The publication of an email from Bill Sammon, managing editor of Fox News's Washington bureau, encouraging reporters to broadcast "wildly misleading" claims about climate science reminds me of my other favorite news-spinner: the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Sammon's email from December 8, 2009, which Media Matters revealed to the public on Wednesday (h/t MoJo's Kate Sheppard), is similar to an October 2009 email he wrote to Fox reporters on covering health care legislation, excerpted below:
Subject: friendly reminder: let's not slip back into calling it the "public option"
Please use the term "government-run health insurance" or, when brevity is a concern, "government option," whenever possible.
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."
Here's another way to phrase it: "The public option, which is the government-run plan."
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.
Sammon is not the first nor only person who has sent out such directives (Iran, Burma...) regarding wording of sensitive issues. One re-wording enthusiast of particular notoriety is the CCP, which routinely circulates instructions to the Chinese press, and which, in turn, journalists affectionately call "Directives from the Ministry of Truth."
Recent examples of new CCP directives include:
- "The 2010 Nobel Prize Awards Ceremony will take place on December 10. All domestic media outlets are not permitted to report on this event."
- "From the Central Propaganda Bureau: It is not permitted to report on portions of WikiLeaks related to China."
- Any reporting on the high bridge structure incident in Nanjing must conform to standards. Reports cannot be lead stories that guide people to read about it. Reports cannot use the phrase "large bridge collapse." They can only use the phrase "steel structure side turned over." For the water pipe break, reports cannot say that it "burst": they can only say that its "side leaked."
Unlike the CCP, Fox News is privately incorporated and not affiliated with the government. But Sammon’s emails demonstrate that as in the CCP, Fox's "point-of-view" reporting derives from a top-down structure. When Chinese propaganda agencies hand down media directives, they do so in the name of protecting domestic stability; Fox News’s reasons for doing so are lost on me. As one source told Media Matters:
"[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'm not sure what's most troubling: that Sammon's email may have cemented public skepticism toward climate change and subsidized health care; that it obviously slants coverage while claiming objectivity; or most troubling of all, that Fox consistently ranks at the top of cable news ratings. In China, more and more citizens are going out of their way to get uncensored, objective news, something they're achieving thanks to the advent of microblogs, social networking sites, and tools that help circumvent the Great Firewall of censorship. Alternative news-seeking is so prevalent that it's stirred up quite a debate within the CCP.
Here in the US, consumers have a range of news choices, but not all of them are created equal. A new study (PDF) shows that people who watch Fox News daily are among the most misinformed, 60% of them falsely believing that "most scientists think climate change is not occurring" and 49% thinking Obama's raised their federal income taxes (he hasn't). But it's a free country, right? People can read whatever news they want, even if that source willfully misinforms them. The question is, whether that source should really be labeled as "news" if it's being deliberately manipulated to skew consumer's views.