Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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December 9, 2010

MEMO HIGHLIGHTS HOW FOX NEWS SKEWS ITS COVERAGE.... Fairly early on in the debate over health care reform, proponents found that a public insurance option that would compete with private insurers was one of the more popular provisions. Republicans were intent on changing that.

In August 2009, GOP pollster Frank Luntz told Fox News' Sean Hannity that the "public option" polls well, but "government option" does not. Those hoping to kill the proposal should avoid the former and stress the latter.

Soon after, as Media Matters reports this morning, Fox News employees received a memo from their boss.

At the height of the health care reform debate last fall, Bill Sammon, Fox News' controversial Washington managing editor, sent a memo directing his network's journalists not to use the phrase "public option."

Instead, Sammon wrote, Fox's reporters should use "government option" and similar phrases -- wording that a top Republican pollster had recommended in order to turn public opinion against the Democrats' reform efforts.

Journalists on the network's flagship news program, Special Report with Bret Baier, appear to have followed Sammon's directive in reporting on health care reform that evening.

Sources familiar with the situation in Fox's Washington bureau have told Media Matters that Sammon uses his position as managing editor to "slant" Fox's supposedly neutral news coverage to the right.

Sammon's "government option" email is the clearest evidence yet that Sammon is aggressively pushing Fox's reporting to the right -- in this case by issuing written orders to his staff.

Sammon's email had a subject line that read, "friendly reminder: let's not slip back into calling it the 'public option.'" He urged the network's on-air staff to "use the term 'government-run health insurance' or, when brevity is a concern, 'government option,' whenever possible. He added that if it's "necessary" to refer to the public option by name, Fox News staffers should "use the qualifier 'so-called,' as in 'the so-called public option.'"

And since Sammon's edict was a "reminder" to the staff, it seems likely Fox News employees had been told about using Republican-preferred rhetoric before.

Media Matters' report added, "Fox executives regularly defend the network by claiming that the right-wing propaganda on Hannity and its other opinion shows is entirely separate from its news programming, which they insist is objective. But Sammon's email gives credence to allegations that news from Fox's Washington bureau is being deliberately distorted to benefit conservatives and the Republican Party."

Yep, it sure does. Indeed, just to be clear here, Sammon's marching orders were sent to the network's news division, not its opinion shows.

What's more, it worked. After the memo, Fox News employees did as they were told, and stuck to the GOP-friendly script.

Howard Kurtz had a good report on this, and asked Sammon for an explanation. The Fox News editor said the poll-tested phrase preferred by Republicans was "a more neutral term," which is why he sent the directive. Sammon added that he didn't know Republicans were pushing the same phrasing.

To a certain extent, this is about as surprising as a sunrise -- of course Fox News slants its coverage deliberately. Of course it's a partisan propaganda outlet. Of course its Republican editors tell their so-called journalists to stick to GOP talking points. Anyone surprised by these revelations hasn't been paying attention.

That said, when memos like Sammon's come to public light, it helps add additional weight to the larger indictment. As proof like this gets added to the larger argument, the pretense of professionalism and Fox News "standards" gets buried that much deeper.

Steve Benen 8:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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Comments

"Gambling at Rick's? I'm shocked!"

Posted by: stevio on December 9, 2010 at 8:40 AM | PERMALINK

Again, I don't understand why the White House doesn't yank the press passes of Fox reporters. Press briefings would be so much more informative if they allowed only journalists and not propagandists. There must be dozens of real pros out there working for small news organizations who would respect the opportunity to ask responsible questions. Why should a sleazy outfit like Fox be given credibility by press credentials?

Posted by: hells littlest angel on December 9, 2010 at 8:43 AM | PERMALINK

The success of Fox News serves as the justification of its model. They give its viewership what it craves (certitude in the ongoing political wars) and the oligarchy what it needs (a readily-available alternativer reality to advance their interests). Except for the geezer/fundie axis, most people know this. I even have a diehard Republican friend who can't bear to watch it. This does suggest a self-limiting ceiling to their model. The more outlandish they become, the less overall credibility they enjoy.

Posted by: walt on December 9, 2010 at 8:47 AM | PERMALINK

Didn't you see the movie "outfoxed"? I though it was well-known that fox sends top-down missives to their reporters telling them what to say. This is, pretty much by definition, why they should be considered a propaganda outfit, not a news organization.

Posted by: rae on December 9, 2010 at 8:53 AM | PERMALINK

Does Fox still use the Bush White House created phrase "Homicide Bomber"?

Posted by: martin on December 9, 2010 at 8:57 AM | PERMALINK

Before we get carried away with a case of the vapors, let's check the stats: On December 7th Fox had 1,335,000 viewers. In the key demographic (25-54) 333,000 watched, and (35-64) 612,000 tuned in. The remaining 390,000 were members of my Over the Hill Gang.

