Do Leaked E-Mails Prove Fox News Slanted Its Health Care Coverage?

What's the difference between "public option" and "government option"?

This article is from the archive of our partner .

This week, the watchdog group Media Matters for America leaked an e-mail from Bill Sammon, the Washington managing editor of Fox News. Sammon's e-mail, dated October 27, 2009, encouraged reporters and producers to use certain terms and not others when talking about health care reform. Specifically, Sammon urged staffers to avoid the term "public option," and instead to talk about the "government option," "government-run health insurance," and "the government-run plan." Sammon's e-mail came two months after the the pollster Frank Luntz told Fox News host Sean Hannity that "if you call it a 'public option,' the American people are split... [but] if you call it the 'government option,' the public is overwhelmingly against it."

  • What the E-Mail Said  Here's the text of Sammon's e-mail, as reported by Media Matters:
Subject: friendly reminder: let's not slip back into calling it the "public option"
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 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.

  • This Is Essentially Proof of Fox's Rightward Bias  The Media Matters report, by Ben Dimiero, says that "Sammon's 'government option' email is the clearest evidence yet that Sammon is aggressively pushing Fox's reporting to the right--in this case by issuing written orders to his staff ... Sammon's email gives credence to allegations that news from Fox's Washington bureau is being deliberately distorted to benefit conservatives and the Republican Party."
  • Sammon Defends Himself  Writing in The Daily Beast, Howard Kurtz reports that Sammon has said "that the term 'public option' 'is a vague, bland, undescriptive phrase,' and that after all, 'who would be against a public park?' The phrase 'government-run plan,' he said, is 'a more neutral term,' and was used just last week by a New York Times columnist. 'I have no idea what the Republicans were pushing or not. It's simply an accurate, fair, objective term.'"
  • That's Not Much of a Rationale, scoffs Alex Pareene at Salon. "What I love about [Sammon's] response is that if you actually take it seriously, then from now on Fox News anchors will be referring to 'government-run parks' and 'so-called public schools.' And 'public libraries, which are government-run libraries.'"
  • Sammon's Defense Almost Makes Sense  "When he urged that reporters refer to the 'public option' by the much less poll-friendly term 'government-run health insurance,' it made sense with regard to clarity," writes Chris Rovzar at New York. "It's a much more precise way of describing the plan." But what about "the so-called public option"? Rovzar asks: "Is there a way to use 'so-called' in a way that isn't patronizing or bitchy? Sure. Is there a way to do it on Fox News when talking about a policy that liberals are championing? Ehhhh..."
  • On Fox News, 'Government' Is a Loaded Word  "There is technically nothing wrong with calling the 'public option' government-run or regulated," writes Joel Meares at the Columbia Journalism Review. "Still... while it is technically correct to describe the public option as 'government-run health insurance,' the network has spent two years vilifying the government as a corrupt, overreaching entity eager to impose death panels and socialism on the public. The 'g word' is employed to evoke a particularly negative reaction."
  • Anyone Surprised?  "Of course Fox News slants its coverage deliberately," writes Steve Benen at The Washington Monthly. "Of course it's a partisan propaganda outlet. Of course its Republican editors tell their so-called journalists to stick to GOP talking points. Anyone surprised by these revelations hasn't been paying attention. That said, when memos like Sammon's come to public light, it helps add additional weight to the larger indictment. As proof like this gets added to the larger argument, the pretense of professionalism and Fox News 'standards' gets buried that much deeper."
  • What Actually Is the Offense Here? wonders Peter Suderman at Reason. "Opinion doesn't have anything to do with Sammon's memo. Indeed, Media Matters doesn't even make any attempt to prove that Sammon's preferred label is inaccurate. Granted, that would be hard to do, because in fact the public option is a form of government-run insurance. But obviously we can't let anyone in the media actually say this."
  • Explain How 'Government Option' Is Inaccurate, writes Aaron Worthing at Patterico's Pontifications. "What exactly is wrong with the term 'government option'? What they were proposing was a government-run insurance company that would present an 'option,' an alternative, to the private companies. So in what way is this not a 'government option?'"
  • In a Way, 'Government Option' Is More Accurate  "The public option would have been a government-run insurance plan some Americans could have purchased," points out Kate Pickert at Time. "Was it really useful for readers and viewers for reporters to use the term 'public option,' which leaves out two very important words--'insurance' and 'government'? I think no."
  • Sure Fox Slants the News--Everyone Does  One of the bloggers at Confederate Yankee snickers at "Think Progress--an organization built from the ground up to skew media coverage to the left"--getting upset at the news "of a Fox News executive playing their game ... and playing it just as well or better ... Both sides play the spin game, and always have." The blogger adds that "as much as these totalitarians would like to regulate the words we can use, they haven't managed to establish that level of control."
  • Fox Was Worried About a Public Option? Adorable!  "Funniest thing about this?" writes Steve M. at No More Mister Nice Blog. "The fact that the people at Fox were actually worried about the possibility that a public option would actually become part of the health-care law. (Sammon has a hell of lot more faith in the ideological purity of elected Democrats than is actually warranted.)"

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.