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.

SHOCK VALUE AND SHOW BUSINESS
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.”

205 comments

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 http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

Whether or not you are a Democrat or Republican, Obama was elected by the people as the President of the United States. You dont have to like the man to respect the office he holds. Its sad to see that America has become this disrespectful for the highest office our country has. I didnt like G.W Bush, but as a member of the U.S. Military I served at his behest without questioning his orders. I may not have agreed with him, but I didn’t disrespect him or disregard his agenda.

Posted by Shane G. | Report as abusive

I see you’re only going to post those comments on one side of the aisle, huh?

Posted by Sandy | Report as abusive

Cindy,

“Look inside yourself and decide if you wish to behave as a child or as an adult, whether you or Republican or Democrat.” I did, and Im Republican, not because I act like a child not because I disrespect a president, but because I have ideals. Yes, maybe FOX News and Rush are crude at some points, but they have more viewers than all the other top news agencies in the States! Obama can not just choose what is and what is not a news group, and boycott them. Yes, he is the president, but he must interact with both sides of the media. Imagine former Pres. Bush said “Well MSNBC is not that kind to me, so Im not going to let them interview me.” Democrats and 1st amendment types would be up in arms, and for good reason! MSNBC, CNN, and FOX all deserve equal opportunity, to talk and interview with the president, that’s how you get different perspective. I myself, watch CNN, BBC, MSNBC, I read the Economist, and I form my ideas, and they make me Conservative. Also your first statement “It used to be the presidency of the United States of America was treated with respect. Well that ended when Left wingers bashed Bush, for every single breath he took. So please spare us, your one sided argument.

On another note, I enjoyed reading this article, thank you Bernd Debusmann.

Posted by Filip | Report as abusive

Your piece totally ignores the fact that CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN and MSNBC are all blatetly liberal and cheerlead for the administration. Perhaps people watch Fox because it’s the only place the “other point-of-view” can be found. One must conclude that most people place more credibility in FOX.

Posted by Nick Chilton | Report as abusive

It’s interesting that during the Bush administration anyone that said anything not in support for the President was “an enemy of the state”, as Fox anchors loved to say. But now those same people believe that if you want the President to fail then your a Patriot. Pure politics.

Posted by randomdonk | Report as abusive

None of our politicians desrves any respect. When they start acting in the interests of the Americian people instead of their own, then they deserve respect. In short, I don’t own Obama respect just because he is the president. Once he starts acting presidential, then he can have my respect. Until then, I view him as the next corporate spokesman.

Posted by Steveo | Report as abusive

What’s your answer to the sub-headline’s question: Why is the White House acting as if right-wing critics pose a mortal danger? Columnist Bernd Debusmann looks at the administration’s battle with Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News.

Posted by Christopher Rushlau | Report as abusive

cindy—it seems that obama is the child here. why would he act like a two year old a go after someone who
is showing what obama is really about. what does republicans or democrats have to do with it?
obama is pulling a temper tantum ( two year old )
when he doesn’t get his way. what’s up with the chamber
of commerce now ? cindy—think before you talk.

Posted by mindy | Report as abusive

For eight years liberal news droned on about how bad Bush was. Now that the conservatives are doing the same thing the liberals are acting like a kid who can dish it out, but can’t take it. President Obama should act like a president and not a child, his actions have demeaned his position.

Posted by Bob | Report as abusive

You complain about the office of the presidency not being treated with the respect it deserves? Where were you during the Bush years? I can’t recall how many times I heard or saw “F*** Bush” or similarly worded pejoratives. Now that the shoe is on the other foot, you can’t stand it and believe it to be some new development by the evil, horrendous right wing? Not bloody likely, sir.

Posted by Alex | Report as abusive

The best way to treat Republican commentators like that is to simply make sure they are marginalized as exactly what they are : outrageous, rude, flambouyant, prejudiced showmen out for dollars, who claim to be Republicans and representing the far right.

Obama’s power base has never been about them and the stuff they spew. His appeal has been among the left, because that’s where the Democratic Party’s power is, and the centrists who took a look at the stuff the Republicans were spouting and had done, and went with the better choice.

Obama’s job is to appeal to the Centrists, because they are the people who decide the election. Ignore the right, ignore the left, do the job to the best of his personal ability and integrity, and he’ll get re-elected by the real people who ignore the hyperbole and concentrate on what he’s trying to do and how he’s doing it.

==Bob D.

Posted by Bob D. | Report as abusive

I love to hear Obama supporters talk about the loss of respect for the president in this country.

For the last 8 years, CNN, MSNBC, ABC, NBC the NY times and many other portrayed GW Bush as an incompetent clown.

Keith Olbermann on MSNBC makes a living (in between football seasons) with a segment called “the worst in people” Now that’s uplifting isn’t it? And meanwhile he nightly rants like a Hitler in anti GW and Republican speech all for a sultry $17M/yr. Not bad for coming from an agricultural school.

