The Fox News Option

Alex Eichler at The Atlantic with the round-up

Ben Dimiero at Media Matters:

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.

As far back as March 2009, Fox personalities had sporadically referred to the “government option.”

Two months prior to Sammon’s 2009 memo, Republican pollster Frank Luntz appeared on Sean Hannity’s August 18 Fox News program. Luntz scolded Hannity for referring to the “public option” and encouraged Hannity to use “government option” instead.

Luntz argued that “if you call it a ‘public option,’ the American people are split,” but that “if you call it the ‘government option,’ the public is overwhelmingly against it.” Luntz explained that the program would be “sponsored by the government” and falsely claimed that it would also be “paid for by the government.”

“You know what,” Hannity replied, “it’s a great point, and from now on, I’m going to call it the government option.”

On October 26, 2009, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced the inclusion of a public insurance option that states could opt out of in the Senate’s health care bill.

That night, Special Report used “public” and “government” interchangeably when describing the public option provision.

Anchor Bret Baier referred to “a so-called public option”; the “public option”; “government-provided insurance coverage”; “this government-run insurance option”; the “healthcare public option”; and “the government-run option, the public option.” Correspondent Shannon Bream referred to “a government-run public option”; “a public option”; “a government-run option”; and “the public option.”

The next morning, October 27, Sammon sent an email to the staffs of Special Report, Fox News Sunday, and FoxNews.com, as well as to other reporters and producers at the network. The subject line read: “friendly reminder: let’s not slip back into calling it the ‘public option.’ ”

Sammon instructed staff to refer on air to “government-run health insurance,” the “government option,” “the public option, which is the government-run plan,” or — when “necessary” — “the so-called public option”:

From: Sammon, Bill
Sent: Tuesday, October 27, 2009 8:23 AM
To: 054 -FNSunday; 169 -SPECIAL REPORT; 069 -Politics; 030 -Root (FoxNews.Com); 036 -FOX.WHU; 050 -Senior Producers; 051 -Producers
Subject: friendly reminder: let’s not slip back into calling it the “public option”

1)      Please use the term “government-run health insurance” or, when brevity is a concern, “government option,” whenever possible.

2)      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.”

3)      Here’s another way to phrase it: “The public option, which is the government-run plan.”

4)      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’s senior vice president for news, Michael Clemente, soon replied. He thanked Sammon for his email and said that he preferred Fox staffers use Sammon’s third phrasing: “The public option, which is the government-run plan.”

From: Clemente, Michael
To: Sammon, Bill; 054 -FNSunday; 169 -SPECIAL REPORT; 069 -Politics; 030 -Root (FoxNews.Com); 036 -FOX.WHU; 050 -Senior Producers; 051 -Producers
Sent: Tue Oct 27 08:45:29 2009
Subject: RE: friendly reminder: let’s not slip back into calling it the “public option”

Thank you Bill

#3 on your list is the preferred way to say it, write it, use it.

Michael Clemente

SVP-News

212.XXX.XXXX

Sammon’s email appears to have had an impact. On the October 27 Special Report — unlike on the previous night’s broadcast — Fox journalists made no references to the “public option” without using versions of the pre-approved qualifiers outlined in Sammon’s and Clemente’s emails.

Howard Kurtz at The Daily Beast:

Sammon said in an interview that the term “public option” “is a vague, bland, undescriptive phrase,” and that after all, “who would be against a public park?” The phrase “government-run plan,” he said, is “a more neutral term,” and was used just last week by a New York Times columnist.

“I have no idea what the Republicans were pushing or not. It’s simply an accurate, fair, objective term.”

Other news organizations periodically described the plan as government-run or used the terms interchangeably, but not as part of any edict. While news executives routinely offer guidance about proper wording in news stories, the semantics in this case were clearly favored by the Republicans.

Sammon’s message was received. On that night’s Special Report, the Washington newscast, anchor Bret Baier began by teasing “a look at the fight over government-run health insurance in the Senate reform bill.” Chief Washington correspondent Jim Angle referred to “a government insurance plan, the so-called public option.”

On the previous night’s program, Baier had repeatedly referred to the “public option,” as did conservative panelist Charles Krauthammer.

Anchor Neil Cavuto, a pro-business commentator, teed up an interview that day with House Republican Leader John Boehner by saying: “My next guest says name it what you want; it is still government-run.”

After hearing a clip of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi calling the provision the “consumer option,” Boehner said: “They are worried about it because whether you call it the government option; whether you call it the consumer option; whether you call it a co-op or an opt-out or an opt-in, these are all just terms about their big government takeover of our health-care system.”

