When Fox News Washington managing editor Bill Sammon discussed with The Daily Beast's Howard Kurtz the leaked emails obtained by Media Matters in which Sammon sought to slant the network's coverage of health care reform to the right, he tipped his hand revealing his ultimate intention despite his protestations of journalistic integrity. Kurtz reported (emphasis added):
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."
As New York Magazine's Chris Rovzar wrote (emphasis added):
Sammon himself phrased the Fox attitude well when he spoke with Howard Kurtz about the memo: "Who would be against a 'public' park?" Indeed — who would? And why would you want them to be, again?
This morning, Media Matters released a leaked email sent by Fox News' Washington Managing Editor Bill Sammon during the height of the health care reform debate instructing Fox's journalists not to use the phrase "public option." As we detailed, Sammon's directive echoed advice from a Republican pollster on how to turn public opinion against reform.
Responding to The Daily Beast's Howard Kurtz about the leaked email, Sammon reportedly defended his directive, and also objected to being characterized as conservative:
Sammon said in the interview that he was a newspaper reporter for 25 years and his record demonstrates that he hasn't favored either side. "Have I said things where I take a conservative view? Give me specifics," he said.
Kurtz lists several examples from Sammon's appearances on Fox since he became managing editor:
In his Fox appearances since his promotion last year, Sammon has been notably unsympathetic to the Obama administration. "The mainstream media hates the Tea Party movement almost as much as it hates Sarah Palin," he said this year. "And the reason is simple. That's because both are a threat." Less than a month after the president took office, Sammon said of the stimulus bill: "I think this has turned into a public-relations disaster for Obama. People look at this thing and see, you know, some mouses being protected in Pelosi's district, some rail lines being built in Harry Reid's state... I think as we get deeper into the details of this bill, it's going to get uglier and uglier. So yes, Obama won, but he won ugly."
Sammon has also accused Obama of making decisions that "take America off its war footing... the opposite of what the Bush and Cheney folks did in the wake of 9/11." And during a discussion of Iraq last year, he said: "That's the difference between liberals and conservatives. Conservatives have the intellectual honesty like Bill Kristol here to support both surges, whereas a lot of Democrats reflexively opposed George Bush's surge because--it wasn't so much because they were antiwar. It's because they wanted to destroy the Bush presidency."
And evidence that Sammon pushes a conservative viewpoint goes back much farther.
As we documented earlier this year, Sammon wrote numerous fawning books about the Bush administration, most of which were published by the Regnery Company, which describes itself as "central to the conservative movement" and "the nation's preeminent conservative publisher."
Sammon's books didn't really try to hide his viewpoint, and in fact were identified by reviewers as "conservative polemic" that show his "admiration" of President Bush:
But you don't have to take our word for it about Sammon's conservative bona fides, just ask two of Fox News' most prominent on-air personalities.
In a June 2001 interview on Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor, Bill O'Reilly introduced Sammon by saying: "Mr. Sammon obviously is a conservative and coming from that point of view." Sammon did not object to O'Reilly designation.
More recently, on the August 2009 edition of Fox Broadcasting Co's Fox News Sunday, host Chris Wallace told Sammon that "I think it's fair to say you tilt conservative in your views." Once again, Sammon did not reject Wallace's characterization.
Is that "specific" enough, Mr. Sammon?
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."
Signs of friction within Fox News continue to grow as two more sources indicate "frustration" and "surprise" at the direction the news channel is taking, with one source pointing to concerns that the "opinion side bleeds over the news side."
One source complained about the "political slugfests and extremists" on the network, while the other said the network "pander(s) to the extreme."
These concerns follow Media Matters' recent report that sources familiar with the situation say that the Fox Washington bureau is slanting more to the right in recent years under Bill Sammon, vice president of news and Washington managing editor, who took over for Brit Hume in February 2009.
The latest sources to speak out -- a current Fox News staffer and a longtime contributor -- responded to Media Matters' questions about Fox's employment of five Republicans who have expressed interest in running for president.
Media Matters has documented that the potential candidates -- Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, John Bolton, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum -- appeared on Fox at least 269 times in the first nine months of 2010.
Asked by Media Matters about the potential candidates frequently appearing on Fox, the longtime Fox contributor expressed concerns about the "increasingly incestuous" nature of the network.
