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Fox’s Unbalanced Ethics Threatens Democracy

Wendall Porter – Author and media analyst

Posted: December 9, 2010 03:37 PM

Anyone who still clings to the notion that Fox News is actually a news organization rather than a propaganda machine for special interests — and that it actually is led by journalists who adhere to the code of ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists — must read the leaked memos Media Matters for America disclosed this morning.

Under the heading of “Fox boss caught slanting news reporting,” Media Matters shared on its Web site an internal memo that Bill Sammon, Fox News’ Washington managing editor, sent a memo “at the height of the health care reform debate” to his network’s so-called journalists, directing them not to use the phrase “public option.”

Instead, Sammon told them, they should use focus-tested Republican and insurance industry talking points “to turn public opinion against the Democrats’ reform efforts.”

In his October 27, 2009 memo to his staff, Sammon offered what he call a “friendly reminder: let’s not slip back into calling it the ‘public option.'” Instead, he ordered:

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 news makers 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.

As I wrote in my book, Deadly Spin, PR firms representing the health insurance industry routinely furnished conservative pundits and so-called journalists with talking points their consultants developed to scare people away from reform.

The insurance industry has spent millions of our premium dollars over the years on linguistic research and message testing to assist it in disseminating false and misleading information to manipulate public opinion.

I devoted an entire chapter to the industry’s “playbook.” Here is one of the tactics I said included in the playbook:

Feed talking points to TV pundits and frequent contributors to op-ed pages. They will know how to get talk show hosts with big audiences like Rush Limbaugh or Bill O’Reilly or Glenn Beck to say things on the air to support your point of view and discredit your opponents.

This morning grassroots advocacy coalition Health Care for America Now asked its supporters to “reject Fox News and its attempts to continually attack the Affordable Care Act and the people who support it under the guise of legitimate ‘reporting.'”

I am calling on Rupert Murdoch to fire Sammon, and I am calling on Fox’s so-called journalists and the network’s producers, many of whom I know and have worked with over the years, to denounce Sammon’s partisan approach to reporting and commentary. I am further calling on them — and the news staff at the Wall Street Journal, also owned by Murdoch, to dedicate themselves to truly being “fair and balanced” and to familiarize themselves with the profession’s code of ethics.

Nothing short of our democracy is at stake here, folks.

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