The Center for Grassroots Oversight

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Profile: Eric Burns

Eric Burns was a participant or observer in the following events:

Fox News logo.Fox News logo. [Source: Fox News]Fox News begins broadcasting on US cable television. Fox News provides 24-hour news programming alongside the nation’s only other such cable news provider, CNN. Fox executive Roger Ailes, a former campaign adviser for Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush (see 1968, January 25, 1988, and September 21 - October 4, 1988), envisions Fox News as a conservative “antidote” to what he calls the “liberal bias” of the rest of American news broadcasting. Ailes uses many of the methodologies and characteristics of conservative talk radio, and brings several radio hosts on his channel, including Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly, to host television shows. (Jamieson and Cappella 2008, pp. 47; Sherman 5/22/2011) Referring to Ailes’s campaign experience, veteran Republican consultant Ed Rollins later says: “Because of his political work, he understood there was an audience. He knew there were a couple million conservatives who were a potential audience, and he built Fox to reach them.” (Sherman 5/22/2011)
Ailes Planned for Fox News as Far Back as 1970 - Ailes began envisioning a conservative news provider to counter what he considers the mainstream media’s “liberal bias” as early as 1970, when he became heavily involved with a Nixon administration plan to plant conservative propaganda in news outlets across the nation (see Summer 1970). In 1971, he headed a short-lived private conservative television news network, Television News Incorporated (TVN—see 1971-1975), which foundered in 1975 in part because of its reporters and staffers balking at reporting Ailes-crafted propaganda instead of “straight” news. Ailes told a New York Times reporter in 1991 that he was leaving politics, saying: “I’ve been in politics for 25 years. It’s always been a detour. Now my business has taken a turn back to my entertainment and corporate clients.” But Ailes misinformed the reporter. He continued to work behind the scenes on the 1992 Bush re-election campaign, providing the campaign with attack points against Democratic contender Bill Clinton (D-AR) and earning the nickname “Deep Throat” from Bush aides. Though Ailes did do work in entertainment, helping develop tabloid television programs such as The Maury Povich Show and heading the cable business news network CNBC for three years, Ailes has continued to stay heavily involved in Republican politics ever since. Ailes became involved in the creation of Fox News in early 1996 after he left NBC, which had canceled his show America’s Talking and launched a new cable news network, MSNBC, without asking for Ailes’s involvement. Fox News is owned by News Corporation (sometimes abbreviated NewsCorp), an international media conglomerate owned by conservative billionaire Rupert Murdoch. When NBC allowed Ailes to leave, Jack Welch, the chairman of NBC’s parent company General Electric, said, “We’ll rue the day we let Roger and Rupert team up.” Murdoch has already tried and failed to buy CNN, and has already begun work on crafting news programs with hard-right slants, such as a 60 Minutes-like show that, reporter Tim Dickinson will write, “would feature a weekly attack-and-destroy piece targeting a liberal politician or social program.” Dan Cooper, the managing editor of the pre-launch Fox News, later says, “The idea of a masquerade was already around prior to Roger arriving.” Eric Burns, who will work for ten years as a Fox News media critic before leaving the network, will say in 2011: “There’s your answer right there to whether Fox News is a conventional news network or whether it has an agenda. That’s its original sin.” To get Fox News onto millions of cable boxes at once, Murdoch paid hundreds of millions of dollars to cable providers to air his new network. Murdoch biographer Neil Chenoweth will later write: “Murdoch’s offer shocked the industry. He was prepared to shell out half a billion dollars just to buy a news voice.” Dickinson will write, “Even before it took to the air, Fox News was guaranteed access to a mass audience, bought and paid for.” Ailes praised Murdoch’s “nerve,” saying, “This is capitalism and one of the things that made this country great.” (Sherman 5/22/2011; Dickinson 5/25/2011)
