2009: A year of Fox News political activism

With the inauguration of President Obama in 2009, Fox News transformed itself from a conservative media outlet into a partisan, right-wing political organization that openly viewed itself as the “voice of the opposition.” Throughout the year, Fox News has declared war on the Obama administration, the Democratic Congress, and progressive organizations by, among other things, campaigning for the firing of various administration officials, partnering with conservative groups and politicians to oppose progressive policies, and even allowing its own contributors to fundraise on-air for conservative political causes.

Media Matters for America presents a look back at Fox News' year in political activism.

Fox News declares war on Obama administration officials

Fox News personalities set goals to “get rid” of administration officials, “take the administration down.” Fox News' Glenn Beck has boasted about working on a project that he thinks will “take the administration down” and has asked his followers to dig up information on administration officials. Other Fox News personalities have also called for Obama administration officials to be fired. Indeed, after the resignation of Van Jones, who Fox incessantly referred to as Obama's “green jobs czar,” Sean Hannity "promise[d]" that his job “is to get rid of every other” Obama administration “czar.”

Fox News led the charge against Van Jones and was widely credited for his resignation. Beck was at the forefront of the attacks against Van Jones. In attacking him, Beck falsely alleged that he was a “convicted felon ... who spent, I think, six months in prison after the Rodney King beating,” asked if “we want communists in the United States government as special advisers to the president,” and claimed that Jones' place in the Obama administration “says that the president has an agenda that is radical, revolutionary, and in some cases, Marxist.” Following Jones' resignation, numerous media outlets -- including Fox News -- credited Beck with “keeping” the Jones “story alive,” pushing the story into other media outlets, and forcing his resignation.

Fox News repeatedly and falsely accused Kevin Jennings of unlawfully failing to report “statutory rape.” Months after Education Department official Kevin Jennings was appointed by Obama, Fox News' Maxim Lott reported in a September 23 FoxNews.com article that “critics say Kevin Jennings is too radical for the job,” in part because Jennings “detailed an incident in which he did not report an underage student who told him he was having sex with older men.” Lott cited an audio recording produced by Warren Throckmorton, a professor at Grove City College, to claim that Jennings “would have been legally obliged to report the situation” in which a high school sophomore disclosed that he had become involved with someone he met at a bus station. The allegation quickly spread to Fox News programming. Even after the allegation was proven to be false, Fox News continued to advance the falsehood.

Hannity, in particular, crusaded against Jennings and has declared, “I want him fired.” After listing Jennings as one of the 10 Obama appointees who should be questioned, Hannity launched attacks against him during 11 separate editions of his Fox News show over the course of just one month. On September 30, Hannity stated, “I want him fired.” Hannity repeatedly advanced the false claim that Jennings failed to report a statutory rape; even after the smear had been conclusively debunked, Hannity said he was “not convinced of the timeline.” Hannity moved on and advanced the smear that Jennings “support[ed] the group NAMBLA” and hosted Fox News contributor Karl Rove, who falsey claimed that Jennings had engaged in “high-profile, in-your-face advocacy of things like NAMBLA and gay rights and queering elementary school curricula.” Hannity has also claimed that Jennings supported “indoctrinat[ing]” children about homosexuality.

Beck repeatedly targeted NEA's Yosi Sergant; Sergant was reassigned, then resigned. Trumpeting charges made by right-wing websites, Beck repeatedly attacked then-National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) spokesman Yosi Sergant for purportedly “creating a propaganda machine for the president of the United States.” Beck claimed that the White House, through the NEA, is “engaging artists and the art community using your tax dollars in propaganda” and invoked Joseph Goebbels and Nazi Germany. Following the start of Beck's campaign, numerous media outlets covered or advanced attacks against Sergant. On September 10, Sergant was reassigned from his position as communications director at the NEA. On September 24, Sergant resigned. CNN's The Situation Room, the Associated Press, The Washington Post, and Washington Examiner editor Chris Stirewalt, among others, credited Beck for helping precipitate Sergant's resignation. In the weeks following Sergant's resignation, Beck stated that his goal is to get administration officials fired.

