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President Barack Obama seems to be just about everywhere selling his presidency in response to sagging poll numbers. Everywhere, that is, except Fox News, where Obama's snub has caused a stir.
Throughout the summer months the president pretty much stood on the sidelines during the health care debate as House and Senate committees battled over the shape of the bill. The president's posture left an opening for those opposing proposed changes in health care to loudly speak out. And the insurance industry and other interest groups joined in the fray in an effort to rile up Americans against reform through advertisements and an aggressive PR campaign. Town hall meetings disintegrated into shouting matches by interest groups. Ridiculous claims like "death panels" were spread with jarring effect.
But make no mistake about it, the shouting also reflects the general frustration many Americans have with their government, period. An economic collapse, huge unemployment, financial and automobile bailouts and deep American involvement in two wars certainly are enough to get most people's ire up. As Rodney Dangerfield might have said, "take my government, please!"
So over the past few days the president began an all out effort to regain control of the debate. His approach was a media blitz of appearances on the Sunday morning talk shows and David Letterman. The tactic is intended to counter the endless chatter on cable news, blogs and tweets that makes it hard for any message to break through the din of democracy. An axiom among marketers is, "When you are tired of seeing your own advertisement, most of America is just becoming aware of it." This morning polls indicate that President Obama's blitz may have bumped his numbers up a bit. To quote NBC's Chuck Todd, "If you voted for Obama, it helped, and if you voted for McCain, it didn't change your mind."
But there was one notable exception to the president's news blitz: Fox News. Many in the White House say that Fox News has been more than an adversary to President Obama; rather it has an anti-Obama agenda. The president's advisers complain that Fox is one-sided; especially commentator Sean Hannity's show, or they point to charges of racism and "eugenics" coming from entertainer and host Glenn Beck. And the White House was unhappy that Fox was the only major broadcast network not to carry President Obama's recent speech to a joint session of Congress.
Advisers to the president no doubt made the calculation that there was no upside in appearing on "Fox News Sunday" with Chris Wallace. Wallace's recent interview with former Vice President Dick Cheney was likened to "teenage girls interviewing the Jonas Brothers" by a prominent conservative columnist. Furthermore, since a large portion of the Fox audience doesn't believe in the president and his policies, he is unlikely to win any converts.
As a senior executive for CBS News, I remember being caught in intensive discussions with White House officials working for Presidents Reagan and Bush '41, who were against Dan Rather interviewing their president. In those days Rather was the top anchor, CNN was new and the only cable news outlet and there was no Internet. So suffice it to say that it is not unprecedented for a White House to ban a network for unfavorable coverage. Still it is not a good tactic.
President Obama was wrong not to appear on "Fox News Sunday" at the same time he appeared on every other Sunday talk program. Press bans are a slippery slope and are not healthy to our democracy. They can be applied capriciously and punitively against any news organization. They can have a chilling effect on coverage. Ultimately, bans against news organizations by the White House run counter to the spirit and intention of our founding fathers. Even though many Fox viewers may not agree with the president's policies, they are Americans too. So, in the words of Thomas Jefferson, "Cherish... the spirit of our people, and keep alive their attention. Do not be too severe upon their errors, but reclaim them by enlightening them."