Why Obama should drop his fight against Fox News

A good rule for public feuds is always to be punching up. Getting in a pissing match with someone of lesser stature only elevates your opponent's stature and diminishes yours, no matter who wins on points. But where does that rule leave the President of the United States? The leader of the free world may find it hard to find a worthy sparring partner, but that doesn't mean he's not sorely tempted to take a swing.

Right now, that temptation is coming from the midtown Manhattan headquarters of Fox News, which has been needling Barack Obama in ways large and small since long before he moved into the Oval Office. Fox officials would say their network is merely filling the vacuum left by the sycophancy of all the other mainstream news operations, which are only too eager to polish Obama's bust. You can decide for yourself whether Fox's relentless focus on ACORN and that missing birth certificate constitute valid watchdogging or biased mudslinging. Either way, the question is, is it smart for the Obama Administration to hit back?
Hitting back it is, after months of trying to play (mostly) nice. The change in tactics, according to Time, comes at the urging of communications director Anita Dunn. Venting her frustration to Michael Scherer, Dunn doesn't mince words. "They are opinion journalism masquerading as news," she says. The White House took an even harder shot last week on its official blog, debunking a number of supposed "Fox lies" and accusing the network of showing "disregard for the truth" in a "partisan attack."

How to deal with Rupert Murdoch's cable channel has been a dilemma for Team Obama since the primaries, when the Illinois senator refused to participate in a debate hosted by Fox and turned down invitation after invitation to appear on Fox News Sunday and The O'Reilly Factor. The solution he eventually hit on was very cautious engagement: an interview with O'Reilly and Chris Wallace and a behind-the-scenes meeting with Murdoch and Fox chief Roger Ailes.

Clearly, Obama was expecting that these peace offerings would yield a softening in Fox's tone towards him. Yet ever since Obama's inauguration, the network has been more critical than ever towards him -- and its increase in stridency has been matched by growth in ratings. Last week, on the eve of its 13th anniversary, Fox News was the No. 3 channel in all of basic cable for the total day.

What this means is that Obama lacks leverage. He can make the rounds of all the Sunday shows while snubbing Wallace, as he recently did, but it doesn't matter. Ailes would much rather Fox be No. 1 in viewers and advertisers than No. 1 in access.

Obama can't win this one, but he can avoid spending his ammunition in a hopeless fight. He should take heed of what I advised John McCain over a year ago: that running against the press is a loser's strategy. It signals weakness. And all the more so for someone like Obama, whose greatest strength is his superhuman ability to keep his cool. Sending his advisors to meet quietly with Fox executives to plead their case, as he did two weeks ago, is a smart move. Trying to intimidate Fox with public barbs and snubs is not.
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