Fox News figures advanced falsehoods about Cass Sunstein, including that he supports “forced sterilizations” and mandatory organ donations. Hannity, Beck, and Fox Business host Eric Bolling have identified Cass Sunstein, head of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, as a target in their witch hunt for so-called “czars.” Hannity has baselessly accused Sunstein of supporting “forced sterilizations,” while citing no evidence whatsoever. Beck has falsely claimed that Sunstein “believes that everyone must be an organ donor,” when, in fact, Sunstein and co-author Richard Thaler advocated for new approaches to organ donation policies that “would be likely to save many lives while also preserving freedom by always maintaining the freedom to choose against organ donation. Fox News reporter James Rosen also distorted Sunstein's writings about organ donation and animal rights. Additionally, Beck claimed on September 9 that Sunstein said “you should not be able to remove rats from your home if it causes them any pain.” In fact, in the introduction to a book of essays he co-edited, Sunstein did not advocate against rat removal, but rather said, “At the very least, people should kill rats in a way that minimizes distress and suffering.” Beck has further declared Sunstein to be the “most dangerous man in America,” claimed that Sunstein “will be responsible for many, many deaths,” and said that Sunstein's purported beliefs “sound awfully Nazi to me.”

Fox News figures falsely claimed John Holdren supported “forced abortions” and forced sterilization. Responding to Beck's July 22 claim that Holdren, Obama's science and technology adviser, “proposed forced abortions and putting sterilants in the drinking water to control population,” the website PolitiFact.com gave Beck's claim a “pants on fire” rating and concluded that “the text of the book [co-authored by Holdren] clearly does not support that.” Indeed, Holdren and his co-authors advocated for noncoercive means of population control. Several Fox News figures such as Hannity and Jim Pinkerton have advanced variations of these falsehoods.

Hannity repeatedly advanced dubious claim that Harold Koh supported the use of Sharia law in U.S. courts. Hannity has repeatedly claimed that Harold Koh, a State Department legal adviser, has said that “Sharia law can be applied in American courts.” The claim has been denied by Koh himself during Senate testimony, Koh's spokesman, and the organizer of the event at which Koh supposedly made the remarks. In addition, University of California-Davis law professor Anupam Chander wrote on April 2 that "[i]n the 71 articles penned by Harold Koh that appear in the Westlaw law review database, there is but one article that mentions Sharia," and in that article, Koh “denounces the government of Iran for 'impos[ing] a strict form of Sharia law that denies basic rights to women and minorities.' ”

Fox News targeted Anita Dunn over remarks about Mao Zedong. On his October 15 program, Beck falsely claimed that Dunn, then the White House communications director, “worships” and “idolizes” “her hero” Mao. In fact, in the video that Beck aired as evidence to support his claims, Dunn offered no endorsement of Mao's ideology or actions -- rather, she spoke of Mao and Mother Teresa as two of her favorite “political philosophers,” and based on short quotes from them, she offered the advice that “you don't have to follow other people's choices and paths” or “let external definition define how good you are internally.” Despite this, Fox News' “straight” news and opinion programs followed Beck's lead in highlighting or distorting Dunn's remarks. As Media Matters noted, numerous conservatives have approvingly cited the tactics of Mao, Vladimir Lenin, and the Viet Cong, stated that they had used those tactics in their political work, or otherwise highlighted their philosophies.

Glenn Beck launches 9-12 Project, leading to 9-12 protests

Beck launched 9-12 Project, which he said spurred “millions” to get “involved” in protests, including 9-12 march on Washington. On March 13, Beck announced the launch of his 9-12 Project for those “looking for direction in taking back the control of our country.” At the conclusion of this broadcast, Beck told his viewers to get to work and, “We'll meet back here in six months, all right?” On August 12, Beck described the 9-12 Project as giving “ourselves an outlet of voice to connect, because you needed to community organize. ... Well, you've already done it. There are 9-12 Projects and rallies happening all over. The biggest one seems to be in Washington, D.C., on September 12.” On August 27, Beck said of the 9-12 Project: “A few months ago, I told you, you got to know you're not alone. You've got to know. You got to unite. Talk to people. Make sure you know you're not alone, through the 9-12 Project. We started that. Millions all involved across the country and the 9-12 Project and other organizations like it. I knew we needed to connect with one another.”

