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Context of 'October 17, 2009: News Editor: White House Correct in Labeling Fox a Conservative Propaganda Outlet'

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White House communications director Anita Dunn says that the White House believes Fox News is not a traditional, non-partisan news provider, but a media outlet for the Republican opposition. Fox News is “a wing of the Republican Party,” Dunn says. “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.” Dunn continues: “[W]e’re not going to legitimize them as a news organization.… We’re going to treat them the way we would treat an opponent. As they are undertaking a war against Barack Obama and the White House, we don’t need to pretend that this is the way that legitimate news organizations behave.” [Time, 10/8/2009; New York Times, 10/11/2009; Fox News, 10/12/2009] In late September, Dunn told a reporter: “It’s opinion journalism masquerading as news. They are boosting their audience. But that doesn’t mean we are going to sit back.” [Time, 9/30/2009] Fox News retorts that its news reporting segments, which its vice president Michael Clemente defines as being broadcast between “9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and 6 to 8 p.m. on weekdays,” are non-partisan, and criticism of the White House and Congressional Democrats is limited to commentary by on-air personalities such as Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck (see October 13, 2009). “The average consumer certainly knows the difference between the A section of the newspaper and the editorial page,” Clemente says, and adds that the White House is intentionally conflating Fox’s news programs with its opinion shows: “It’s astounding the White House cannot distinguish between news and opinion programming. It seems self-serving on their part.… Instead of governing, the White House continues to be in campaign mode, and Fox News is the target of their attack mentality. Perhaps the energy would be better spent on the critical issues that voters are worried about.” Another Fox News vice president, Bill Shine, welcomes the criticism, saying, “Every time they do it, our ratings go up.” Fox News has recently hired more outspoken conservative media figures, including former ABC News reporter John Stossel for its spin-off channel, Fox Business, and is reputedly negotiating to hire commentator Lou Dobbs away from CNN. Dunn and others say that it will not ostracize Fox News, and its White House correspondent, Major Garrett, will continue to be welcome at White House press conferences. Clemente has instructed Garrett, news anchor Shepard Smith, and other Fox reporters not to appear on some of its commentary programs. However, the White House has limited appearances by its members on Fox News shows; in mid-September, when President Obama made the rounds of Sunday morning talk shows, he skipped Fox, and the White House called Fox an “ideological outlet” instead of a legitimate news provider (see September 18-19, 2009). White House advisers note that in the past, Fox News hosts have falsely accused Obama of attending an Islamic “madrassa” to receive indoctrination in radical Islam (see January 22-24, 2008), promoted “tea party” rallies against the government (see March 23-24, 2009, April 6-7, 2009, April 6-13, 2009, April 13-15, 2009, April 15, 2009, April 15, 2009, April 16, 2009, May 13-14, 2009, July 28, 2009, and August 28, 2009), called Obama “unpatriotic” for attempting to land the 2016 Olympics for the US (see October 2, 2009), and led a push to force low-level White House adviser Van Jones out of his job (including accusations from Beck that Jones was a “communist-anarchist radical”). The White House notes that Beck and other Fox commentators regularly lie about the day’s events, and cites a recent example where Beck complained that Garrett was “never called on” at White House press briefings, when Garrett had asked a question of the president that same day. Beck has repeatedly called Obama a “racist,” leading to a boycott of advertisers for Beck’s show (see July 28-29, 2009). [Time, 10/8/2009; New York Times, 10/11/2009; Media Bistro, 10/11/2009] Fox News encourages and promotes the dispute with the White House, and its ratings improve. Later, a Fox News executive tells Clemente that the White House’s attacks were like “a hanging curveball” for the network. [New York Magazine, 5/22/2011]

Entity Tags: Shepard Smith, Michael Clemente, Van Jones, Lou Dobbs, Obama administration, John Stossel, Major Garrett, Fox News, Bill O’Reilly, Anita Dunn, Glenn Beck, Bill Shine

Timeline Tags: Domestic Propaganda

Jacob Weisberg, the editor of the online news publication Slate, writes that the White House is correct in labeling Fox News as a biased, conservatively slanted propaganda outlet and not a mainstream, non-partisan news provider (see October 11, 2009 and October 13, 2009). Weisberg writes that Fox News provided evidence for the charge in its own news coverage of the White House’s claim. “Fox responded the way it always does,” Weisberg writes. “It denied the accusation with a straight face while proceeding to confirm it with its coverage.” Weisberg analyzes the Fox News story on the episode. The Fox story briefly detailed the White House claim, then lined up five critics of the White House to contradict the claim. Two of the critics were Fox News employees, vice president Michael Clemente and anchor Chris Wallace. A third, Tony Blankley, is a frequent Fox News contributor and the former press secretary for Newt Gingrich (R-GA), the ex-speaker of the House. The fourth was David Gergen, the veteran Washington columnist, who said the White House statement hurts Obama and helps Fox News. The fifth was the White House columnist for the right-leaning online news magazine Politico, who said that the controversy would boost Fox’s ratings. “Five people are quoted in this article,” Weisberg writes. “Two of them work for Fox. All of them assert that administration officials are either wrong in substance or politically foolish to criticize the network. No one is cited supporting Dunn’s criticisms or saying that it could make sense, morally or politically, for Obama to challenge the network’s power. It’s a textbook example of a biased news story.” Weisberg goes on to note that Fox News peppered its coverage of the story with accusations that Obama was compiling a Nixon-like “enemies list” with Fox News at the top, along with exhortations for Obama to stop complaining and get back to work and claims that other media providers were staunchly in Fox News’s corner. “Any news organization that took its responsibilities seriously would take pains to cover presidential criticism fairly,” Weisberg concludes. “It would regard doing so as itself a test of integrity and take pains not to load the dice in its own favor. At any other network, accusation of bias might even lead to some soul-searching and behavioral adjustment. At Fox, by contrast, complaints of unfairness prompt only hoots of derision and demands for ‘evidence’ and ‘proof,’ which when presented is brushed off and ignored.… Rather than in any way maturing, Fox has in recent months become more boisterous and demagogic in rallying the opposition against Obama.” [Fox News, 10/12/2009; Slate, 10/17/2009]

