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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.” (Scherer 10/8/2009; Stelter 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.” (Scherer 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). (Scherer 10/8/2009; Stelter 10/11/2009; Ariens 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. (Sherman 5/22/2011)
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; Weisberg 10/17/2009)
Bill Sammon, the Washington managing editor for Fox News, sends an internal email instructing his journalists and producers not to use the commonly accepted phrase “public option” to describe a proposed government-run health insurance agency. The so-called “public option” is shorthand for a proposed health insurance plan offered by the federal government primarily for uninsured citizens who have trouble affording private health care coverage. Instead, Sammon requires reporters and news anchors to use terms such as “government option”—terms identified by Republican pollster Frank Luntz as being more negative and more likely to turn viewers away from supporting such an effort. (Ironically, a month ago, Sammon sent an email reminding his staff that Fox News “reports” the news as it happens, and that their function is that of “dispassionate observers”—see September 12, 2009). The liberal news watchdog Web site Media Matters will compile a number of instances from “straight news” broadcasts on Fox News that seem to follow Sammon’s instructions, particularly on the network’s evening flagship news program, Special Report with Bret Baier. Inside sources will tell Media Matters reporter Ben Dimiero that Sammon regularly uses his position as managing editor to “slant” Fox News’s “neutral” news coverage to the right. Dimiero will write, “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.” In August 2009, Luntz appeared on Sean Hannity’s Fox News opinion show, and told Hannity to use the term “government option” instead of “public option.” Luntz explained that “if you call it a ‘public option,’ the American people are split,” but “if you call it the ‘government option,’ the public is overwhelmingly against it.” He went on to say that the program would be “sponsored by the government,” and falsely told Hannity that such a program would be “paid for by the government.” Hannity told Luntz that “it’s a great point, and from now on, I’m going to call it the government option.” The night before Sammon’s email, Baier used both “public option” and “government option” in describing a proposed inclusion by Senate Democrats, as did correspondent Shannon Bream. The next morning, Sammon sends his email, which is titled “[F]riendly reminder: let’s not slip back into calling it the ‘public option,’” and reading in part, “Please use the term ‘government-run health insurance’ or, when brevity is a concern, ‘government option,’ whenever possible. When it is necessary to use the term ‘public option’ (which is, after all, firmly ensconced in the nation’s lexicon), use the qualifier ‘so-called,’ as in ‘the so-called public option.’ Here’s another way to phrase it: ‘The public option, which is the government-run plan.’ When newsmakers and sources use the term ‘public option’ in our stories, there’s not a lot we can do about it, since quotes are of course sacrosanct.” Fox News’s senior vice president for news, Michael Clemente, concurs in a follow-up email and tells news staff that he prefers Sammon’s phrasing “[t]he public option, which is the government-run plan.” After Sammon’s and Clemente’s emails, Baier and others will no longer use the phrase “public option” without using Sammon’s qualifiers. Dimiero will write that Sammon’s title wording of a “friendly reminder” indicates that similar instructions had been issued previously. Indeed, during a September 3, 2009 broadcast, Baier repeatedly interrupted his guest, NPR’s Mara Liasson, to “correct” her phrasing of “public option” as the “government-run option of health insurance.” Liasson, along with conservative guests Charles Krauthammer and Steve Hayes, agreed to use Baier’s phrasing. And during Baier’s broadcast, on-screen chyrons described the idea as “Government Option.” Dimiero will write: “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.” Sammon will tell media reporter Howard Kurtz that he prefers the phrasing “government option” because it is “a more neutral term,” and the phrase “public option” is “vague, bland,” and “undescriptive.” He will deny any knowledge of “what the Republicans were pushing.” (Dimiero 12/9/2010)
Fox News’s Gregg Jarrett, anchor of the Happening Now news broadcast, tells viewers that former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin is “continuing to draw huge crowds while she’s promoting her brand new book [her autobiography Going Rogue]. Take a look at—these are some of the pictures just coming into us. The lines earlier had formed this morning.” Fox News then cuts to film from the 2008 presidential campaign, where Palin, the Republican vice-presidential candidate, was speaking to a large and enthusiastic crowd. The footage shows rally participants waving “McCain/Palin” signs while others hold pom-poms and cheer. Jarrett says, “There’s a crowd of folks.” (Gertz 11/18/2009; Shakir 11/18/2009; Silva 11/18/2009) Media Matters soon identifies the footage as being from a November 1, 2008 rally in Florida. (Schulman 11/18/2009) Progressive columnist and blogger John Amato, calling Fox News’s usage of the footage a deliberate “hoax,” writes that he has filed a complaint with the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) over the use of the footage. (Amato 11/18/2009) Shortly afterwards, Fox News airs an apology, with another anchor saying in part: “We didn’t mean to mislead anybody. It was a mistake, and for that we apologize.” (Silva 11/18/2009) The next day, Fox News senior vice president Michael Clemente blames a “production error” for the use of the inaccurate footage, saying: “This was a production error in which the copy editor changed a script and didn’t alert the control room to update the video. There will be an on-air explanation during Happening Now on Thursday.” (Shakir 11/19/2009) Unnamed sources tell a Chicago Tribune reporter that “serious disciplinary action” may be taken against those responsible, and that Fox News executives consider it “a sloppy and unnecessary error.” (Silva 11/18/2009) The Tribune and a number of progressive bloggers note a similar error on Sean Hannity’s Fox News broadcast two weeks earlier (see November 5, 2009).
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