck, whose 5 p.m. program consistently draws three million viewers, is a “cultural phenomenon now,” Mr. Shine said. But this success has come at a price: he is the source of considerable discomfort for Fox’s journalists, especially for false statements on his program. In August, for instance, Mr. Beck claimed that Mr. Garrett was “never called on” at White House press briefings, but Mr. Garrett had asked a question that day.
Weeks earlier, Mr. Beck labeled Mr. Obama a racist, leading to an advertising boycott by ColorOfChange.org, an advocacy group that Mr. Jones helped found. Dozens of advertisers have distanced themselves from Mr. Beck’s show, causing headaches for Mr. Rittenberg’s advertising team, although he said Fox “hasn’t lost a dime” because the ads were moved to different hours.
Fox has made the channel’s tensions with the White House a story. In August, the network’s top-rated host, Mr. O’Reilly, dispatched one of his opinion program’s producers to ask why the administration seemed “so thin-skinned” at a White House briefing. The deputy press secretary disagreed, and said that Mr. O’Reilly had interviewed Mr. Obama during his candidacy last year. The administration’s aggressive stance suggests that it does not view Fox’s audience as one that can be persuaded. During the presidential campaign, Ms. Dunn said, it booked campaign representatives on Fox to try to reach undecided voters, but by mid-October, the campaign had mostly withdrawn them from the channel’s programs.
“It was beyond diminishing returns,” she said. “It was no returns.”