Fox News relentlessly promoted 9-12 protest. Organizers involved with the September 12 March on Washington credited Beck with inspiring the 9-12 movement, and Fox News, led by Beck, relentlessly promoted the 9-12 march. Fox News also aggressively promoted the Tea Party Express tour -- whose last stop was on September 12 in Washington -- on Fox News, Fox Business, TheFoxNation.com, and FoxNews.com -- going so far as to cheerlead for the protests and advertise the Tea Party schedule so viewers “can be a part” of the events. Indeed, a Fox News producer was even caught coaching the crowd to cheer during a stop on the Tea Party Express. Following the protest, Beck and other Fox News hosts exaggerated the number of participants, with Beck at one point going so far as to claim -- based on calculations by a “university” that he could not “remember” -- that “1.7 million” people showed up for the march. PolitiFact.com reported that a fire department official said “he thought between 60,000 and 75,000 people had shown up.”

Fox News serves as driving force for April 15 “FNC Tax Day Tea Parties”

Fox News heavily promoted April 15 tea parties. Fox News heavily promoted and advocated for the April 15 tea parties, which it characterized as a response to Obama administration policies. Fox News frequently aired segments -- from both opinion and news personalities -- publicizing the protests and encouraging viewers to get involved with them. In many instances, Fox News provided attendance and organizing information, such as dates, locations and website URLs. In early April, Fox News announced that four hosts from the network -- Beck, Neil Cavuto, Greta Van Susteren, and Hannity -- would appear live at four tea party sites and would broadcast the protests live throughout the day. At one point, Fox News even referred to the tea parties as “FNC Tax Day Tea Parties,” and the Fox Nation also hosted its own “virtual tea party.”

Fox News aired over 100 commercial promotions and over 20 segments in less than two weeks. From April 6 to April 13, Fox News featured at least 20 segments on the protests, and from April 6 to April 15, Fox News aired at least 107 commercial promotions for their coverage of the protests. On the April 15 edition of CNN Newsroom, media critic and Reliable Sources host Howard Kurtz said, “I don't think I've ever seen a news network throw its weight behind a protest like we are seeing in the past few weeks with Fox and these tea parties.”

Fox News' coverage boosted protests, pushed other outlets to cover. On the April 18 edition of Fox News Watch, host Jon Scott asked: “Did the FOX coverage and promotion of the coverage, did it force the other networks to pay attention to it?” Then-Fox News contributor Jane Hall replied: “I think it did because the other TV networks ended up leading with it.” Dozens of national and local news reports credited Fox News for publicizing and boosting the protests. Indeed, the Odessa (Texas) American reported of a rally outside Odessa City Hall: “Statements like 'I saw it on Fox' were heard around the crowd.”

Fox News promotes disruptions of health care town halls

Fox promoted anti-health care reform disruptions of town halls. Following the August 2 disruption of a town hall event hosted by Sen. Arlen Specter (D-PA) and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Fox News personalities repeatedly lauded such protesters and urged viewers to take similar action. Fox & Friends guest co-host Peter Johnson Jr. said to protesters, "[W]e thank you for representing Americans, and we hope that other Americans get out there." Johnson added: “We need to have this every day throughout August.” Additionally, co-host Gretchen Carlson asked viewers: “Are you gonna call” your member of Congress “or are you gonna go to one of these receptions where they're actually there?” Co-host Steve Doocy similarly said: “If you want to contact your congress members and sound off, go to FoxNation.com.” Fox & Friends also ran the on-screen text, “Hold Congress accountable! Now is the time to speak your mind.” Hannity also said of town hall protests: “That's a pretty good way to fight back.” And Fox News contributor Dick Morris responded by stating, “We gotta sign that [protester] up” and also by urging viewers to “fight back” by calling Congress.

