Love it or hate it, Fox News has shaken up the media establishment and achieved financial success by airing the views of strident conservative pundits. Yet while the network has never made any bones about the political slant of opinion shows hosted by the likes of Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity or Bill O’Reilly, executives often claim that its news coverage is “fair and balanced.” A memo revealed this week by the liberal watchdog group Media Matters calls that into question.
The first time Media Matters unveiled a leaked e-mail from Bill Sammon, Fox News’ Washington managing editor, it was hardly worthy of mention. On Dec. 9 the group’s website revealed that Sammon had instructed reporters to avoid the phrase “public option” when referring to a proposed government-sponsored healthcare plan. The memo, sent out on Oct. 27, 2009, when debate over the Democratic healthcare bill was raging in Congress, came two months after Republican pollster Frank Luntz had appeared on Hannity’s show and encouraged him to use the phrase “government option” instead, because such terminology decreased public support for the proposal. “Please use the term ‘government-run health insurance’ or, when brevity is a concern, ‘government option’ whenever possible,” Sammon told reporters.
Liberal bloggers were furious, but few mainstream journalists could muster much outrage. Arguments over semantics and perceived bias are commonplace and seldom fruitful. “Government option” is no less valid a descriptor for the proposal than the more commonly used “public option,” and if Fox News was demonstrating bias by using the former, one could accuse mainstream outlets of the same for using the latter.