Feb 25 2010

Fox News–Wing of the GOP?

More like a Republican slugging arm

fox news logoWhite House interim communications director Anita Dunn’s characterization of Fox News Channel as “a wing of the Republican Party,” and her announcement that the administration would henceforth treat Fox News as part of the “opposition,” created a media stir. Washington Post columnist (and Fox contributor) Charles Krauthammer announced, “The White House has declared war on Fox News.” Krauthammer’s more centrist colleague, Ruth Marcus (WashingtonPost .com, 10/19/09), wrote that “picking a fight” with Fox News “makes the White House look childish and petty at best, and it has a distinct Nixonian—Agnewesque?—aroma at worst.”

As Joe Conason pointed out (Salon, 10/22/09), comparisons to the Watergate era are absurd; the Nixon administration’s approach to the press involved threats, illegal audits, even an assassination plot against investigative reporter Jack Anderon (Washington Post, 9/22/75). A less far-fetched comparison would be to the Bush administration’s prolonged criticism of NBC in 2008 (Political Animal, 10/20/09)—though the Bush complaints, which received a fraction of the media attention accorded to the Obama flap, had far less basis in reality.

News reports in late October (Politico, 10/28/09) suggested that a “truce” had been struck between the White House and Fox. But such a framing assumes that the “war” started with Dunn’s remarks a few weeks earlier. In fact, Fox’s war on Democrats, liberals and anyone to the left of Joe Lieberman began 13 years ago with the launch of the channel, and only intensified when Obama was elected. Even if the White House is ready to declare a cease-fire, the odds that Fox would honor it are roughly equivalent to the chances that Roger Ailes will wake up tomorrow morning transformed into Helen Thomas. Indeed, as the record suggests, if Fox ceased to treat Democrats as an internal enemy, they would cease to exist as Fox News.

Whatever your view of the White House’s Fox strategy, linking Fox News to the Republican Party should hardly be controversial; examples of Fox GOP partisanship are virtually endless. The following list, which concentrates on Fox executives and news shows—avoiding completely the likes of the hopelessly lopsided Hannity, O’Reilly Factor and Glenn Beck programs—is just a sample of the evidence that might lead a reasonable person to conclude that Fox News is part of the Republican communications team.

Messages from the top

When the Obama administration characterizes Fox News as part of its “opposition,” it’s only echoing some of Fox’s own top news executives.

  • Fox News president Roger Ailes was an adviser to three past Republican presidents—Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush—and reportedly secretly advised George W. Bush while running Fox News (Washington Post, 11/17/02). According to new Fox star Glenn Beck (L.A. Times, 3/06/09), Ailes told Beck during his job interview in March that “the country faced tough times…and Fox News was one of the only news outlets willing to challenge the new administration.” Beck said that Ailes added, “I see this as the Alamo; if I just had somebody who was willing to sit on the other side of the camera until the last shot is fired, we’d be fine.”
  • As the film Outfoxed revealed, Fox News executive vice president John Moody regularly handed down memos cheering and defending Bush administration actions. For instance, following a 2003 Bush Mideast initiative, Moody (6/03/03) wrote to staffers, “His political courage and tactical cunning [are worth] noting in our reporting through the day.”
  • Fox News senior vice president for programming Bill Shine referred in March (NPR, 3/23/09) to Foxas “the voice of opposition” to the Obama administration.
  • There’s evidence that Fox News made hiring decisions based on party affiliation. For example, Andrew Kirtzman, a respected New York City cable news reporter, was interviewed for a job with Fox News in 1996, and afterward said that his interviewers wanted to know what party he belonged to. “They were afraid I was a Democrat,” he told the Village Voice (10/15/96). When Kirtzman refused to tell Fox his party ID, “all employment discussion ended,” according to the Voice. Mara Liasson—touted as an in-house “liberal” by Fox executives—reportedly assured Ailes before being hired that she was a Republican (New York, 11/17/97).

Straight News?

Fox argues that its news shows, like Special Report, play it straight, so it’s unfair to conflate such shows with openly opinionated programs; a Fox spokesperson once bizarrely likened the relationship between the two divisions of Fox programming to the White House’s relationship with the Washington Redskins football team (New York Times, 10/22/09). While the claim would be disingenuous even if true—since the opinion shows are by far the channel’s most popular and prominent offerings—the evidence shows that Fox’s news programming has been clearly ideological from the outset.