"It becomes increasingly incestuous. If you look at the line-up and who is on the shows, they feed on each other. You see Beck on O'Reilly and it is not just the candidates. They do not have the real serious contenders, which are not Huckabee and Palin. That surprises me because it is a news organization. I don't recall a time in news when this has happened."
The same source also complained about the presence of extreme views: "I think Fox has very good coverage on Shep Smith, Chris Wallace and Bret Baier. The others are more political slugfests and extremists. It narrows your audience."
Asked if the "political slugfests and extremists" included Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck, the contributor responded, "Yes."
The other source, a current Fox News staffer, cited Shepard Smith's show as among the few straight news programs on the network: "I wish we had more programs like that, with high news content."
The staffer added, "There are people who are concerned that the opinion side bleeds over the news side. More of our programs are turning into opinion programs. It is frustrating."
"We are a 24-hour news operation and in that time there are sometimes three stories we cover," the staffer also said. "We cover the ones that we cover to death. Even as a viewer, I am like, 'I get this, can we move on to the next thing?'"
"Can't we do something new and different? I am bored with hearing the same stuff over and over again."
The veteran staffer also said that the assignments are made based on what will draw ratings, not news content: "When you sit in the meetings, it is all about ratings. I would like to do more real journalism and it is frustrating. Why do we have to pander to the extreme?"
Asked about the potential candidates who frequently appear on Fox, the staffer responded: "Our bookers are begging Democrats to come on, we bend over backwards to get them and they won't go on. It is ridiculous and unfortunate. I don't think it is a valid reason not to go on, but they feel that way and it hurts our credibility if we can never get Democrats to go on."
"It feels frustrating that there is a lot of real journalism that goes on here, but what tends to get attention is what is controversial," the staffer added. "It gives the perception that the newsroom is in disarray."
Fox News officials declined to comment for this story.
Pressure on some Fox News reporters in the Washington, D.C., bureau to "slant news" and "distort" coverage has sparked some discontent in the newsroom there, according to sources with knowledge of the situation.
Since Bill Sammon assumed the role of Washington managing editor and vice president of news at the beginning of the Obama Administration, pressure from Fox management to produce stories that lean toward a conservative agenda, and distort news in some cases, has found its way into coverage, the sources said.
Sammon, who took over the post from Brit Hume in February 2009, is widely regarded as a conservative, including by Fox hosts Bill O'Reilly and Chris Wallace, who have characterized him on the air as "conservative."
In the past, Sammon boasted of his access to President Bush and used that to write several positive books about him. He also wrote a 2001 book titled "At Any Cost: How Al Gore Tried to Steal the Election."
Sammon's job was described at the time of his appointment as overseeing "editorial content in the Washington bureau, reporting to John Moody, Executive Vice President, News Editorial."
Sources tell Media Matters that the situation in the Fox Washington bureau represents a dramatic change from when Hume was managing editor.
According to one source, the pressure to slant Fox's reporting is coming from Sammon himself. Another source says that directives are coming from Fox management in New York and that Sammon -- unlike Hume -- doesn't have enough sway to push back.
The allegations fly in the face of Fox's claim that its news division is straight down the middle and not opinionated.
"[There is] more pressure from Sammon to slant news to the right or to tell people how to report news, doing it in a more brutish way," one source with knowledge of the situation said. "A lot of the reporters are conservative and are glad to pick up news. But there is a point at which it is no longer reporting, but distorting things."
"Brit Hume was also encouraging people to look at things with other points of view. Brit was smart to see that a lot of mainstream media ignore certain points of view," the source added. "That was a smart and effective way to build the Fox brand.
"But if you come in to say, 'ignore points of view and ignore facts,' then you are straying away from being a legitimate news reporter."
Asked about the first source's allegation, a second source with knowledge of the situation said, "I wouldn't disagree with it from this standpoint: Brit was the 800-pound gorilla who could pick up the phone and say he will not do that. Bill Sammon is no 800-pound gorilla within the organization. He doesn't have that much sway."
The second source also said of Sammon, "He is not going to buck the bosses in New York. The D.C. bureau chief [Brian Boughton] and managing editor in D.C. [Sammon] are not as powerful as they once were. They are not going to raise objections and fight hard. They will just pass on the message."
Fox News did not respond to requests for comment on Sammon.