Miles from 'fair and balanced'
Tim Rutten, Los Angeles Times, November 1, 2003
A veteran producer this week alleged that Fox News executives issue a daily memorandum to staff on news coverage to bend the network's reporting into conformity with management's political views, refocusing attention on the partisan bias of America's most watched cable news operation.
The charges by Charlie Reina, 55, whose six-year tenure at Fox ended April 9, first surfaced Wednesday in a letter he posted on an influential Web site (http://www.poynter.org/column.asp?id=45
) maintained by Jim Romenesko for the Poynter Institute, an organization that promotes journalistic education and ethics.
Concerns about Fox, which styles its news coverage as "fair and balanced," begin with its owner, Australian-born Rupert Murdoch. The corporate boards and family investors who control most of the American news media generally feel obliged to maintain a wall of separation between news and editorial opinion. Murdoch, by contrast, operates in the style of the traditional Fleet Street proprietors, who dismiss such distinctions as inconvenient fictions.
And as a deeply conservative man, he is willing to put his money where his politics are: Murdoch, a naturalized U.S. citizen, subsidizes publication of the Weekly Standard, one of the country's most influential right-wing journals. According to a forthcoming book by the New Yorker's Ken Auletta, he loses as much as $40 million a year maintaining the New York Post as an outlet of conservatism in Manhattan.
As Fox's founding president, he hired Roger Ailes, a shrewd Republican political operative who earned a well-founded reputation for bare-knuckle campaigning while working for Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. As one of the architects of the elder George Bush's media strategy in his campaign for president against Democratic rival Michael Dukakis, Ailes helped devise the notorious Willie Horton commercials. As he told Time magazine in August 1988, "The only question is whether we depict Willie Horton with a knife in his hand or without it."
The late Lee Atwater, another Bush aide, described Ailes as having "two speeds -- attack and destroy." Before joining Fox, where he serves now as chairman, Ailes produced Rush Limbaugh's short-lived television talk show.
According to Reina's letter, "Daily life at [Fox] is all about management politics....Editorially, the FNC newsroom is under the constant control and vigilance of management. The pressure ranges from subtle to direct. First, it's a news network run by one of the most high-profile political operatives of recent times. Everyone there understands that [Fox] is, to a large extent, 'Roger's Revenge' against what he considers a liberal, pro-Democrat media establishment that has shunned him for decades. For the staffers, many of whom are too young to have come up through the ranks of objective journalism, and all of whom are nonunion, with no protections regarding what they can be made to do, there is undue motivation to please the big boss."
Fox News spokesman Rob Zimmerman told The Times that "these accusations are the rantings of a bitter, disgruntled former employee. It's unfortunate that Charlie's career ended the way it did, but we wish him well." Asked whether Reina's quotations from the memos were inaccurate or taken out of context, Zimmerman said, "All we are saying is that these are false accusations." The Times' request to speak with Ailes was denied: "Roger is not addressing this and is not available," Zimmerman said.
Reina, who told The Times he left Fox in a dispute over salary and workload -- not politics -- hardly comes across as a knee-jerk liberal. He is at pains, for example, to say that he believes his former employer's cable rivals -- CNN and MSNBC -- also air news reports riven with bias on both ends of the political spectrum. At Fox, he not only produced the network's weekly media criticism show, "News-Watch," but also a series of specials on Newt Gingrich and a talk show with conservative religious commentator Cal Thomas.
Still, Reina, whose 30-year career includes stints at the Associated Press, ABC News and CBS, said Fox's ideological problems begin with Ailes.
"Roger is such a high-profile and partisan political operative that everyone in the newsroom knows what his political feelings are and acts accordingly. I'd never worked in a newsroom like that," he said in an interview. "Never. At ABC, for example, I never knew what management or my bosses' political views were, much less felt pressure from them to make things come out a certain way. I'm talking about news bias, and I never experienced it there. At CBS or the AP, if a word got in that suggested bias -- liberal or conservative -- it was taken out.
"At Fox it was all about viewpoint. I'm not talking about the nighttime personalities. I'm talking about the news report. Fox executives will say their network only appears conservative because it is fair, when everyone else is liberal and biased. That's bull. Fox doesn't 'seem' conservative and Republican. It is conservative and Republican."
In his letter, Reina wrote that "the roots of [Fox's] day-to-day on-air bias are actual and direct. They come in the form of an executive memo" written by John Moody, the network's vice president for news, and "distributed electronically each morning, addressing what stories will be covered and, often, suggesting how they should be covered. To the newsroom personnel responsible for the channel's daytime programming, The Memo is the bible. If, on any given day, you notice that the Fox anchors seem to be trying to drive a particular point home, you can bet The Memo is behind it. The Memo was born with the Bush administration, early in 2001, and, intentionally or not, has ensured that the administration's point of view consistently comes across on [Fox]....
"For instance, from the March 20th memo: 'There is something utterly incomprehensible about [U.N. Secretary-General] Kofi Annan's remarks in which he allows that his thoughts are 'with the Iraqi people.' One could ask where those thoughts were during the 23 years Saddam Hussein was brutalizing those same Iraqis. Food for thought.' Can there be any doubt that the memo was offering not only 'food for thought,' but a direction for the FNC writers and anchors to go? Especially after describing the U.N. Secretary General's remarks as 'utterly incomprehensible'?....
"One day this past spring, just after the U.S. invaded Iraq, The Memo warned us that anti-war protesters would be 'whining' about U.S. bombs killing Iraqi civilians and suggested they could tell that to the families of American soldiers dying there. Editing copy that morning, I was not surprised when an eager young producer killed a correspondent's report on the day's fighting -- simply because it included a brief shot of children in an Iraqi hospital....
"These are not isolated incidents at Fox News Channel, where virtually no one of authority in the newsroom makes a move unmeasured against management's politics, actual or perceived. At the Fair and Balanced network, everyone knows management's point of view, and, in case they're not sure how to get it on air, The Memo is there to remind them."
Av Westin, a longtime ABC news executive who is now executive director of the National Television Academy, examined Reina's letter and said: "Nothing about this surprises me. The uniform smirks and body language that are apparent in Fox's reports throughout the day reflect an operation that is quite tightly controlled. The fact that young and inexperienced producers acquiesce to that control by pulling stories is further evidence that nonjournalistic forces are at work in that newsroom.
"Roger runs the place with an iron hand and he was put in place there by Murdoch, who selected him for his politics. In that sense, what's happened at Fox is a carry-over from all Murdoch's print publications, where the publisher's politics and editorial preference is reflected in the news hole to an extent that isn't true anywhere else in American journalism."
Reina is out of television news these days, supporting himself in New York with a small woodworking business.
Looking back on his time with Fox, his greatest concern is for its young staff. "Many of them wanted to be on television but not necessarily in news. They haven't had the benefit of traditional journalistic training, so they're easily molded.
"Time after time I watched what management's politics did to the young anchors. As they near the time to get their own show, the hair gets blonder and the bias gets clearer."