Reporting from Washington – At least one Democratic political strategist has gotten a blunt warning from the White House to never appear on Fox News Channel, an outlet that presidential aides have depicted as not so much a news-gathering operation as a political opponent bent on damaging the Obama administration.
One Democratic strategist said that shortly after an appearance on Fox, he got a phone call from a White House official threatening him not to be a guest on the show again. The call had an intimidating tone, he said.
The message was, ” ‘We better not see you on again,’ ” said the strategist, who spoke on condition of anonymity so as not to run afoul of the White House. An implicit suggestion, he said, was that “clients might stop using you if you continue, we’ll make sure of it.”
In urging Democratic consultants to spurn Fox, White House officials might be trying to isolate the network and make it appear more partisan.
If Democrats boycott Fox it could support the White House propaganda that Fox is a fundamentally different creature than the other TV news networks. For their part, White House officials appear on Fox News — but sporadically and with “eyes wide open,” as one aide put it.
David Plouffe, the president’s campaign manager and author of a new campaign book, “The Audacity to Win,” was scheduled to appear on Fox’s “On the Record” with Greta Van Susteren Thursday night as he promotes his book. His appearance, preempted by the breaking news of the shootings at Ft. Hood, Texas, has been rescheduled for Monday.
White House Communications Director Anita Dunn said Thursday night that she had checked with colleagues who “deal with TV issues” and they had not told people to avoid Fox. On the contrary, they had urged people to appear on the network, Dunn wrote in an e-mail.
But Patrick Caddell, a Fox News contributor and a former pollster for President Carter, said he has spoken to Democratic consultants who have been threatened by the White House to avoid appearances on Fox. He declined to give specific names.
Caddell said he had not gotten that message himself from the White House. “They know better than to tell me anything like that,” he said.
Caddell added: “I have heard that they’ve done that to others in not-too-subtle ways. I find it appalling. When the White House gets in the business of suppressing dissent and comment, particularly from its own party, it hurts itself.”
The White House has taken an aggressive stance toward Fox. When President Obama appeared on five separate talk shows one Sunday in September, he avoided Fox.
“It would be foolish for us to just treat it like it’s CNN, ABC, NBC and CBS,” said a White House aide. “That doesn’t make any sense. That would be like saying we’re going to do [interviews] with the newsmagazines and we’re going to do Time, Newsweek and the [conservative] National Review.”
The aide spoke on condition of anonymity in order to talk more openly about the White House’s thinking.
Last month, Dunn told CNN that Fox was, in effect, an “arm” of the Republican Party. Dunn said in an appearance on the rival cable network: “Let’s not pretend they’re a news network the way CNN is.”
As the dust-up played out, Fox’s senior vice president of news, Michael Clemente, countered: “Surprisingly, the White House continues to declare war on a news organization instead of focusing on the critical issues that Americans are concerned about like jobs, healthcare and two wars.”
Fox’s commentators have been sharply critical of the Obama administration. After the president won the Nobel Peace Prize, Sean Hannity, who has a prime-time show on Fox, said he got the award for “trashing America.”
The two sides seemed interested in easing tensions. On Oct. 28, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs met privately with Clemente.
But White House aides haven’t changed their underlying view of Fox.
Fox’s audience is by far the largest of the cable networks, with an average of more than 2.1 million viewers in prime-time this year. CNN is second with 932,000 prime-time viewers.
Fox’s viewership is not what worries the White House, though. More troubling to White House aides is that other news organizations may uncritically follow stories that Fox has showcased.
The White House aide said: “Where some of the falsehoods become dangerous is when the rest of the media accepts them as fact and reports on them, either out of a desire to tap into Fox’s news audience — which you can understand, given where circulation and viewership rates are — or as some sort of knee-jerk fear of being considered liberally biased, which is what conservatives have been saying of the mainstream media for years.”
The White House’s pugnacious approach to the network leaves some Democrats troubled.
Don Fowler, a former Democratic National Committee chairman, said in an interview: “This approach is out of sync with my conception of what the Obama administration stands for and what they’re trying to do. I think they’ll think better of it and this will be a passing phase.”