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What's Obama's Fox News Strategy?

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Lately the Obama Administration has—in TIME and other outlets—been actively going on the attack against Fox News. The Administration, and Obama himself, have had run-ins with Fox before, but this time the message is different: they’re characterizing the cable channel as not just a conservative outlet, but as a political organization, devoted to undermining the White House and defeating its policies.

Because the Obama Administration is a political entity, I’m going to assume that its message is strategic: that is, it has reasons for making this argument other than simply believing that this argument is correct. It is making the argument because it believes it stands to gain from doing so. (Media critic Michael Wolff disagrees: he thinks that the Administration is “fulminating,” lashing out, perhaps counterproductively, out of sheer annoyance.)

If there’s one thing nearly everyone agrees on, it’s that conflicts like this only drive Fox’s ratings up. So what does Obama hope to get out of this conflict?

I don’t have the answer, just a few guesses:

Get Fox News to Change Its Ways. Sorry. They say you should always lead off with a joke.

De-legitimize Fox News in the Minds of News Viewers. By pushing the message that Fox is a conservative political adversary, and keeping this fight in the headlines, it reinforces the message that Fox does not play the news straight, and thus makes it suspect in the eyes of everyone but its die-hard viewers. That’s possible, but I’m not sure there are that many undecideds on the subject of Fox News: there are people who love it, people who hate it, and people who are indifferent but associate it with conservatism. Maybe I’m being cynical—or is it naive?—but I’m having a hard time imagining the Fox News viewer who now believes it is fair and balanced, but will be persuaded otherwise by the words of the President. Fox’s power, arguably, is not so much in persuading undecideds who watch it—if there are any—as pushing stories (“death panels,” ACORN, etc.) into other media outlets that undecideds do watch.

Make Fox News the Face of the GOP. Cable news is a niche business; national politics is broadcasting. An impassioned fan base of three million makes you a huge hit on cable, but it’s not going to get you elected President. If the White House is looking toward 2010′s midterms, or re-election in 2012, there would be worse things for it than to make an extremely polarizing channel, and hosts like Glenn Beck, the public face of the opposition. In this view, boosting Fox’s ratings is a trade-off they would gladly accept. (If that’s the case, then it’s especially important that the White House is specifically calling Fox News a “political” organization—language that Media Matters for America, a media watchdog group devoted to “correcting conservative misinformation,” is also specifically using.)

Rally the Base. The liberal wing of the Democratic Party voted for Obama, but has since found plenty of things to be disappointed with him about: Gitmo, Iraq, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, the public option, &c. To impassioned progressives who like to write “Faux News,” Fox-bashing is red meat, and it has the advantage of being free.

Influence the Rest of the Media. The Administration, openly and not so openly, has been annoyed with the mainstream press (I know, I know, but I have to call it something) for picking up stories driven by Fox News, its hosts and various conservative media outlets— the townhall protests, the ACORN-pimp videos, the schoolteachers-are-brainwashing-kids-with-Obama-songs videos or what have you. It may be that, by seeking out a controversy that will get a lot of press (the media loves a “fight” with antagonists, which is why it’s important to call out Fox by name), the Administration wants to plant a seed in assigning editors’ and producers’ minds, to make them more likely to look at these stories with suspicion or think twice about giving them credence simply because they’re on an endless loop on Fox.

Again, that’s possible, but seems like a rather ambitious bank shot—especially since, for instance, the ACORN story mushroomed even though it was overlooked for days by outlets like the New York Times. Though another intended outcome might just be getting other political reporters to more aggressively fact-check Fox’s hosts.

Of course, it’s possible that the Administration is simply making the case because it believes that it’s right and Fox News is wrong. But politically, you would think that the White House seeks to gain something from a fight, since Fox News probably is.

In the meantime, last night’s Daily Show took the occasion of the weekend’s gay-rights march in Washington to issue a different critique of Fox News:

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