Posted by: DAY on December 9, 2010 at 9:04 AM | PERMALINK

And before someone delivers one of those droll "and the sun rises in the East" comments, I'd like to say thanks for pointing this story out, Steve. The truth about Fox bears repeating, over and over.

Posted by: hells littlest angel on December 9, 2010 at 9:15 AM | PERMALINK

I think Stevio got this one. :)

"Public option" or "government option" - the reason that those ideas collapsed has to do with structural problems and an inherent vagueness of terms, not Fox news drumming up opposition out of thin air. The health care "reforms" were poorly explained and overly complex, and that gave Fox the room to characterize elements as they saw fit. I don't think top down directives or word choice issues are the problem with Fix; the more fundamental problem is passing opinion journalism as news, something no one seems disciplined enough to actually combat.

I've long said, and will maintain, that the "public option" debate was, in itself, a capitulation to accepting a deeply flawed, badly structured insurance reform bill and trying to dress it up as a success, when largely it's been a mixed to bad bag of results. We still don't know, really, how many of the "reforms" will play out, and at each step, despite brave talk that this new development (your kids on til age 26! High risk pools! Preexisting conditions solved!) will win over skeptical naysayers... people still, largely, say nay. Moreover, two huge problems - Medicare reimbursements and Medicaid funding - continue to be kicked down the road and ignored, in hopes that those issues, which are the real budget problems the next Congress faces, will just vanish. They won't.

I don't like Fox, I don't get my news from Fox.... but I get why they're succeeding and why trying to trump up "word choice" as a scandal will go nowhere. "Government option" isn't the big deal. Until more people press harder for a more rigorous, more useful journalism, Murdoch will win with sleaze and shouting. That's what we live with, and I think liberalism can succeed in spite of it. It would be nice if we actually tried.

Posted by: nycweboy on December 9, 2010 at 9:15 AM | PERMALINK

Interesting that this memo is at Fox. Would it surprise anyone if it had come from CNN, ABC, NBC, NPR, etc? "Government option" and "so-called public option" are not expressions used exclusively by Fox, and I doubt the coincidence. The real story is Republicans control the message on almost all media outlets. This is why it is so difficult to get a complex explanation of any serious policy issue out there.

Posted by: Danp on December 9, 2010 at 9:15 AM | PERMALINK

Isn't our Constitution grand?
It allows propaganda to be spewed on publicly owned and paid for airwaves!
One caveat - it can't be Liberal propaganda!

Posted by: c u n d gulag on December 9, 2010 at 9:26 AM | PERMALINK

Article: "Howard Kurtz had a good report on this, and asked Sammon for an explanation. The Fox News editor said the poll-tested phrase preferred by Republicans was "a more neutral term," which is why he sent the directive. Sammon added that he didn't know Republicans were pushing the same phrasing."

I'm sure this was good enough for Howie. Thanks for the morning chuckle. The larger context of this article is right on target.

Posted by: max on December 9, 2010 at 9:27 AM | PERMALINK

Flocks Noose

For the even toed Ovis Aries amongst us.

Posted by: Kill Bill on December 9, 2010 at 9:33 AM | PERMALINK

The sad part is the Democratic Party message fail . All they had to do was define it as Medicare for everyone and it could have been a done deal. Luntz is a weasel of epic proportions , but he defines it in terms that persuade the unwashed masses. The Republicans always stay on message even when it is a lie. The Dems ought to offer Luntz a job.

Posted by: John R on December 9, 2010 at 9:34 AM | PERMALINK

Fox will never change. What needs to change is the respect accorded to it by other media sources and government institutions.

Tabloid rags have higher journalism standards than Faux News.

Posted by: bdop4 on December 9, 2010 at 9:36 AM | PERMALINK

Day, that being part of the demographics of that Over The Hill Gang, as well, makes me want to remain in the Hole in the Wall gang. Far more class in company.

Posted by: berttheclock on December 9, 2010 at 9:43 AM | PERMALINK

Did Kurtz have a follow-up question, e.g., "Do you really expect me to believe that?"

Posted by: MattF on December 9, 2010 at 9:56 AM | PERMALINK

The Over the Hill Gang may not have the numbers, but they all vote.

Posted by: Charles on December 9, 2010 at 9:59 AM | PERMALINK

"Sammon added that he didn't know Republicans were pushing the same phrasing."

[Earlier....]

"In August 2009, GOP pollster Frank Luntz told Fox News' Sean Hannity that the 'public option' polls well, but 'government option' does not. Those hoping to kill the proposal should avoid the former and stress the latter."

Mr. Sammon, call me crazy, but I don't believe you.

Posted by: 400metres on December 9, 2010 at 10:02 AM | PERMALINK

Wasn't it common knowledge that in the early days of the Iraq war, Fox "news" readers had strict instructions never to use the word Fedayin -- they were to say "Death Squads" -- and to use the word "bad guys" in preference to "Iraqi combat troops?"