Entity Tags: Fox News, Chris Wallace, David Gergen, Jacob Weisberg, Michael Clemente, Obama administration, Tony Blankley

Timeline Tags: Domestic Propaganda

A person described as a “former Fox News insider” tells author and Media Matters columnist Eric Boehlert that Fox News is indeed “a propaganda outfit” calling itself a news provider. In an interview, the source tells Boehlert that Fox routinely reports false information to “prop up Republicans and knock down Democrats,” and calls the news channel a “purely partisan operation” that actively spins almost every news story to reflect a Republican/conservative slant (see November 3, 2003, April 1, 2009, April 1-6, 2009, and April 23, 2009). “I don’t think people would believe it’s as concocted as it is,” the source says; “that stuff is just made up (see February 14, 2003).… It is their MO to undermine the [Obama] administration and to undermine Democrats (see December 2002, January 2009, February 24, 2009, April 3, 2009, and August 11, 2009). They’re a propaganda outfit but they call themselves news” (see 1995, January 20, 2003, and July 2004). Boehlert says that “[e]veryone knows” Fox News has always reported news with a conservative slant: “Everyone who’s been paying attention has known that since the channel’s inception more than a decade ago” (see October 7, 1996). But over time, Boehlert writes, Fox News has become “an open and active political player, sort of one-part character assassin and one-part propagandist, depending on which party was in power.” The source confirms Boehlert’s observation, saying: “They say one thing and do another. They insist on maintaining this charade, this facade, that they’re balanced or that they’re not right-wing extreme propagandist[s].” The facade is one that, Boehlert writes, “permeates the entire Fox News culture and one that staffers and producers have to learn quickly in order to survive professionally.” The source says: “You have to work there for a while to understand the nods and the winks. And God help you if you don’t because sooner or later you’re going to get burned.” Virtually every hard-news story is presented in a way that either bolsters conservative ideology, criticizes liberal/progressive ideology, or both. “[A]nything—anything—that was a news story you had to understand what the spin should be on it,” the source says. “If it was a big enough story it was explained to you in the morning [editorial] meeting. If it wasn’t explained, it was up to you to know the conservative take on it. There’s a conservative take on every story no matter what it is. So you either get told what it is or you better intuitively know what it is” (see June 8, 2004). The source says with some apparent sarcasm: “My internal compass [on ‘spinning’ a story] was to think like an intolerant meathead. You could never error on the side of not being intolerant enough.”
Spin Training - The source reflects on how Fox News executives trained its employees to “spin” news stories, saying: “When I first got there back in the day, and I don’t know how they indoctrinate people now, but back in the day when they were ‘training’ you, as it were, they would say, ‘Here’s how we’re different.’ They’d say if there is an execution of a condemned man at midnight and there are all the live truck outside the prison and all the lives shots. CNN would go, ‘Yes, tonight John Jackson, 25 of Mississippi, is going to die by lethal injection for the murder of two girls.’ MSNBC would say the same thing. We would come out and say, ‘Tonight, John Jackson who kidnapped an innocent two-year-old, raped her, sawed her head off, and threw it in the school yard, is going to get the punishment that a jury of his peers thought he should get.’ And they say that’s the way we do it here. And you’re going, alright, it’s a bit of an extreme example but it’s something to think about. It’s not unreasonable.”
Changed over Time - Fox News officials always insisted that they were serving as “a bit of a counterpart to the screaming left wing lib media,” the source says. “So automatically you have to buy into the idea that the other media is howling left-wing. Don’t even start arguing that or you won’t even last your first day.” However, things have changed since the source first joined Fox: “For the first few years it was let’s take the conservative take on things. And then after a few years it evolved into, well it’s not just the conservative take on things, we’re going to take the Republican take on things which is not necessarily in lock step with the conservative point of view. And then two, three, five years into that it was, ‘We’re taking the Bush line on things,’ which was different than the GOP. We were a Stalin-esque mouthpiece. It was just what Bush says goes on our channel. And by that point it was just totally dangerous. Hopefully most people understand how dangerous it is for a media outfit to be a straight, unfiltered mouthpiece for an unchecked president.” As time went on, the source says, the news reporting became ever more strident and more partisan.