Using Conservative Talk Radio as Template - In 2003, NBC’s Bob Wright will note that Fox News uses conservative talk radio as a template, saying: “[W]hat Fox did was say, ‘Gee, this is a way for us to distinguish ourselves. We’re going to grab this pent-up anger—shouting—that we’re seeing on talk radio and put it onto television.’” CBS News anchor Dan Rather will be more critical, saying that Fox is a reflection of Murdoch’s own conservative political views. “Mr. Murdoch has a business, a huge worldwide conglomerate business,” Rather says. “He finds it to his benefit to have media outlets, press outlets, that serve his business interests. There’s nothing wrong with this. It’s a free country. It’s not an indictable offense. But by any clear analysis the bias is towards his own personal, political, partisan agenda… primarily because it fits his commercial interests.” (Auletta 5/26/2003)
Putting Ideology Over Journalistic Ethics, Practices - Ailes, determined not to let journalists with ethical qualms disrupt Fox News as they had his previous attempt at creating a conservative news network (see 1971-1975), brought a hand-picked selection of reporters and staffers with demonstrable conservative ideologies from NBC, including business anchor Neil Cavuto and Steve Doocy, who hosts the morning talk show “Fox and Friends.” Both Cavuto and Doocy are Ailes loyalists who, Dickinson will say, owe their careers to Ailes. Ailes then tapped Brit Hume, a veteran ABC correspondent and outspoken conservative, to host the main evening news show, and former Bush speechwriter Tony Snow as a commentator and host. John Moody, a forcefully conservative ABC News veteran, heads the newsroom. Ailes then went on a purge of Fox News staffers. Joe Peyronnin, who headed the network before Ailes displaced him, later recalls: “There was a litmus test. He was going to figure out who was liberal or conservative when he came in, and try to get rid of the liberals.” Ailes confronted reporters with suspected “liberal bias” with “gotcha” questions such as “Why are you a liberal?” Staffers with mainstream media experience were forced to defend their employment at such venues as CBS News, which he calls the “Communist Broadcast System.” He fired scores of staffers for perceived liberal leanings and replaced them with fiery young ideologues whose inexperience helps Ailes shape the network to his vision. Before the network aired its first production, Ailes had a seminal meeting with Moody. “One of the problems we have to work on here together when we start this network is that most journalists are liberals,” he told Moody. “And we’ve got to fight that.” Reporters and staffers knew from the outset that Fox, despite its insistence on being “fair and balanced” (see 1995), was going to present news with a conservative slant, and if that did not suit them, they would not be at Fox long. A former Fox News anchor later says: “All outward appearances were that it was just like any other newsroom. But you knew that the way to get ahead was to show your color—and that your color was red.” The anchor refers to “red” as associated with “red state,” commonly used on news broadcasts to define states with Republican majorities. Ailes will always insist that while his network’s talk-show hosts, such as O’Reilly, Hannity, and others, are frankly conservative, Fox’s hard-news shows maintain what he calls a “bright, clear line” that separates conservative cant from reported fact. In practice, this is not the case. Before Fox aired its first broadcast, Ailes tasked Moody to keep the newsroom in line. Early each morning, Ailes has a meeting with Moody, often with Hume on speakerphone from the Washington office, where the day’s agenda is crafted. Moody then sends a memo to the staff telling them how to slant the day’s news coverage according to the agenda of those on “the Second Floor,” as Ailes and his vice presidents are known. A former Fox anchor will later say: “There’s a chain of command, and it’s followed. Roger talks to his people, and his people pass the message on down.” After the 2004 presidential election, Bush press secretary Scott McClellan will admit, “We at the White House were getting them talking points.”
Targeting a Niche Demographic - Fox New’s primary viewership defies most demographic wisdom. According to information taken in 2011, it averages 65 years of age (the common “target demographic” for age is the 18-24 bracket), and only 1.38% of its viewers are African-American. Perhaps the most telling statistics are for the Hannity show: 86% describe themselves as pro-business, 84% believe government “does too much,” 78% are “Christian conservatives,” 78% do not support gay rights, 75% are “tea party backers,” 73% support the National Rifle Association, 66% lack college degrees, and 65% are over age 50. A former NewsCorp colleague will say: “He’s got a niche audience and he’s programmed to it beautifully. He feeds them exactly what they want to hear.” Other polls from the same time period consistently show that Fox News viewers are the most misinformed of all news consumers, and one study shows that Fox News viewers become more misinformed the more they watch the network’s programming.