Posted by: T-Rex on December 9, 2010 at 10:08 AM | PERMALINK

The Dems ought to offer Luntz a job.

And even if Luntz said "yes", democrats would still have message failure for the reason you implied. No message unity. Meanstwhile, every last goose stepping Republican will still stay on message. And they are aided and abetted by REPUBLICANS who have infiltrated the Democratic party under the banner of "fiscal conservative democrat" (aka corporate bought and paid for whores, dressed up in different culture war outfits).

Posted by: AndThenThere'sThat on December 9, 2010 at 10:09 AM | PERMALINK

The study I'm waiting for is the one correlating IQ and general knowledge with television viewing, such as watching professional wrestling, Fox news, fan programs, reality shows, etc (sorry, can't think of any actual intellectual programs other than on PBS). Also what is the correlation between intelligence and views on the bias of the media? Probably most people who watch Fox think it is the unbiased one, but Republicans are probably a bimodal distribution - do some look to Fox and others to the WSJ for "truth"?

Posted by: skeptonomist on December 9, 2010 at 10:11 AM | PERMALINK

"...In August 2009, GOP pollster Frank Luntz told Fox News' Sean Hannity that the "public option" polls well, but "government option" does not. Those hoping to kill the proposal should avoid the former and stress the latter..."

And Democrats should have seen that coming from 1,000 miles away. And why wasn't Luntz somehow secured as a DEMOCRAT strategist? It's not like nobody knew how he operates.

Posted by: Varecia on December 9, 2010 at 10:13 AM | PERMALINK

of course Fox News slants its coverage deliberately. Of course it's a partisan propaganda outlet. Of course its Republican editors tell their so-called journalists to stick to GOP talking points


Of course the Obama administration gave Fox News Helen Thomas's seat in the briefing room!

Posted by: kc on December 9, 2010 at 10:29 AM | PERMALINK

I have to laugh whenever I read a story like this. I remember hearing complaints years ago from a conservative acquaintance about how the mainstream media had a liberal bias and had failed consistently to report the news in an "objective" manner.

I haven't seen this guy in years. I'd love to ask him whether Fox News would meet his definition of "objective."

Posted by: Rasputin22 on December 9, 2010 at 10:46 AM | PERMALINK

im not surprised but the real shame is that "government" is nearly as dirty a word as "liberal."

Posted by: i am i be on December 9, 2010 at 11:08 AM | PERMALINK

Is it a government option or not? If it is public and not government, then what exactly makes it public but not government? Is it a publically-owned company? No. It's a government option.

Who cares how it polls.

Posted by: Shlocky Balboa on December 9, 2010 at 11:56 AM | PERMALINK

Is the implication here that FOX duped the people into not wanting the public option and therefore Obama and Congress had no choice but to not even try? That's not true.

Posted by: Michael7843853 on December 9, 2010 at 11:58 AM | PERMALINK

It's scandalous that Fox didn't fall in line with the rest of the liberal media and use their preferred term the "public option. Instead, Fox decided to call a government run insurance option a government run insurance option. The outrage!!

It's so over the top that if they keep it up, I swear I will find my remote and click on another channel to watch.

Posted by: Scott on December 9, 2010 at 12:25 PM | PERMALINK

Ini response to MattF's question, "Did Kurtz have a follow-up question, e.g., 'Do you really expect me to believe that?,'" of course not. In Kurt's article, he wrote, "The significance of the marching orders is that they were issued to the news division, which aims to be fair and balanced and is run separately from the opinion side, populated by the likes of Hannity and Glenn Beck."

I don't think anybody believes that Kurtz believes this. What it clearly signals, though, is that despite the evidence to the contrary, Kurtz is trying to keep up the spin that Fox is fair and balanced.

Posted by: mrgumby2u on December 9, 2010 at 12:44 PM | PERMALINK

I'm still waiting for Fox News hosts to refer to it as "the so-called Death Tax."

Posted by: Egan on December 9, 2010 at 12:44 PM | PERMALINK

Memo to Fox News staff:

Just a friendly reminder that some of you have fallen into the use of such phrases as "Democratic platform" or "Democratic agenda" in your news reports lately. I remind you of my memo a while back that the preferred phrase is "Democrat plot to destroy America." I hope I won't need to send out this reminder again.

Keep up the good work,
Bill Sammon

Posted by: beejeez on December 9, 2010 at 12:52 PM | PERMALINK

If you paid me a fortune I couldn't keep a job at FOX for forcing myself to adhere to such Authoritarianism.

Hilarious, beejeez. Just a slight exaggeration.

Posted by: daphne on December 9, 2010 at 3:55 PM | PERMALINK

And the current GOP SPLC "hate group" message is exactly the same strategy. The SPLC has labeled these groups as "anti-gay" and not "hate groups".

Posted by: flyonthewall on December 9, 2010 at 4:36 PM | PERMALINK




 

 

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