The Fox News Divide That Never Was

Eric Hananoki

By Sarah Pavlus
Media Matters for America

The internal divisions at Fox News are notorious. There is the Fox News primary, in which no fewer than five potential Republican presidential candidates and their varied supporters and detractors — all on the Fox News payroll — duke it out on a near-daily basis.

There are typical ego-driven competitions between on-air personalities, and an increasingly public divide at the network over dangerously unhinged host Glenn Beck.

But there is one divide that — contrary to the insistence of Fox News executives — simply does not exist: the one between its "news" and "opinion" shows.

Last year, The New York Times reported, "Fox argues that its news hours — 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and 6 to 8 p.m. on weekdays — are objective," and quoted Michael Clemente, the channel’s senior vice president for news, as saying: "The average consumer certainly knows the difference between the A section of the newspaper and the editorial page."

This is apparently an argument that works only on the very gullible, and on advertisers who want to pretend that by confining their ad buys to the channel’s "news hours" they are not financially supporting very damaging conservative lies and smears.

How telling it will be to see who attempts to maintain this charade, now that Media Matters has published internal emails from Fox News Washington managing editor Bill Sammon to his news staffdirecting them to call into question indisputable scientific facts in Fox’s climate change reporting, and eschew "public option" for variations of "government option" in Fox’s health care reform reporting, echoing advice from a prominent Republican pollster on how to help turn the public against reform.

The recently-released emails confirm what sources told Media Matters months ago: Pressure on Fox News journalists to "distort" straight reporting comes right from the top.

In October, one source with knowledge of the situation explained: "[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. 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. … [I]f you come in to say, ‘ignore points of view and ignore facts,’ then you are straying away from being a legitimate news reporter."

The problem, of course, is not just that the reporting on Fox News is wildly dishonest — after all, a supermarket tabloid can be wildly dishonest, too — it’s that the lies and smears on Fox News have very real policy implications.

For example, following the release of Sammon’s email ordering his news staff to cast doubt on climate science, Zoe Tcholak-Antitch, vice-president of the Carbon Disclosure Project, told Media Matters: "It is very disturbing to hear of this e-mail because it just goes further to sow seeds of doubt among the American population then makes it more difficult for the politicians to stand up for any type of legislation on climate change if they want to get elected."

Tcholak-Antitch added: "It obviously does have an impact on the American public. We are facing an issue that needs to be dealt with in a timely fashion. The danger is that this delays action. While it exists, it delays action and it hinders politicians from passing laws and regulations that will help a clean energy economy and create jobs for American people."

The irony is that News Corp. — Fox News’ parent company and (the blind eye it turns towards Fox notwithstanding) a recognized corporate leader in raising climate change awareness — cites Tcholak-Antitch’s Carbon Disclosure Project as an expert resource on the issue.

New York Congressman John Hall — a Democratic member of the House global warming committee —called Sammon’s email "regrettable" and warned about the effects this sort of "slanted" coverage has on legislation:

The window of time we have left for action to prevent the worst case scenario may still be closing. … We can’t afford to waste two years if the changes are already happening. It is really important that the public gets educated. I do think Congress responds to public pressure. If the public is being misinformed, we have very little chance of reversing the trend.

Similarly, after Media Matters released Sammon’s "government option" email, health care reform advocate Health Care for America Now issued a statement saying: "At a time when right-wing extremists were trying to make the case that the health care reform bill was a government takeover plot, Fox News incorporated politically charged language into its day-to-day reporting to mislead its audience into thinking the public option was something that it wasn’t."

Indeed, the Pulitzer Prize-winning PolitiFact announced this week that its "Lie of the Year" is the false claim that the health care reform law is "a government takeover of health care." And yet, Fox News’ "objective" reporters were ordered to play directly into that damaging narrative.

To be sure, many advertisers have taken a step in the right direction by refusing to support some of Fox News’ deplorable "opinion" and "entertainment" shows — after all, who wants to drag a hard-earned (and valuable) brand identity through the mud by associating it with people who call the president racist, orrepeatedly claim "all terrorists are Muslim," or promote anti-Semites, or engage in bizarre conspiracy theories?

In fact, just this week, Omaha Steaks pulled its ads from Beck’s show, joining a growing list of over 100 advertisers that have done the same.

But while that may mean that Fox is forced to air "Foundation for a Better Life" commercials — courtesy of conservative Philip Anschutz — five times in a row during Beck’s show, it doesn’t stop advertisers from subsidizing the lies on dozens of other Fox programs.

When asked several months ago about the Beck advertising boycott, Rupert Murdoch claimed, "We have not lost any business at all; some [advertisers] may have moved to other programs," but "it has not affected the total revenues or the profits."

Last year, Paul Rittenberg, a Fox advertising executive, made the same point to the Times. The Beck boycott "caus[ed] headaches" for Rittenberg’s team, the Times reported, but "he said Fox ‘hasn’t lost a dime’ because the ads were moved to different hours" — presumably hours filled with so-called "objective" news reports that skittish advertisers thought were safely non-controversial.

A year ago, these advertisers may have been able to take false comfort in the Fox News canard that there exists any sort of division between Fox news and Fox opinion programming, but with the release of the Sammon emails, how long will they keep kidding themselves?