Ailes's Security Concerns Affect Operations, Broadcasting - Ailes is uncomfortable in his office, a second-floor corner suite in the Fox News building at 1211 Avenue of the Americas in Manhattan. His office is too close to the street for his tastes; he believes that gay activists intend to try to harm him, either by attacks from outside the building or through assaults carried out from inside. He also believes that he is a top target for al-Qaeda assassins. Ailes barricades himself behind an enormous mahogany desk, insists on having “bombproof” glass installed in the windows, surrounds himself with heavily-armed bodyguards, and carries a firearm (he has a concealed-carry permit). A monitor on his desk shows him what is transpiring outside his office door; once, when he sees a dark-skinned man wearing what he thought was Muslim garb on the monitor, he will order an immediate lockdown of the entire building, shouting, “This man could be bombing me!” The man will turn out to be a janitor. A source close to Ailes will say, “He has a personal paranoia about people who are Muslim—which is consistent with the ideology of his network.” A large security detail escorts him daily to and from his Garrison, New Jersey home to his Manhattan offices; in Garrison, his house is surrounded by empty homes Ailes has bought to enhance his personal security. According to sources close to Ailes, Fox News’s slant on gay rights and Islamist extremism is colored by Ailes’s fear and hatred of the groups.
'We Work for Fox' - Sean Wilentz, a Princeton historian and Reagan biographer, will say: “Fox News is totalized: It’s an entire network, devoted 24 hours a day to an entire politics, and it’s broadcast as ‘the news.’ That’s why Ailes is a genius. He’s combined opinion and journalism in a wholly new way—one that blurs the distinction between the two.” Dickinson will write: “Fox News stands as the culmination of everything Ailes tried to do for Nixon back in 1968. He has created a vast stage set, designed to resemble an actual news network, that is literally hard-wired into the homes of millions of America’s most conservative voters. GOP candidates then use that forum to communicate directly to their base, bypassing the professional journalists Ailes once denounced as ‘matadors’ who want to ‘tear down the social order’ with their ‘elitist, horse-dung, socialist thinking.’ Ironically, it is Ailes who has built the most formidable propaganda machine ever seen outside of the Communist bloc, pioneering a business model that effectively monetizes conservative politics through its relentless focus on the bottom line.” Former Bush speechwriter David Frum will observe: “Republicans originally thought that Fox worked for us. Now we’re discovering that we work for Fox.” (Sherman 5/22/2011; Dickinson 5/25/2011)

A September 30 headline on Fox News’s Web site Fox Nation, inaccurately claiming that an Obama official ‘covered up’ the crime of statutory rape.A September 30 headline on Fox News’s Web site Fox Nation, inaccurately claiming that an Obama official ‘covered up’ the crime of statutory rape. [Source: Media Matters]Conservative media outlets actively target Education Department official Kevin Jennings over charges that he once facilitated the molestation of a child. Jennings, who is openly gay, is said to have covered up the statutory rape of a male teenager by an older gay male. The charge has been disproven, but conservative media figures have painted Jennings as a “radical” gay activist and a proponent of child molestation with an “agenda” of “promoting homosexuality in schools.” (Media Matters 9/30/2009) In 2004, Jennings’s attorney disclosed evidence that the youth was in fact 16 at the time, which is the legal age of consent in the state; therefore, no crime was committed. (Media Matters 10/1/2009) The attack on Jennings, who runs the Education Department’s Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools and is one of the White House’s so-called “czars,” is led by Fox News commentators Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck and columnists at the Washington Times, who all claim that in 1988, Jennings, then a public school teacher, “covered up” the statutory rape of a 15-year-old gay teenager by an older gay man in Massachusetts. Both Fox News and the Times have failed to report the proof of Jennings’s innocence. Hannity and Beck have called on Jennings to be fired. (Washington Times 9/28/2009; Media Matters 10/1/2009) The claim is not limited to Fox News’s commentary shows. News anchor Bill Hemmer, who anchors part of what the network claims