It's been a long time since Fox News, which avidly cultivates its outsider status, got to play the underdog. But after White House aides recently labeled the top-rated cable news channel "a wing of the Republican Party" and argued that it is not a news network, Fox News found itself back in a spot it relishes: firing back at a more powerful adversary.
The salvos by administration officials have rallied liberals who complain that the channel has a conservative agenda. The activist group MoveOn instantly jumped in the fray, urging Democrats to stay off Fox News programs.
But the White House's stance also gave extra lift to the network at a time when it is on track to record its best ratings year ever. This year, Fox News has averaged nearly 1.2 million viewers across all its programming, a 16% increase over the same period last year, according to Nielsen. In the two weeks since aides to President Obama took after the coverage, the audience has been 8% larger than the previous two weeks.
If anything, the Obama administration has succeeded in reinforcing Fox News' identity as a thorn in the side of the establishment -- a role the network loves to play.
"We may be No. 1, but there is sort of an insurgent quality to Fox News," said senior political analyst Brit Hume. "And that's kind of our attitude: 'Hoist a Jolly Roger, pull out our daggers and look for more throats to slit.' This is tremendous fodder for us. My lord, we've been living on it."
Glenn Beck, the network's newest star, gleefully unveiled a red telephone on his set, saying it was a special line for the White House to use to correct any mistakes he makes. Sean Hannity proudly labeled his program "Not White House approved." And Bill O'Reilly repeatedly hammered the White House in his nightly editorial.
"There is something very disturbing about the Obama administration fighting harder against Fox News than against the Taliban," he said last week.
Administration officials said they anticipated that Fox would try to capitalize on their remarks but felt they had to push back against the network's torrent of criticism.
"They were misrepresenting our programs and policies," said White House Communications Director Anita Dunn. "They were attacking members of the administration. And they were organizing political opposition on their shows. We wanted to set the record straight."
Fox News executives said the administration is failing to distinguish between their commentators and news programs.
"They talk about the opinion shows and they say, 'See, you're not doing journalism,' " said Michael Clemente, the channel's senior vice president of news, calling the contention that Fox News is not a news organization a "smear."
"I think it reinforces the fact that on the news side, we're the people that will ask the right questions, whatever those questions are," he added.
The back-and-forth is the latest chapter in a tortured relationship between Obama and Fox News. Early in the 2008 presidential campaign, he mostly steered clear of the channel amid pressure from liberal activists, forcing the cancellation of two Fox-hosted debates. But as the Democratic primary race moved to swing states such as Indiana, Obama stepped up his appearances on the network. He even granted O'Reilly a sit-down in September.
Tensions returned after Obama's victory. The network gave ample coverage to the "tea party" rallies protesting the administration's spending, with its hosts urging viewers to participate. Beck called Obama a racist and doggedly went after White House aides such as "green jobs" advisor Van Jones, slamming him for signing a petition questioning whether the U.S. had a role in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Jones ultimately resigned. The story was belatedly picked up by the rest of the media, prompting editors at the New York Times and other news organizations to say they needed to watch the network more closely.
The idea of Fox News setting the news agenda alarmed White House officials, who decided to vocalize their criticism of its coverage to try to dissuade other reporters from following the network's lead.
"I think the mainstream media has to ask themselves at a time when there are wars, when there is a bad economy, when there are huge challenges facing this country, whether they want to chase a narrow political agenda," Dunn said.
It's unclear whether the tactic will be effective. Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times, said that "if someone else breaks a good story, and if -- important if -- our own reporting backs it up, we'll run it. Even if it's Fox."
Los Angeles Times Editor Russ Stanton took a similar stance, saying, "We would follow any news story -- after confirming the facts and figuring out a way to advance it -- if we believed it was important to the readers of the Los Angeles Times, regardless of the organization or individual that broke it."
News executives at the other broadcast and cable television networks declined to comment on the dust-up. But there are signs that some in their ranks are uncomfortable with the White House's tack. Last week, ABC senior White House correspondent Jake Tapper quizzed Press Secretary Robert Gibbs about the appropriateness of the White House determining what constituted a news organization.
On Thursday, the Washington bureau chiefs of the networks balked when the Treasury Department sought to exclude Fox from a series of interviews with executive pay czar Kenneth Feinberg that was being filmed with a pool camera. The bureau chiefs insisted that Fox be included because it was part of the five-network pool, said CBS bureau chief Christopher Isham. "There was no debate," he said.
A senior administration official said the White House had not told Treasury to exclude Fox, and Gibbs told correspondent Major Garrett it had been a mistake.
On NBC last week, Obama tried to play down the dispute.
"What our advisors have simply said is that we are going to take media as it comes," he said. "And if media is operating basically as a talk radio format, then that's one thing. And if it's operating as a news outlet, then that's another thing. But it's not something I'm losing a lot of sleep over."