The lucrative business of Obama-bashing

By Bernd Debusmann
October 22, 2009

Bernd Debusmann– Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own. –

Four days before Barack Obama was sworn into office, a prominent radio talk show host, Rush Limbaugh, told his conservative listeners that a major American publication had asked him to write 400 words on his hopes for the Obama presidency.

“I…don’t need 400 words,” he said, “I need four: I hope he fails.”

The remark set the tone for a steady stream of unbridled and often bizarre criticism from Limbaugh and like-minded radio and TV commentators, several of them working for Fox News, the network owned by media mogul Rupert Murdoch. Obama responded four days after his inauguration, telling a group of Republican congressmen they needed to break away from a mindset of confrontation.

“You can’t just listen to Rush Limbaugh and get things done.”

What followed should have helped the new administration to reflect on the wisdom of singling out a media critic. But it didn’t. Limbaugh promptly portrayed himself as a man of such pivotal importance that the president of the world’s only superpower needed to pay personal attention to his tartly-worded opinion.

The controversy over his ill wishes for the president caused, as he put, his ratings to go “through the roof,” a reassuring development for a man who makes $38 million a year under an eight-year contract that runs through 2016. The score of that early skirmish: Limbaugh 1, Obama 0.

The White House is now engaged (as in war, not diplomacy) with an even bigger target, Fox News, to the evident delight of Murdoch. “There were some strong remarks coming out of the White House about one or two of the commentators on Fox News,” he told the annual shareholders’ meeting  of News Corp, the media conglomerate that includes Fox. “And all I can tell you is that it has tremendously increased their ratings.”

His cheerful observation came a few days after the administration switched from occasional counter-attacks to full-scale offensive. Anita Dunn, the White House Communications director, fired the first rocket in mid-October by saying Fox News was not a legitimate news organisation but operated as a research and communications arm of the Republican Party.

The president himself stayed out of the fray this time but two of his closest aides, Senior Advisor David Axelrod and Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel followed up with similar comments on television news shows. Axelrod went as far as to urge other news organisations not to treat Fox News as a legitimate news outfit. Fox denies its news coverage is slanted and says critics fail to understand the difference between reporters and commentators.

Past performance is no guarantee of future results but it is probably a safe bet that the controversy will be good for the Fox bottom line – and that the commentators with the most provocative attacks on Obama will benefit most, a pattern reflected by the network’s third quarter results.

They showed Fox News as the dominant cable news organisation. It drew an average 2.25 million prime time viewers (a 2 percent increase over the previous year) – more than twice the combined number of its nearest competitors, CNN and MSNBC, both of which suffered considerable audience declines.

The shows by Fox’s top conservative commentators all showed steep increases, but none more than Glenn Beck (up almost 90 percent), who said of Obama on a Fox show in July: “This president has exposed himself as a guy, over and over again, who has a deep-seated hatred for white people and white culture.”

Commentators aiming for shock value are not in the business of context, such as pointing out, for example, that Obama’s mother was white and that he had close and cordial relations with his white grandparents. Obama was visibly shaken when his white grandmother, Madelyn Dunham died, a day before he was elected president.

Beck’s “hatred for white people” remark prompted several advertisers to abandon his show but that didn’t hurt the bottom line. A Fox spokeswoman said at the time that offended advertisers had shifted to other Fox programmes so there was no revenue lost.

Which raises the question why Fox News, which effectively functions as the voice of the opposition, has been more of a commercial success than its competitors which feature liberal, pro-Obama commentators and give a platform to people who want the president to succeed?

After all, he won the elections with the votes of Americans who bought into his reform agenda. And according to a Washington Post/ABC poll to mark his ninth month into the presidency, his job approval rating stands at 57 percent and only 20 percent of the country now consider themselves Republican, the lowest percentage in 26 years.

Even on the most hotly disputed aspect of Obama’s health care plan, the public option seen as socialism by conservative commentators, a majority of  Americans are coming out in support of the president, according to that poll.

So why is the White House acting as if right-wing critics pose a mortal danger? Thin-skinned sensitivity to criticism? John Batchelor, a conservative radio show host, has a different suggestion: ignorance.

“The White House war on Fox,” he wrote on the website The Daily Beast, “shows its ignorance of the network’s true purpose: show business. And Team Obama is giving Murdoch just what he wants.”


