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Thursday, December 16, 2010

Fox News’s conservative word play

Colleen Haller

Staff Writer

In the months leading up to the passage of the Affordable Care Act, the rhetoric on both sides of the issue became provocative, and in some cases, inflammatory. While this kind of partisan back and forth is not always productive, it is pretty much expected in the midst of a heated political debate. When this debate turned ugly, Americans looked to the news media to provide unbiased information and to explain provisions in the proposed law without a partisan lens. News media is crucial to ensuring that the public has a basic understanding of the issue so that they too can participate in the debate. That is why Media Matters’s recent release of Fox News emails was so disheartening. 

While Fox News has often been accused of having a conservative slant to their reporting, executives at Fox insist that while they have many conservative opinion shows, their news is “fair and balanced.” However, these emails suggest that even their straight news programs may be influenced by a conservative agenda.

The first email in question, from Fox’s Washington Managing Editor Bill Sammon, was a memo directing journalists not to use the term “public option,” but instead to use terms like “government-run plan” or “government option.” The public option refers to a provision in one of the earlier versions of the law that would have created a public insurance option that would compete with private insurers’ plans. The term “public option” became part of the health reform lexicon, along with terms such as exchange, medical loss ratio, and premium subsidy. However, opponents of reform, including Republican pollster Frank Luntz, found that by using terms like “government-run option,” opponents could distort popular provisions and thereby undermine support for the law.

Luntz expressed this view two months prior to Sammon’s memo on Fox’s Sean Hannity Show not only explaining that the public supported the provision less when it was falsely described as a government takeover of health care, but also scolding the host, Sean Hannity, for using the term “public option.” In late October, Sammon again reminded Fox staff of the acceptable replacement terms for the public option, including “government-run health insurance” and “the so-called public option.”

There seems to be no substantive basis for this change in terminology. Executives at Fox News simply saw this as an opportunity to subtly undermine a piece of legislation and to use their news programs as a means to accomplish their goal. Opinion programs on both sides of the aisle often use partisan language to get their point across; that is what sets them apart from traditional journalists. Viewers often know what they’re in for when they turn on Countdown with Keith Olbermann or the O’Reilly Factor, but when Americans turn on the news, they expect to be getting the facts, not partisan talking points. It is difficult to have honest debate when facts are harder to find than rhetoric. News organizations like Fox News should take their responsibility as educators seriously and should start doing their job.