NEW YORK – President Barack Obama's communications director says it was Fox News Channel, not the White House, that picked a fight.
Yet it was Anita Dunn's words during a CNN interview last week, saying Fox is like "a wing of the Republican Party," that ignited one of the most unusual verbal volleys between a presidential administration and journalists since Vice President Spiro Agnew complained during the Nixon years about the "nattering nabobs of negativism."
Dunn's stance cheered many of the president's supporters who seethe over anti-Obama stories on Fox opinion shows, but has caused a backlash among some who say it exposed the administration as thin-skinned.
White House unhappiness had been building. The president himself said there is "one television station that is entirely devoted to attacking my administration." Fox's coverage of health care demonstrations over the summer, former administration official Van Jones and the community activists ACORN clearly knocked the administration off stride.
The White House blog attacked Fox commentator Glenn Beck for "lies."
"The administration was being attacked, members of this administration were being attacked, policies of this administration were being misrepresented — and that's a generous interpretation of how they were being described," Dunn said. "The reality is that at some point, the administration has to defend itself."
Fox has fought back hard. Network executive Michael Clemente said it was "astounding" that administration critics couldn't distinguish between news and opinion programming.
"It seems self-serving on their part," he said.
Fox said network executives have been told that no one from the administration would appear on a Fox show as a guest through the end of the year. Dunn denied there was a White House ban on Fox appearances. "We haven't said that to them," she said.
Last week on his show, Beck placed a red phone on his desk, saying it was a hot line available to Dunn anytime she thought something untrue about Obama was being said on his show.
"I don't think the White House actually wants a dialogue," Beck said. "They want to smear, isolate and destroy."
Dunn on Beck: "He's always good for a laugh."
Beck uncovered a speech Dunn had given where she referred to Mother Teresa and Mao Tse-Tung as "two of my favorite political philosophers." He said it was "insanity" that she was quoting the late Chinese dictator; Dunn said she was being ironic and got the idea for the reference from GOP strategist Lee Atwater.
Dunn also criticized Fox's Chris Wallace for referring to the administration as filled with "crybabies." ("We kept ourselves from ... responding, `I am rubber, you are glue,'" Dunn said). But there was a specific provocation: The president appeared on five Sunday morning public affairs shows on Sept. 20, every one except Wallace's.
"I would think that what this reflects is a pent-up frustration or rage at the coverage they get, not only from Fox but elsewhere," said David Gergen, a CNN commentator and former White House aide.
Gergen said he understands the temptation to go on the attack — he's done it himself — but it frequently turns out to be a mistake.
"My experience has been when the White House engages in personal or organizational attacks, it elevates the other side to virtually the same level of the White House, which is not their intent," he said. "It's going to spike Fox's ratings," which are already high this year.
If the White House wants to fight back, it's better to let surrogates do the work, he said.
Several critics have questioned the wisdom of Obama's approach.
"Whether or not you like Fox News, all of us in the press need to be concerned about the administration of President Barack Obama trying to `punish' the cable news channel for its point of view," wrote television critic David Zurawik in the Baltimore Sun.
Among grass-roots Democrats, many think it was important for the president to put his foot down, said Karen Finney, a Democratic strategist. Many strongly believe that the president and his staff should have nothing to do with Fox, she said.
But research has shown that Fox, easily the top-rated cable news network, has independents and moderates in its audience that the president shouldn't ignore, she said.
"There is room for a more nuanced strategy," she said: Stay away from Beck or the morning "Fox & Friends," she suggested, but an interview with Wallace could be beneficial.
Dunn said the administration still deals with Fox reporters such as Major Garrett in the White House. Obama "has appeared on Fox shows in the past (and) he certainly will appear on them in the future," she said. There have been no backstage "peace talks" in the past week; Obama adviser David Axelrod met with Fox chief Roger Ailes about a month ago.
On Sunday, Axelrod reiterated on ABC's "This Week" that administration officials would appear on the channel, even as he said Fox News shouldn't be treated as a news organization.
In a written statement Sunday, Clemente accused the White House of continuing to "declare war on a news organization" rather than focusing on issues such as jobs and health care.
"The door remains open and we welcome a discussion about the facts behind the issues," he said.
"Given the challenges facing the country, you would think there were a lot better things to talk about, for a news network," Dunn said. "Maybe they would want to cover some of these issues — if they were a news network."
Gergen suggested it's time for a cooling-off period for an administration that finds itself in the usually no-win position of fighting a 24-hour news organization.
"The notion ought to be to restore professional relations to the extent possible and not make this a long-term war," he said.