War has officially been declared after months of skirmishing.

First to the front was Fox News’ latest star, Glenn Beck, who laid out the battle plan with a map, a couple of toy tanks and a plastic attack helicopter.

“What a bunch of warmongers we have in the White House. America is fighting the war in Iraq, they’re fighting in Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden, al-Qaida, the Taliban. And now these people have taken on another enemy: Fox News,” said the anchor who once wept out of patriotic fervour as he introduced Sarah Palin.

“I want to show you right where the enemy is located,” Beck added, as he circled Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News headquarters in green ink on a map of New York. “This is the enemy, America!” Like many wars, it wasn’t hard to see this one coming, but the formal declaration of hostilities still caught almost everyone off guard.

Anita Dunn, the White House communications director, fired the first shot of the formal conflict at the weekend when she said that Obama had refused to appear on Fox News last month — at a time when he was doing a round of interviews on other stations to promote healthcare reform — because the most-watched cable news channel in America dealt in rightwing propaganda, not news.

“Fox News often operates either as the research arm or the communications arm of the Republican party,” she said. “They take their talking points, put them on the air; take their opposition research, put them on the air. And that’s fine. But let’s not pretend they’re a news network the way CNN is ... We’re going to treat them the way we would treat an opponent.” Fox’s two most excitable presenters, Beck and Bill O’Reilly, are spearheading the counterattack.

“They’re more worried about the war on Fox than the actual war in Afghanistan,” Beck said.

O’Reilly claimed that the criticism he gets from different quarters is evidence that he is even-handed.

He then went on to attack the rest of the press for “rhapsodic” coverage of Obama and described the New York Times as “as far left as you can get”.

Fox News said the White House was failing to distinguish between its news reporters and commentators who, the channel readily admits, are conservatives. But the administration says that is because it is almost impossible to make the distinction when the network is so often actively involved in promoting a political agenda.

Scott McClellan, a press secretary to President George Bush, has said that the White House regularly gave talking points to Fox News to promote the administration’s agenda.

Fox News’ vice president, Bill Shine, has described the channel as “the voice of the opposition on some issues”. To its critics, it is more like an attack dog.

The network has riled the White House by vigorously promoting conservative “tea party” protests against Obama earlier this year, named after the Boston Tea Party revolt against British rule.

Fox gave great publicity to the demonstrations beforehand and then extensive live coverage as its presenters revelled in what they characterised as a spontaneous populist revolt against an increasingly burdensome government. At one point, a Fox News producer was filmed telling part of the crowd at a “tea party” protest in Washington when to cheer for the cameras.

Similarly, Fox News gave great prominence to opposition to Obama’s plans for healthcare reforms, heavily promoting meetings at which the president was characterised as a Nazi and a communist.

At other times, Fox News appears guided by a philosophy of Keep Fear Alive. Viewers are regularly reminded of the government’s terror alert level, although it seldom changes. The administration is also attacked for endangering America with its proposals to dismantle the prison at Guantanamo Bay.

O’Reilly has wrapped himself in the flag of patriotism — he sells mugs and caps on his website with the legend “American Patriot” — and persistently questioned the loyalty of those with views different to his own. This includes Obama for his efforts to improve relations with the rest of the world.

What might have remained robust political differences entered a different realm in July after Obama criticised a white policeman who arrested the Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates. Beck accused the president of “a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture.

“I’m not saying he doesn’t like white people. I’m saying he has a problem. This guy is, I believe, a racist,” Beck said.

That has prompted an advertising boycott of Beck’s show or Fox News as a whole by more than 20 companies, including Waitrose in Britain.

Yet even some of those sympathetic to the White House’s view of Fox question the wisdom of open confrontation with a major news network. Fox News is revelling in the publicity, using it to portray itself to a growing viewership as the only network prepared to stand up to the president.

It has some commentators repeating an old adage about newspapers, repeated by Bill Clinton when he was president: “Never pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel.”

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