is its “non-partisan” news coverage (see October 11, 2009 and October 13, 2009), states as fact that Jennings knew of a “statutory rape” case involving a student but “never reported it.” Hemmer fails to report the evidence showing no such crime was committed. Another Fox News correspondent, Mike Emanuel, says on Hemmer’s broadcast, “And so a lot of people suggesting [sic] that should have thrown up all sorts of red flags for this teacher.” (Media Matters 10/1/2009) Influential conservative blogger Jim Hoft accuses Jennings of “hid[ing] pedophilia from authorities.” (Jim Hoft 9/30/2009) “Fox News’ allegations about Kevin Jennings covering up a statutory rape are wholly unsupported by the facts,” says Eric Burns, president of the progressive media watchdog organization Media Matters. “But Fox has already proven that facts don’t matter in its campaign against Jennings. Who needs facts when your reports are built on made-up charges and anti-gay bigotry?” (Media Matters 10/1/2009)

Dr. Laura Schlessinger.Dr. Laura Schlessinger. [Source: Wall Street Journal]Dr. Laura Schlessinger, a conservative radio host whose Dr. Laura show combines political commentary with medical and personal “life” advice, claims she will leave the airwaves after engaging in a lengthy on-air “rant” where she uses a racial slur multiple times. Schlessinger begins by welcoming an African-American woman, “Jade,” as a caller. Jade says she is resentful of her husband, who is white, using racial slurs and derogatory language with his family members, “who start making racist comments as if I’m not there or if I’m not black.” Schlessinger says that Jade may be “hypersensitive,” and after a brief exchange, says: “I think that’s—well, listen, without giving much thought, a lot of blacks voted for [President] Obama simply ‘cause he was half-black. Didn’t matter what he was gonna do in office, it was a black thing. You gotta know that. That’s not a surprise. Not everything that somebody says [is racist].” Jade asks, “How about the n-word?” Schlessinger responds: “Black guys use it all the time. Turn on HBO, listen to a black comic, and all you hear is ‘n_gger, n_gger, n_gger.‘… I don’t get it. If anybody without enough melanin says it, it’s a horrible thing; but when black people say it, it’s affectionate. It’s very confusing.” Schlessinger takes a commercial break after asking Jade to stay on the line, and upon her return, Jade says: “I was a little caught back by the n-word that you spewed out, I have to be honest with you. But my point is, race relations—” Schlessinger interjects, “Oh, then I guess you don’t watch HBO or listen to any black comedians.” Jade replies: “But that doesn’t make it right.… [R]acism has come to another level that’s unacceptable.” Schlessinger again overrides Jade’s comments, saying: “Yeah. We’ve got a black man as president and we have more complaining about racism than ever. I mean, I think that’s hilarious.” Jade says, “But I think, honestly, because there’s more white people afraid of a black man taking over the nation.” Schlessinger notes that those people are “afraid,” and after another exchange concerning Obama’s election, she accuses Jade of having a “[c]hip on your shoulder. I can’t do much about that.… Yeah. I think you have too much sensitivity… and not enough sense of humor.” It is all right to use racial slurs, Schlessinger says: “It’s—it depends how it’s said. Black guys talking to each other seem to think it’s okay.… So, a word is restricted to race. Got it. Can’t do much about that.” Jade, by this point clearly offended by the conversation, says, “I can’t believe someone like you is on the radio spewing out the ‘n_gger’ word, and I hope everybody heard it.” Schlessinger retorts, “I didn’t spew out the ‘n_gger’ word.” Jade responds, “You said, ‘N_gger, n_gger, n_gger.’” Schlessinger responds: “Right, I said that’s what you hear.… I’ll say it again… n_gger, n_gger, n_gger is what you hear on” black comedy broadcasts, and accuses Jade of trying to take her words “out of context. Don’t double N—NAACP me.… Leave them in context.” After concluding the call, Schlessinger tells her listeners: “Can’t have this argument. You know what? If you’re that hypersensitive about color and don’t have a sense of humor, don’t marry out of your race. If you’re going to marry out of your race, people are going to say: ‘Okay, what do blacks think? What do whites think? What do Jews think? What do Catholics think?’ Of course there isn’t a one-think per se. But in general there’s ‘think.’ And what I just heard from Jade is a lot of what I hear from black-think—and it’s really distressting [sic] and disturbing. And to put it in its context, she said the n-word, and I said, on HBO, listening to black comics, you hear ‘n_gger, n_gger, n_gger.’ I didn’t call anybody a n_gger. Nice try, Jade. Actually, sucky try.… Ah—hypersensitivity, okay, which is being bred by black activists. I really thought that once we had a black president, the attempt to demonize whites hating blacks would stop, but it seems to have grown, and I don’t get it. Yes, I do. It’s all about power. I do get it. It’s all about power and that’s sad because what should be in power is not power or righteousness to do good—that should be the greatest power.” (Media Matters 8/12/2010; RTT News 8/18/2010) The audio of the exchange between Schlessinger and Jade, and Schlessinger’s concluding remarks, is apparently deleted from the audio recording which is later posted on Schlessinger’s Web site. (Media Matters 8/12/2010)
Apology - The next day, Schlessinger begins her show with an apology, saying in part: “I talk every day about doing the right thing. And yesterday, I did the wrong thing. I didn’t intend to hurt people, but I did. And that makes it the wrong thing to have done. I was attempting to make a philosophical point, and I articulated the n-word all the way out—more than one time. And that was wrong. I’ll say it again—that was wrong. I ended up, I’m sure, with many of you losing the point I was trying to make, because you were shocked by the fact that I said the word. I, myself, realized I had made a horrible mistake, and was so upset I could not finish the show. I pulled myself off the air at the end of the hour. I had to finish the hour, because 20 minutes of dead air doesn’t work. I am very sorry. And it just won’t happen again.… The caller in question… called for help from me, and didn’t get it, because we got embroiled in the n-word, and I’m really sorry about that, because I’m here for only one reason and that’s to be helpful, so I hope Jade or somebody who knows her is listening, and hope she will call me back and I will try my best to be helpful, which is what she wanted from me in the first place and what she did not get.” (Media Matters 8/12/2010) “Jade,” the nickname of Nita Hanson, tells a CNN interviewer that she never intends to speak with Schlessinger again, saying, “There’s nothing she can do for me.” She says the entire episode was “still very hurtful,” and says she was confused by Schlessinger’s rant. “I thought I had said something wrong.” She has her own ideas as to why Schlessinger apologized: “I think she apologized because she got caught.” The racial epithet Schlessinger is “never okay” to use, Hanson says. “It’s a very hateful word.” (Boedeker 8/19/2010) Civil rights leader Reverend Al Sharpton refuses to accept Schlessinger’s apology. During a CNN interview about the incident, Sharpton says that Schlessinger’s comment that people should consider not marrying outside of their race “despicable,” and adds, “She said the word over and over, and in a very animated way, I might add, but that she actually, if you listen carefully to the logic of what she was saying was that the n-word was not offensive.” (CNN 8/13/2010)
Calls for Resignation - On August 13, the National Urban League, a politically moderate civil rights organization, issues a statement asking Talk Radio Network to drop Schlessinger from its syndicated broadcast schedule, and asks her to educate herself about racism. NUL president Marc H. Morial says: “The problem is not simply that Dr. Schlessinger used the n-word repeatedly, though that is offensive enough. Her comments to the caller showed a breathtaking insensitivity and ignorance about racial dynamics in the United States.” Morial notes that in her rant, an African-American caller complained that her white husband’s friends use racial slurs and racially demeaning comments, to which Schlessinger responded that the caller was “hypersensitive”; Morial says that Schlessinger’s most revealing comment was: “I don’t get it. If anybody without enough melanin says it, it’s a horrible thing, but when black people say it, it’s affectionate. It’s very confusing.” Morial says: “As she said, she doesn’t get it, and she is very confused about what constitutes racism. It’s beyond comprehension that Dr. Schlessinger would consider [the caller] ‘hypersensitive’ for being offended by the use of the n-word. We should be long past the point in this country where anyone should be advised to laugh off or ignore racist comments. I hope the Talk Radio Network agrees that we’ve had enough of negative racial attitudes, and drops the Dr. Laura show from syndication.” (National Urban League 8/13/2010)