As noted by the Columbia Journalism Review (3-4/98), several former Fox employees “complained of ‘management sticking their fingers’ in the writing and editing of stories to cook the facts to make a story more palatable to right-of-center tastes.” Said one: “I’ve worked at a lot of news organizations and never found that kind of manipulation.”

Those tendencies are obvious to a reasonable observer of Fox programming. Some examples:

  • Special Report, long-billed as Fox’s signature news show, was launched to cover President Bill Clinton’s sex scandal. A 2001 FAIR study (Extra!, 7-8/01) found that the show’s one-on-one interview segment favored Republican guests over Democrats by a startling 8-to-1 ratio; after anchor Brit Hume promised to look into the problem of biased guest selection a 2002 FAIR study showed the the show had improved to a mere 3-to-2 advantage for Republicans, before returning to a 5-to-1 Republican/ Democrat slant in 2004 (Extra!, 7-8/04). Special Report’s “Political Grapevine” segment is a a roundup of news shorts primarily portraying Fox enemies—Democrats, liberals, civil rights leaders, etc.—in a bad light (Extra!, 7-8/01). The show’s regular panel discussion is typically slanted to the right as well, with conservative commentators “debating” centrist reporters.
  • The late Tony Snow, a Fox News Sunday anchor, Rush Limbaugh fill-in and former chief speechwriter for George Bush, Sr., often seemed confused about whether he was a journalist or politician. While a Fox News anchor in 1996, Snow endorsed GOP candidate Bob Dole for president in the Republican National Committee’s magazine Rising Tide (New York, 11/17/97).
  • Later, as he was ostensibly covering the 2000 GOP convention for Fox, Snow jumped up on a stage to give a speech to the Republican Youth Caucus when a scheduled speaker failed to show. Snow was followed on the platform by Sen. Trent Lott, who began with the cheer, “How about Tony Snow in 2008?” Snow left Fox to become George W. Bush’s press secretary.
  • On election night 2000, George W. Bush’s cousin John Prescott Ellis was in charge of Fox’s “decision desk” tracking election night returns. The network was first to declare Bush the winner in Florida, and therefore of the presidency. According to the Washington Post (11/14/00), Ellis spent part of the night on the phone with his cousins George and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, “giving them updated assessments of the vote count.” (Ellis boasted of these conversations to the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer—11/20/00.) A few hours later, Fox, and the networks that followed suit, would retract the Bush call, but the premature decision by Ellis and his team left the enduring impression that Bush had actually won the election and that Democrats who legitimately challenged that result were sore losers.
  • In the spring and summer of 2004, few media outlets were as relentless as Fox News in promoting claims by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth that Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry’s Vietnam record was fabricated (Atlanta Journal, 9/4/04)—charges that were patently fraudulent (FAIR Media Advisory, 8/30/04). In the month of August alone, Special Report averaged nearly two segments per night (42 segments in 22 broadcasts) mentioning the Swift Boat Vets’ charges.
  • During the 2004 campaign, Fox News correspondent Carl Cameron posted a story on the Fox News website containing made-up quotes from John Kerry, including “Women should like me! I do manicures,” “Didn’t my nails and cuticles look great?” and “I’m metrosexual” (Media Matters, 10/4/04).
  • On Fox’s news program Happening Now (2/10/09), anchor Jon Scott’s report on how the Democrats’ stimulus bill had grown larger over time was almost entirely based on an unedited Republican GOP news release. In fact, as Media Matters pointed out (2/10/09), the segment tracked so closely to the release copy that one of Fox’s on-screen graphics even repeated a typo from the GOP release.
  • Fox News has an affiliated website, Fox Nation; as Eric Alterman noted (Nation, 11/9/09), Fox uses the tag “Fox Nation Victory!” to trumpet such stories on the site as “Obama’s Drive for Climate Change Bill Delayed,” “Congress Delays Healthcare Rationing Bill” and “Obama’s ‘Green Czar’ Resigns.”