The White House’s strategy to freeze out Fox News has raised red flags and generated a lot of bad press. Yet despite a rising level of concern, the Obama administration has pressed forward with its effort to quarantine Fox from poisoning the rest of the media.
They might think tuning out Fox News is just politics as usual – favor politically like-minded reporters and circumvent the opposition. But by alienating the leading cable news network they’re taking a big risk when it comes to public opinion.
I had my qualms about offering the Obama administration advice. But since they’re unlikely to listen, here it goes.
In the vast land of academic pubic opinion research, John Zaller is king. And according to Zaller, elite communication is the lifeblood of mass public opinion. Public opinion, he explains, moves in response to the consistency and intensity of elite messages. So when elites are divided – generally along a liberal-conservative axis – the public tends to follow suit based on varying levels of political awareness and values.
Often the “winning” opinion that we hear about in public opinion polls is simply the opinion that is most accessible – or, the idea at the top-of-your-head. (As one of my professors used to describe it, most people’s opinions are like a messy sock drawer, in which people pick and choose at random, most often choosing what’s on top.) So the first step in winning the battle over public opinion, not surprisingly, is reaching the public with your message.
Occasionally the situation arises where the “flow of political communication really is, at least for a time, heavily one-sided.” And when the public is faced with a single message, their response becomes less ideological – or, less divided – and more cohesive. We saw this late in President Bush’s time in office following Hurricane Katrina, the Harriet Miers nomination debacle, the indictment of Scooter Libby and increasing casualties in Iraq. For months, there was a one-sided, decidedly negative, flow of information to the American public. And as a result, public support for the president fell precipitously.
With that lesson in mind, the White House might reconsider its decision to ignore Fox News. In recent months, Fox News has made repeated attempts to invite members of the White House to participate on shows like Chris Wallace’s Fox News Sunday. Not only has the White House declined these invitations, but in recent weeks White House spokesmen have become openly antagonistic toward Fox.
Communications director Anita Dunn referred to Fox as a “wing of the Republican Party.” Obama senior adviser David Axelrod claimed Fox is “not a news organization.” And chief of staff Rahm Emanuel told CNN’s John King “it’s not a news organization so much as it has a perspective” and then encouraged other networks to help alienate and delegitimize Fox News.
You don’t have to be a die-hard Glenn Beck fan, however, to realize this is a bad idea. Not only does alienating Fox News reinforce the image of the Obama administration as arrogant, childish, and hostile to their ideological opponents; it also looks like amateur hour.
Like it or not, by refusing to engage with Fox News, they are encouraging the public to become more unified against their ideas. By failing to communicate with the people who watch Fox – who, I should add, are not a monolithic bloc – the White House is encouraging the advancement of a single message.
And on an issue like health-care reform, the White House is apt to feel the pinch. Without consistent and forceful communication about the need for a public option, Fox viewers will continue to be presented with the opposition’s perspective – that the government should stay out of the business of health-care. They’ll watch Sean Hannity’s health care special “Universal Nightmare,” and they’ll tune into Glenn Beck’s health care townhall with doctors. But they won’t hear a whole lot about the “virtues” of a public option.
Of course, there is one good reason for the White House to avoid Fox. Perhaps they lack a substantive and persuasive message.
Public support for Obamacare is ambivalent, at best. A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll shows 57 percent of respondents may support a public option, but 61 percent oppose the proposed tax to pay for it. What’s more, 56 percent of the public claims to support government mandates of health insurance, but 42 percent continue to think Obamacare “creates too much government involvement in the nation’s health-care system.”
And it’s true the administration doesn’t seem to have found a way to square the policy circle; expanded coverage with no cost.
I’m as opposed to Obamacare as the next free-marketer, but I’m also fascinated with public opinion. And if the president really cares about increasing his poll numbers and transforming the nation’s health care system then he ought to reconsider that invitation to go on Fox News Sunday.
Then again, maybe Axlerod is right after all. With no solid argument, their best bet might be to sit this one out.
Sabrina Schaeffer is managing partner of Evolving Strategies and a visiting fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.