By Ben Dimiero
Media Matters for America
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.
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.
Reporting on health care reform that night, Baier referenced the public option three times. In each instance, he referred to it as "government-run health insurance" or a "government-run health insurance option" — precisely echoing the first wording choice laid out by Sammon.
On the same show, correspondent Jim Angle referred to "a government insurance plan, the so-called public option"; "a government insurance option"; and "a government insurance plan."
The wording of Sammon’s email — a "friendly reminder" not to "slip back into calling it the ‘public option’ " — suggests that someone in the Fox News chain of command had previously issued similar instructions.
And indeed, the issue had surfaced before in Fox’s newscasts.
On the September 3, 2009, Special Report — three weeks after Luntz told Hannity to call it the "government option" — Baier discussed the potential inclusion of a public option during the show’s nightly commentary segment.
During the segment — after Baier himself had referred to a "public option" — NPR’s Mara Liasson also referred several times to the "public option," prompting Baier to interrupt her to clarify that it is the "government-run option of health insurance."
As the conversation continued, The Washington Post’s Charles Krauthammer and The Weekly Standard’s Steve Hayes both used "public option." When Liasson mentioned a "triggered public option," Baier again interrupted, asking, "Should we say ‘government option,’ by the way?"
"Government option, OK," replied Liasson.
"Everybody gets it," Baier explained.
On-screen text during the segment also used "Government Option."
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.
In October, Media Matters reported that sources with knowledge of the situation had raised concerns about the direction of Fox’s Washington bureau under Sammon, who took over as managing editor in February 2009:
"[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."
"[Former Fox News Washington managing editor] 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."
Since then, a Fox source has told Media Matters:
"People are allowed to have opinions when they espouse opinions. But when news is being tampered with, you have to worry. I keep hearing things from staffers about Sammon."
"I think Sammon comes up with this himself. It takes a conservative slant; it is his news judgment. If things are being classed as news that aren’t, that is a problem."
Media Matters contacted Sammon, Clemente, and two Fox spokespeople for comment and we have not received a response.
Sammon spoke to The Daily Beast’s Howard Kurtz about the leaked email and reportedly told him:
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."
Joe Strupp, Jeremy Schulman, and other Media Matters staff contributed to this report.