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

Mr. Obama is simply using his celebrity to stir up a little controversy in order to drive up Newscorp’s earnings as part of his larger plan to stimulate the economy. This is all part of the plan, so please do not submit any more commentary suggesting that our wise and erudite leader may possibly have erred.

Posted by Matthew | Report as abusive

It used to be the presidency of the United States of America was treated with respect. Limbaugh has no respect. Fox News has shown it has no respect. Fox News and Limbaugh are representing to children the worst side of being adults. Actually, children behave better than these adults. Look inside yourself and decide if you wish to behave as a child or as an adult, whether you or Republican or Democrat.

Posted by Cindy In Indy | Report as abusive

I’d say that all news networks in the US are pretty horrible. They all have their agendas, biases, and official lines of reporting. I do like Reuters as it seems more objective than the others. But just as the liberal media did with Bush bashing why would it be unfair for conservative media to bash Obama. The viewership for Fox is higher, because it’s normal that when the curent president is a liberal, the liberal media won’t report objectively on him. Same is true of conservative media and Bush… The sad part is that current administration is so vocal about their dissatisfaction with Fox. It makes them look petty. Especially during present times when people are eagerly expecting results, from a president who promissed so much.

Posted by Erik | Report as abusive

I think FOX has a hit a nerve but many of their fans aren’t happy with any government intrusions and view Rep and Demo as two sides of the same coin. Politicians bought and paid for by corporations. But the “Conservative” talk shows etc. are nothing but opportunistic business ventures sucking the cash out of emotional voters and unfortunately racists. Some in the open but many in the closet.

Posted by Robert L | Report as abusive

I think you are reading this incorrectly. The administrations approach in dealing with Fox is to utilize them to further portray the republican party as completely out of sync with the American people. The more the base of the republican party is engaged with Fox and their exploits the further they are seen as radical to the vast majority of the American population. People who are angry and hateful will listen attentively to those who preach accordingly. CNN delivers news, Fox delivers the right wings opinions. The more they do it, the better for democrats, pure and simple.

Posted by Mia | Report as abusive

I supported Obama during the election by volunteering and donating money to his campaign. I still support him and wish him all the success in the world. But, I do admit to a guilty pleasure, and that is watching Mr. Beck’s show. If you can keep from yelling at the TV it is comic relief of the highest order. I especially like it when Herr Professor Helf-Becked resorts to his chalkboard to make a convoluted point with flow charts, diagrams, and historical references taken out of context. To follow his “logic” is to watch a deeply flawed and troubled mind at work. But, one must always bear in mind that Beck is a Mormon convert, and that is, of course, looney tunes from start to finish.

Posted by Robert Foster | Report as abusive

Ya know,……all I hear nowadays is who’s against that and who’s for this – and they try to back up the percentages they want on each side by “polls”.
All I know, is that I’m a conservative Christian who believes that gay marriage is immoral, abortion is murder, and that the government is undergoing a socialist takeover. And yet, no one has ever asked me to take a poll – not the White House, not the democratic party, not CBS, CNN, ABC, MSNBC, NBC – nobody.
I don’t think they want to know what I’m thinking.
Maybe it scares them…

Posted by Sandy | Report as abusive

This just goes to show what a bunch of rookies Barry and his boys are. Limbaugh and Murdoch out maneuver him time and time again, and they’re only entertainers. Think what the other world leaders are doing to him (it’s pretty obvious). But what can you expect from a community organizer with no real experience.

Posted by realist | Report as abusive

I love how democrats stand on their soapboxes about the freedom of speech until someone directs criticism against them. Those that want Fox news to be treated as an enemy to the government are saying that people who disagree with Obama have no right to say anything. The great thing about being an American citizen with an IQ over 20 is that I can figure out what is boloney. I do not agree with everything conservatives say but yet I share their same fears. I want Obama to succeed and be the best President we have ever had, but I disagree with the agenda he has so it will hard for him to succeed in my mind. Democrats demanded the right to be heard when they were the minority. Now that Republicans are the minority I think the Democrats should remember that.

