Congressional Democrats defend the White House’s snub of Fox News

The growing rift between the Obama administration and the Fox News network is attracting criticism from Republicans, support from Democrats and a healthy number of legislators on both sides who want to stay out of it.

The administration has taken increasing steps in recent weeks and months to isolate the TV network, with some Capitol Hill veterans recalling no such similar steps by any president since Richard Nixon’s retaliation against The New York Times and The Washington Post during Watergate.

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The effort hasn’t been a total blackout; White House press secretary Robert Gibbs still calls on Fox News reporter Major Garrett at press briefings, but the Obama White House is clearly targeting the network that it believes is biased.

In a weekend interview with The New York Times, White House spokeswoman Anita Dunn said the administration would “treat them the way we would treat an opponent.”

Obama last month granted five interviews to Sunday political shows to discuss healthcare reform, but he did not sit down with Fox. No administration official has been interviewed on Fox since the August congressional recess. And Fox News reported this month that the White House indicated it could be a long time before an administration official appears on the network.

David Axelrod, a former reporter who is now a senior adviser at the White house, recently met with Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes to discuss the network’s coverage, but details on the conversation are scarce.

In the House and Senate, Democrats who pledged to follow the administration’s near-boycott of Fox were hard to find, although many expressed support for Obama’s stance. And there is no evidence of any joint strategy by Democrats at either side of Pennsylvania Avenue to coordinate their efforts against Fox.

“The point is this, and it really needs to be made: Fox is not just another television network,” said Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.), a close Obama ally. “Fox has become the official/semi-official voice for the Republican Party, in opposition to the president. And I think calling them out is the only way to delegitimize them as political propaganda.”

Asked if he would follow Obama’s lead and boycott Fox, Durbin said, “I don’t know that I’d never go on Fox, but I will tell you that when I go on, it’s with a clear understanding that this is not a news network. This is the closest thing to the Republican Party’s official voice on television.”

This is not a new issue. Several years ago, congressional Democrats expressed their frustrations with Fox executives, but the meeting did little to ease the conflict.

Most Republicans chided the Obama administration’s effort, calling it “immature” and “unrealistic.”

“It reflects a lack of understanding of our system,” said Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), who nearly joined the Obama administration as Commerce secretary.

“This is the way our system works. You go back to Abraham Lincoln’s time, and the major papers in this country were basically political papers. They weren’t reporting papers. That’s our tradition, and it’s part of the freedom of the press.”

Senate GOP Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.), a regular on Fox News, suggested the network’s healthy viewership numbers are an indication of journalistic success.

“Fox calls itself ‘fair and balanced,’ and obviously the administration disagrees with that characterization,” Kyl said. “Maybe they don’t get it exactly right as far as the administration is concerned, but you look at their viewership — they must be doing something right.”

Asked for comment Wednesday, a Fox News spokesman referred The Hill to a statement given to CNN’s “Reliable Sources” by Fox News senior vice president Michael Clemente.

“An increasing number of viewers are relying on Fox News for both news and opinion. And the average news consumer can certainly distinguish between the A-section of the newspaper and the editorial page, which is what our programming represents,” Clemente said. “So, with all due respect to anyone who might still be confused about the difference between news reporting and vibrant opinion, my suggestion would be to talk about the stories and the facts, rather than attack the messenger ... which over time, has never worked.”

In the House, Democratic members and aides defend the administration’s effort.

“The White House is doing what they’re doing because they have major concerns about Fox’s coverage,” a Democratic aide said. “It’s entirely appropriate for them to call attention to that.”

Still, some House Democrats have not shied away from appearing on Fox News.

Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) earlier this year returned to “The O’Reilly Factor” after a previous interview in which host Bill O’Reilly called the Financial Services Committee chairman “a coward.”

The most recent interview was less tense, though not exactly cordial.

“Since we’ve gone into the majority, we’ve been dealing with Fox’s misinformation,” another Democratic aide said. “We’ve got to be out there, we’ve got to be going on these shows. We can’t let them have the air all to themselves.”

Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) said, “I don’t remember a president so directly taking on a large news media. The president’s getting awfully personally involved in this, it seems to me. For a sitting president of the United States to take on a network that millions of Americans watch every day — that’s a risky step.”

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During the presidential campaign, Obama appeared on “The O’Reilly Factor,” but only after he had clinched the Democratic nomination.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs this week was asked about “Fox News Sunday” anchor Chris Wallace’s accusation that the administration is “the biggest bunch of crybabies I’ve seen in 30 years in Washington.”

Gibbs replied, “I haven’t cried yet.”