Colby Hall at Mediaite:

Sammon is a former reporter for the right-of-center Washington Times and replaced the well respected Brit Hume as Managing Editor of Fox News’ Washington bureau. He’s fairly portrayed in Kurtz’ article as someone who has consistently espoused a conservative point-of-view, so the points in his memo should not surprise anyone that Sammon directed a more right of center bent.

The larger issue raised, however, is the question of whether Sammon’s direction of referencing the “public option” as the “government option” crossed the sometimes blurry line that separates the opinion programming with the news programming on Fox News. Kurtz lays out a number of examples when news personalities appear to a have changed their words, namely Bret Baier and Jim Angle, who are both based in Sammon’s Washington bureau.

Anyone who watched Fox News coverage of the health care debate at this time could see that most of the personalities on the channel were not fans of the White House efforts to pass the bill. At the time, I wrote a post titled “The REAL Health Care Debate: The Obama Administration Vs Fox News” that opened:

Watching a few hours of Fox News these days amounts to a non-stop infomercial opposing the Obama Administration’s effort to reform Health Care. While there is always room for a healthy debate on the issues, please don’t look to Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity or Glenn Beck for a measured discourse – they rarely, if ever, present a constructive solution to the current health care problems (though there is the occasional admission that there is need for reform.) No single entity seems more entrenched in the opposition to the health care reform than Fox News.

It is important to note that the examples set forth above are all right-of-center or “traditionalist” opinion media personalities who were opposed to what they now call “Obamacare.” In Kurtz’ piece Sammon defends his choice of words claiming that “government option” was more neutral, though that appears to be a simple game of semantics.

To paraphrase a well-worn cliche: semantics, the last vestige of a scoundrel.

Digby:

Now everyone has known forever that Bill Sammon is a rightwing hack of epic proportions. But the Network has defended Sammon as a straight reporter and the Villagers have had fits if anyone suggested otherwise. So this just proves something that was already obvious. What’s interesting about it is that FOX employees have had enough and are leaking the secrets.

The Wikileaks issue is fascinating, for sure, especially the idea that they can use the internet to disseminate information beyond a chosen few who are allowed to see it. But this is about the failure of our leadership and institutions over a long period of time and the culture of secrecy and corruption that’s brought us to this point. The system itself is leaking because its been compromised so badly. They can shut off the flow at any point and it will just leak elsewhere.

Jack Shafer at Slate:

The call to refer to the program as the government option instead of the public option came from Republican pollster Frank Luntz, Media Matters and Kurtz report. But this shouldn’t disqualify the new term from the Fox News stylebook. Government option is superior to public option in that it emphasizes that the government—and thus the taxpayers—will be footing the bill. As a modifier, public has many nongovernmental uses, as in public appearance, public figure, public display, public-key cryptography, public editor, public enemy, public storage, and public opinion.

But when government is used as an adjective, there is no such confusion. Does that make Fox News’ semantic solution superior? I’ve always thought that Social Security should be renamed Government Ponzi Scheme. I’d also like the Export-Import Bank to be renamed the Government Subsidy Depot—but that’s another column.

That Sammon issued a memo directing Fox News reporters to use a phrase he considers more accurate hardly constitutes “spin,” as the headline to Kurtz’s piece has it. If government option is spin, isn’t public option spin, too?

Usage cops walk the beat at every large news organization, commanding reporters to obey the ruling stylebook. For instance, some newspapers used pro-life and pro-choice in their abortion coverage until somebody pointed out that being anti-pro-life wasn’t the same thing as being pro-death—and that pro-choice was closer to meaning pro-abortion, although that gets slippery, too, since you can be against the pro-lifers and not want to have an abortion yourself.

Peter Suderman at Reason:

You can quit worrying already. Opinion doesn’t have anything to do with Sammon’s memo. Indeed, Media Matters doesn’t even make any attempt to prove that Sammon’s preferred label is inaccurate. Granted, that would be hard to do, because in fact the public option is a form of government-run insurance. But obviously we can’t let anyone in the media actually say this.

Allah Pundit

Jonathan Chait at TNR:

I suppose that might be a reasonable defense in a world where news organizations scrutinize every phrase for maximal accuracy. That, however, is not the practice at Fox News, or anywhere. Standard news practice is to simply keep using terms that have come into the public discourse and gained wide usage even if it is not the most technically accurate or neutral term. If you had a left-wing news network that decided it can no longer refer to military spending as “defense” because that presumes it is never used in an aggressive way, that would be an act of bias, regardless of the philosophical merits.

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