Tuned In

Fox News' Obama Problem

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I’ve been watching an inordinate amount of Fox News lately for an upcoming column, and Friday there was a bizarre incident in the saga of The Great Fox Jeremiah Wright Pile-On of 2008. Fox and Friends had Fox Sunday host Chris Wallace on as a guest, and Wallace began his segment by giving the hosts an on-air tongue-lashing for unfairly “distorting” Obama’s comments, including his elaboration on his comments about his grandmother and prejudice. See it here (video courtesy of Talking Points Memo’s Veracifier):

With (Fox and) Friends like these, who needs enemies?

It’s a transfixingly awkward bit of TV on its own. But it also shows the spot that Fox is in as it moves forward in the election and looks ahead to the end of the Bush administration, to which its fortunes have so closely been tied (the subject of my Friday column). Attacking a Clinton is second nature to Fox, while McCain, though a Republican, is somewhat tricky territory for Fox seeing as how (his realignments now and in 2004 notwithstanding) he’s spent much of his career as a Republican willing to criticize the Bush administration.

But Obama seems to provide both a tempting and a difficult target, and Fox is still figuring out how to palatably antagonize him. On the one hand, he provides fodder for stirring up an old-fashioned culture war. If you watched Fox over the past week, it was like a non-stop highlight reel of angry black preachers and extremists; at one point Sean Hannity invited the New Black Panther Party to defend Obama. But this is obviously touchy territory, racially and otherwise, and apparently it became too uncomfortable for Wallace to keep quiet about. (Of course, Fox has always had a division between its straight-news anchors and interviewers like Wallace, and its conservative opinion hosts and general provocateur goofballs like Fox and Friends’, but they don’t usually finger-wag each other on air.) And this followed last month’s incident in which Bill O’Reilly apologized for saying he didn’t want to go on a “lynching party” against Michelle Obama.

I would never underestimate Fox’s ability to reinvent itself; a lot of people thought it would flame out when Bill Clinton left office, but it became more popular than ever with Bush. But having been so closely identified with the Bush administration (down to being the network of choice on White House TV sets) that it’s going to have some issues transitioning over this election year. And figuring out what to do with Barack Obama is one of the first and most pressing.