Hollywood personalities constantly criticized GW and Producers made films about GW that portrayed him as a total buffoon and an idiot.

Now Obama gets elected, their guy, and they want partisanship on all issues and well “can’t we all just get along “mentality? They don’t get it so now the administration and many others want to shut down the voice of conservative thought, the only one left – FOX?

Is this Russia? Should we have controlled media? No one in American wants to be told how to act and what to think. So why is it OK to shut down the perceived opposition, just because they don’t like the message that they send….after all..it’s not good for business…especially if you want to get your guy elected for a second term.

That ain’t gonna happen.

Read a bumper sticker which sums it up nicely: “I’ll give your president the same respect you gave mine”

Be honest, and not a hypocrite. You want respect? Extend respect! Even if you have a differing opinion.

Posted by Getaclue | Report as abusive

In the end, commentators or reporters, the true essence of a News channel should be to display the crude unrefined truth. Not spit verbal abuse for ratings.

Posted by Carlos | Report as abusive

I guess this past year was the first year to vote for Cindy from Indy, or else you just don’t remember that it used to be that the president acted in a manner worthy of respect. Respect is earned, never deserved, Cindy. This guy is the most leftist, socialist person to ever serve in the white house. This is the guy who is such an indecisive coward that he voted “present” 60% of his entire time in the senate. He has never led or managed anything. He has lied more and spent more in 9 months than Bush did in 8 years, with 2 wars, 911 and Katrina. This is the same guy who campaigned on transparency and non-partisanship, and lowering the national unemployment rate. in case you haven’t noticed, the national average is above 10%. While this narcisistic moron flies around the world to Denmark to get the Olympics in chicago, to repay his cronie friends, thousands more of our US troops are dying in Afghanistan. This guy doesn’t deserve anyone’s respect.

Posted by L Ozanne | Report as abusive

lol, fox news isn’t treating the presidency with respect?? all other presidencies have had all the respect of the news media. no one has ever bashed a president before on TV? really? are you an idiot or just a left wing extremist? Wake up, its been happening since George Washington, it’s called freedom of speech!! What the heck do you think they did to George Bush for 8 years? Yeesh, I remember 24/7 bashing of that guy, not like I care, he was more of a liberal anyway…

Posted by Kevin | Report as abusive

It could be that the current administration paid attention when the previous administration was sending out it’s spin. When you repeat the same message over and over again it has a tendency to be construed, eventually, as fact. This worked very well for the Bush White House: it got us the Iraq war and other atrocious things.
The kind of vitriol being broadcast by Fox could have that kind of effect even though it is being touted as ‘entertainment’. It’s not paranoia or ‘thin skinned sensitivity to criticism, it’s knowledge of how spin and repeated messages work.

Posted by Suzy | Report as abusive

I agree Cindy. I can’t believe the way people are acting. The president isn’t in office even a year yet, but people are already passing judgement like he’s finishing out his second term…Apparently alot of people forgot to pay attention in government class in school. I am a republican, but i am going to give the guy a shot before i act impatiently and condemn him prematurely. People seem to forget that the president isn’t a dictator, he can’t just say this is what i want to do and its done. We have congress who is his check and balance. Its still way early for critism. Realistically it would take years before you see the majority of the impact of his decisions. So if you need to criticize dont forget congress. As far as Fox news goes, its evident (even to someone not involved in politics)that they are biased towards a particular party. Blind support for one side or the other is very irresponsible, especially when we need everyone in washington to be working together for “us”, the people who put them there. I think washington’s battle with fox stems down to the fact that they are an opinion based agency and washington doesn’t want people (some of who only get their news from tv, and possibly one network)to take these opinions and translate them into hard facts. Fox calls it news but it is in fact opinion based. News should be…only news.

Posted by boy in illinois | Report as abusive

That is absurd! Once again another comment is made to polarize people as one side or the other. So if I support Rush, I’m now a child? The logic is flawed. Ignore any tendencies to name call or label. Try focusing on the issues and support them with evidence rooted in logic, and you will find why people are flocking to Fox. Most people are much more complex than a label, and deserve the respect of free speech.

Posted by Pete in Fla | Report as abusive

I’m shocked to see that this is worth printing. After 8 years of Bush bashing from every Tom, Dick, and Harry – except Fox News – its now shocking that the opposition is opposing Obama? I agree that they are often times pushing too hard, but please don’t lump anyone that opposes Obama in a group of radicals.

Maybe Glenn Beck’s audience is there for the show business. Let’s not underestimate the American public’s ability to discriminate between lucid thought and mad raving. And maybe the White House wants more Americans to appreciate the difference.

Posted by Panchi Maal | Report as abusive