Posted by Heather Jones | Report as abusive

Oops! If a show that garners less than 1% of the population in primetime viewership is considered the highest rated show than I think it speaks more to society at large rejecting the idea that any of these shows ( pick a network) have much important to say. They have become facilitators of vicariously releasing anger through someone else’s rant. The republican extremists ( as a former republican, I call them Vichy republicans) are out of power so they are currently the most angry, hence Fox has gotten the most viewers as of late.
The more cynical side of me thinks the media has put up a side show of extremism for ratings and avoided meaningful debate on issues such as why we are making China so strong and weakening ourselves. It’s almost as though they do not want to be too critical for fear of losing access to China. Shipping jobs, technology, hard currency is all well and good when the country is ideologically similar or an ally. But we seem to have made the business of America off-shoring and making China strong. China imprisons people for life for political descent for crying out loud. Our country does some pretty egregious things, but at least a lot of us know not to condone it. Corporate America and the government are chasing short term gains over long term weakening and potentially destroying of a very positive way of life. Extremism flourishes when fear is highest, government. What the heck do we stand for as a country anymore anyway? We are being divided and conquered. If what Matt Taibbi writes in his column for rolling stone is true – we truly are missing a much bigger an far more sinister picture. There, now I got my angry rant in.

Posted by Matt H. | Report as abusive

The problem is that organizations such as Fox News hide behind the guise of ‘journalism’, a presitgious title awarded to those who provide objective ‘news’ content. Instead, many of those pundits who provide those great revenue streams of recent to Fox are not really journalists, and that needs to be presented to viewers, otherwise it is just slander combined with utmost unprofessionalism, further discrediting cable news as a whole. That is why I generally support the White House in its criticism of Fox as a whole, not because I simply see two opposing factions but rather on a professional level. By the way, the rise of these pundits shows an extreme disconnect between citizens of education and those of not.

Posted by T. B. | Report as abusive


Well this is America – The most shocking, senseless and bizarre gets the most attention. But don’t confuse that with admiration, approval or acceptance.

Posted by Emmanuel | Report as abusive

Not to worry the kids are playing their PS3. Anyway for years the media bashed the past presidents. Fox has an opinion which is perfectly legitimate albeit a little different from the so called main stream media which hardly behaves like media anyway. Fox is doing what it is doing – why is the President involved with one solo media group and why is it so important to him and his staff to give importance to Fox. At the moment looks like Fox is benefitting from the White House bashing.

Posted by Joyce | Report as abusive

Democrats, in general, Want To Be Liked. The idea that someone might disagree with them or *gasp* not like them is a concept democrats are simply not comfortable with. Of course, the proper response to Limbaugh and his ilk is simply to Ignore Them. Their audience is a much smaller percentage of the population than they’d like to suggest. That audience most likely didn’t vote for Obama, and nothing Obama could say would get them to vote for/like him. Simply triage them, and forget them.

Posted by pdl | Report as abusive

While the Republican Party’s numbers are dropping, the Democrats are not getting all of them. Many of us have seen the light and are becoming libertarians or independents. It’s quite obvious that the Republicans and Democrats are merely two sides to the same PROBLEM.

Posted by Mark | Report as abusive

For years, Republicans have been on the attack — against the media in general, and a handful of outlets in specific. GOP leaders and officials have boycotted news outlets they don’t like; they’ve attacked networks they believed to biased; and they’ve routinely snubbed those whose coverage they disapproved of. The last White House went after NBC News, even from the briefing room’s podium. Republican disgust for the media has been a staple of American politics for what seems like forever. It has been accepted practice for so long, no one has ever made a big deal of it. Until now.

And yet, when the Obama White House dares to offer mild and accurate criticism, the political establishment not only throws a fit to defend a sorry excuse for a journalistic enterprise, it embraces a nonsensical comparison to totalitarianism.

It’s incomprehensible. They ought to be embarrassed.

Posted by Steve | Report as abusive

Check out this post, includes comments on women and bball: 0/22/bo-and-i-are-surrounded/

Posted by obamniac | Report as abusive

Rasmussen reports has the President’s approval rating below 50%. He has a -13 on the indext for strongly approve, strongly disapprove, and he has a -5 on a general approve, general disapprove. I would say that reuters is picking and choosing which poll to use so that Obama can be shown in a good light. It has already been proven that the poll he is referencing is highly weighting their poll to the opinions of more democrats and blacks than republicans and independents. In other words, they are asking more people that they are sure are going to like the president than those that are reflected across the general population.

Posted by peanut | Report as abusive

oops, typo on the word index

Posted by peanut | Report as abusive