Defending Schlessinger - One of the few public figures to openly defend Schlessinger is former Governor Sarah Palin (R-AK), who issues a number of Facebook and Twitter posts in Schlessinger’s defense. “Does anyone seriously believe that Dr. Laura Schlessinger is a racist?” she asks on Facebook. “Anyone, I mean, who isn’t already accusing all conservatives, Republicans, tea party Americans, etc., etc., etc. of being racists?” A Twitter post reads, “Dr. Laura: don’t retreat… reload!” and says the “activists” seeking Schlessinger’s resignation are not “American” and “not fair.” (Jason Easley 8/18/2010; Penrice 8/20/2011)
Resignation, Claim that Her First Amendment Rights are under Attack by 'Special Interest Groups' - Eight days after her on-air rant, Schlessinger announces that she will conclude her radio show at the end of 2010. She explains: “I was attempting to make a philosophical point, and I articulated the n-word all the way out—more than one time. And that was wrong. I’ll say it again—that was wrong.” She tells CNN talk show host Larry King: “I want to be able to say what’s on my mind and in my heart and what I think is helpful and useful without somebody getting angry or some special-interest group deciding this is a time to silence a voice of dissent.… I decided it was time to move on to other venues where I could say my piece and not have to live in fear anymore.” Schlessinger claims that her First Amendment right to free speech is being constrained: “My contract is up at the end of the year, and I have made the decision not to do radio anymore. The reason is, I want to regain my First Amendment rights. I want to be able to say what’s on my mind and in my heart and what I think is helpful and useful without somebody getting angry, some special interest group deciding this is the time to silence a voice of dissent and attack affiliates, attack sponsors. I’m sort of done with that.” (Washington Post 8/17/2010; RTT News 8/18/2010; O'Connor 8/27/2010) Political commentator John Ridley calls Schlessinger’s claims that her “First Amendment” rights are being “trampled” “absurd.” On CNN, Ridley says: “The First Amendment, and a lot of people say this all the time, it pertains to the government impeding freedom of religion, freedom of speech.… No one’s impeding her First Amendment rights. If she wants to retire, that’s fine, but to say that for some reason someone disagrees with her, that she’s being maligned or in some way shoved off the airwaves, to me is absurd. You know, that’s her idea of an apology, to victimize herself.” (Media Matters 8/17/2010) The president of Media Matters for America, the progressive media watchdog organization, Eric Burns, applauds Schlessinger’s decision. Burns says: “Dr. Laura’s radio career ended in disgrace tonight because of the bigoted, ugly, and hateful remarks made on her show. Americans have had enough. Listeners are now holding hosts, affiliates, and sponsors accountable for the offensive and inexcusable content on the airwaves.” The New York Times notes that Schlessinger has repeatedly weathered criticism for her anti-homosexual comments and false claims that “huge” numbers of male homosexuals are “predatory on young boys.” (O'Connor 8/27/2010)
No Departure - Instead of leaving the airwaves as she claims she will do, Schlessinger will move her show from broadcast radio to satellite radio’s Sirius XM (see November 26, 2010).

Responding to a recent tirade by talk-show host Dr. Laura Schlessinger in which Schlessinger repeatedly used the racial slur “n_igger” in conversation with an African-American woman (see August 10-18, 2010), the progressive media watchdog organization Media Matters asks advertisers to stop purchasing advertising on Schlessinger’s show. Media Matters president Eric Burns says in a press release: “Dr. Laura’s offensive outburst provided listeners with a window into her true beliefs about race in America. By deliberately choosing to sponsor her program, Dr. Laura’s advertisers are not only funding her offensive radio show, but are implicitly endorsing its content. Companies must demonstrate that they won’t tolerate bigotry and immediately stop advertising on her show.” Media Matters identifies some of the companies purchasing advertising on Schlessinger’s show as Pfizer, Chase Bank, Netflix, Motel 6, and Home Depot. (Media Matters 8/13/2010) General Motors and other advertisers will drop their advertising on Schlessinger’s show. (Burns 8/18/2010)


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