Siege Mentality - Using the source’s descriptions, Boehlert describes it as an “us-vs.-them mentality… a siege mentality that network boss Roger Ailes encourages, and one that colors the coverage his team produces.” The source confirms Boehlert’s observation, saying: “It was a kick-_ss mentality too. It was relentless and it never went away. If one controversy faded, godd_mn it they would find another one. They were in search of these points of friction real or imagined. And most of them were imagined or fabricated. You always have to seem to be under siege. You always have to seem like your values are under attack. The brain trust just knew instinctively which stories to do, like the War on Christmas” (a seasonal series of stories by Fox commentator Bill O’Reilly and others that regularly claim liberals, progressives, and the like “hate Christmas” and want to see it “destroyed”). It is rare for former Fox employees such as the source to share “insider” information after leaving, in part because of a strict non-disclosure agreement each exiting employee is asked to sign, and in part because of Ailes’s “siege mentality.” The source says that Ailes is bent on presenting a “unified Fox News front to the outside world,” to the point where he refuses to publicly criticize or critique other Fox employees regardless of how unprofessionally or even outlandishly they may behave on the air (see April 1, 2003, February 3-4, 2005, September 28-October 1, 2005, March 6, 2007, June 4-5, 2008, June 26, 2008, February 9-10, 2009, February 10, 2009, February 20, 2009, March 3, 2009, March 16-17, 2009, March 17-24, 2009, March 25, 2009, April 15, 2009, May 5-6, 2009, May 26, 2009, May 28, 2009, July 8, 2009, July 17, 2009, July 23, 2009, July 27, 2009, July 28-29, 2009, August 8, 2009, August 10, 2009, August 11, 2009, August 11, 2009, September 29, 2009, November 3, 2009, March 24, 2010, and October 3, 2010). The source says: “There may be internal squabbles. But what [Ailes] continually preaches is never piss outside the tent. When he gets really crazy is when stuff leaks out the door. He goes mental on that. He can’t stand that. He says in a dynamic enterprise like a network newsroom there’s going to be in fighting and ego, but he says keep it in the house.”
Evidence Bolsters Source's Claims - Boehlert notes that along with the source’s contentions, a great deal of evidence surfaced in 2010 that showed Fox News to be deliberately propagandistic in its reporting (see March 13, 2009 and After, March 23-24, 2009, April 6-7, 2009, April 6-13, 2009, April 15, 2009, April 16, 2009, May 13-14, 2009, June 2, 2009, July 28, 2009, July 30, 2009, August 7, 2009, August 28, 2009, September 1, 2009, September 12, 2009, September 18, 2009, and November 5-8, 2009). He cites the recently leaked emails from inside Fox News in which a senior editor instructed his newsroom staffers to slant the news when reporting on issues such as climate change and health care reform (see October 27, 2009 and After and December 8, 2009 and After); the over 600 instances of Fox News personalities raising money, endorsing, and actively campaigning for Republican candidates and/or organizations; and the over $1 million donated by Fox News owner Rupert Murdoch to organizations dedicated to electing Republicans (see June 24, 2010 and After and September 30, 2010). Boehlert says that according to Media Matters estimates, Fox News has in essence donated $55 million worth of free airtime to Republican presidential hopefuls who also work for Fox News (see October 26, 2009). The source says Fox News is anything but a legitimate news outlet, and says both the Washington press corps and the general public has been duped by Murdoch’s relentless “fair and balanced” marketing campaign over the years. “People assume you need a license to call yourself a news channel,” the source says. “You don’t. So because they call themselves Fox News, people probably give them a pass on a lot of things.… I don’t think people understand that it’s an organization that’s built and functions by intimidation and bullying, and its goal is to prop up and support Republicans and the GOP and to knock down Democrats. People tend [to] think that stuff that’s on TV is real, especially under the guise of news. You’d think that people would wise up, but they don’t.”
Source Critical of Other News Outlets for Not Criticizing Fox News - The source is harshly critical of other news outlets, including their reporters and pundits, for failing to criticize Fox News for its propaganda. The source explains: “They don’t have enough staff or enough balls or don’t have enough money or don’t have enough interest to spend the time it takes to expose Fox News. Or it’s not worth the trouble. If you take on Fox, they’ll kick you in the _ss. I’m sure most [journalists] know that.” Boehlert notes that journalists who have criticized Fox News have come under heavy fire from Fox News (see November 17-18, 2010). The source says he/she was perplexed in 2009, when Obama administration officials questioned Fox News’s legitimacy as a news source (see September 18-19, 2009 and October 11, 2009), only to have Washington press corps figures rush to Fox’s defense. “That blew me away,” the source says. The White House’s critique of Fox News “happens to be true” (see October 17, 2009). [Media Matters, 2/10/2011]

Entity Tags: Fox News, Roger Ailes, Eric Boehlert, Media Matters, Obama administration

Timeline Tags: Domestic Propaganda

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