WASHINGTON — Harry S. Truman banned reporters he disliked from his presidential yacht. Franklin Roosevelt placed his journalistic critics out of earshot at the back of the room during presidential press conferences.
No such subtleties in Barack Obama's White House. A White House blog posting this week dismissed assertions on the Fox News Channel bluntly: "Lies." And don't expect an apology to network owner Rupert Murdoch.
The White House's target was Glenn Beck, the conservative Fox News commentator who regularly pokes the White House with provocative commentary. But the cable network and the White House don't just part ways over Beck. That the White House regards Fox News with suspicion and even disdain is an understatement. And Fox News' Chris Wallace recently called the White House "the biggest bunch of crybabies" after Obama gave all major networks except Fox News interviews for their Sunday talk shows.
It's a combustible relationship that illustrates the partisan heat generated on cable television and the political need to stay abreast of viral information spreading at lightning speed. The aggressive White House response also brushes up against Obama's promise of reaching for a new civility in politics.
A Wednesday post on the White House blog by Jesse Lee, the White House's online programs director, challenged Beck's critique of Obama's Olympics-seeking trip to Copenhagen under the headline: "Reality Check: Trying to Turn a Point of Pride into a Moment of Shame."
It mentioned Beck's mistaken reference to losses Vancouver sustained hosting the Olympics. Vancouver won't host the Olympics until 2010, and Beck meant to say the Calgary Olympics. But the blog entry did not address the underlying point — that the Olympics can be an economic drain on host cities.
The blog also rebutted a suggestion by a Beck guest that Obama confidante Valerie Jarrett had participated in a controversial August phone call that attempted to recruit artists to create works that promoted President Barack Obama's policies. The White House noted that Jarrett did not participate in the call. It did not point out that one of her aides did.
At the end of his post, Lee supplied a link to PolitiFact, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Web site that debunked claims that White House political director Patrick Gaspard had ties to ACORN, the community organizing group now under government scrutiny.
"For even more Fox lies," the blog stated, "check out the latest 'Truth-O-Meter' feature from PolitiFact that debunks a false claim about a White House staffer that continues to be repeated by Glenn Beck and others on the network."
A Fox representative referred The Associated Press to comments Beck made on his Wednesday and Thursday shows. On Wednesday, Beck kept up his criticism of Jarrett, though he did not repeat the claims denied by the White House. On Thursday, he conceded his mistake on Vancouver's Olympics. He then enumerated the financial challenges that city faces preparing for the games.
The White House is aware that news organizations are paying closer attention to Fox and Beck after the network and the talk show host have driven the news on legitimate stories, such as former Obama administration official Van Jones and the scandal surrounding ACORN.
Obama aides say the sharp tone in the blog is simply a continuation of White House efforts to respond quickly and bluntly to unfounded claims about the president's health care plan. They note that Obama has often said that quieting the partisan combat in Washington did not mean he would turn the other cheek.
"The president said in his speech to Congress that he would call out those that misrepresented his record and that includes ideological news outlets like Fox News and its various commentators," said Dan Pfeiffer, the White House's deputy communications director.
"In this day and age," Pfeiffer added, "every falsehood must be met head on no matter how absurd the charge or discredited the source."
To be sure, presidents have had tense relations with the press since the founding of the republic. Truman made no secret of his contempt for the Chicago Tribune. Then there was Richard Nixon, who took his disregard for the press to unmatched levels by including journalists on his "enemies list."
But calling a news networks' assertions "lies" is unusually confrontational — and calculated.
"The degree of toughness — calling something a lie — is an interesting one," said Stephen Hess, a senior fellow emeritus at the Brookings Institution who has been a consultant, adviser and speechwriter to presidents dating back to Dwight D. Eisenhower. "At times a president loses his cool, but most often than not they regret that."
Tad Devine, a Democratic strategist who has worked on several presidential campaigns, noted that the Internet is a more freewheeling medium that encourages coarser, blunter repartee. But he said tactics typically used in a political campaign are best dialed back once a candidate is in office.
"When you're in government as opposed to a campaign, it is a different perch and you have to be careful about what you say when you're in an official capacity," Devine said.
Pfeiffer cautioned not to read too much into the use of the word "lies," but did not back down from its meaning.
"We will use it when there's a willfully dishonest statement," he said. "I don't think there's any question that what was being referred to there was an accurate use of the word."
The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing.”-Albert Einstein
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