Fox News' town hall coverage amplified opponents of health care reform, ignored supporters. A Media Matters review found that during the week of August 24, Fox News aired 22 clips of town hall meeting attendees expressing an opinion or asking a question that opposed progressive health care reform efforts but aired zero clips of town hall attendees expressing an opinion or asking a question in support of reform.

Fox News partners with Bachmann to mobilize conservative base against health care bill

Bachmann: "[W]e began this on Sean Hannity's show." During the October 30 edition of Hannity, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) announced what was dubbed a "House Call on Washington" protest for “the people” to “tell their Representatives to vote no” on the Democratic health care reform proposal. Bachmann invited Fox News viewers to participate, adding, “You can go to MicheleBachmann.com for more information.” Bachmann appeared on several Fox News shows to promote her protest. Along with Hannity, Fox News contributor Newt Gingrich, Beck, the hosts of Fox & Friends, Fox News senior judicial analyst Andrew Napolitano, and the Fox Nation promoted the protest in the days leading up to November 5. Additionally, Fox News provided significant coverage for the protest on the day of the event, with every show on the network mentioning it. Fox News.com hosted a live stream of the protest as well.

Hannity aired video from much larger 9-12 rally while discussing Bachmann's rally. As Daily Show host Jon Stewart noted, Hannity aired video of the 9-12 rally while he was interviewing Bachmann on his November 5 show about the rally that she and other Republicans held that day. Hannity said, “Twenty-plus thousand people showed up. Were you as surprised as I was?” Bachmann replied that “estimates are anywhere between 20 and 45,000 people had assembled.” While she was speaking, Hannity interspersed actual footage from Bachmann's rally with footage from the 9-12 rally, which reportedly drew 70,000 people. According to MSNBC, “Three Capitol Hill police officers all guessed that the crowd numbered at about 4,000” in attendance for Bachmann's protest. On the November 11 edition of his program, Hannity said he “screwed up” and apologized for airing “incorrect video” of 9-12 protests while discussing the Bachmann rally.

Fox News continues to allow Morris to fundraise on air

In 2008, Morris asked Fox viewers to “give funds to GOPTrust.com” without noting his apparent financial ties to the organization. Between October 27, 2008, and November 17, 2008, Morris mentioned GOPTrust.com during at least 13 Fox News appearances and asked viewers to “give funds to GOPTrust.com,” the website of the National Republican Trust PAC, without disclosing that the organization has paid $24,000 to a company apparently connected to Morris. Through publicly available records with the Federal Election Commission (FEC), Media Matters found that GOPTrust.com paid Triangulation Strategies at least $24,000 from the beginning of October 2008 to November 24, 2008, mostly for “Email Communication.” The “Mailing Address” for Triangulation Strategies is listed in one of the National Republican Trust PAC's FEC filings as "dickmorris.com."

After asking Fox News viewers for donations, Morris boasted about raising $2.5 million for ads against health care reform. On the October 19 edition of Hannity, Morris claimed that “at DickMorris.com, we've raised now two and a half million dollars to run ads” against health care reform through the League of American Voters (LAV). Morris previously used Fox News to solicit donations for LAV, stating on the September 21 edition of Hannity, "[O]n my website, DickMorris.com, I'll tell you how to contribute to 10-second ads we are now running." His website featured an LAV ad and solicited donations for “The New Ad Campaign Against Obamacare.” While Morris stated on the September 28 edition of Hannity that he has no financial stake “in these ads,” he is the LAV's “chief strategist,” and according to LAV executive director Bob Adams, Morris “actually crafted our ads and national campaign.”

Huckabee also used Fox News to fundraise

Huckabee sends viewers to his PAC -- which pays his daughter's salary and supports Republican politicians --under the guise of signing a petition. On his own Fox News show and on Fox News' On the Record, Fox News host Mike Huckabee directed viewers to “go to balancecutsave.com," urging them to sign a petition telling Congress to “balance the budget,” “cut their spending,” and “save American families.” However, balancecutsave.com is not a website on its own; users are immediately redirected to a petition page on Huckabee's political action committee website, HuckPAC.com. Once visitors have signed the petition, they are then directed to a page asking for donations. In addition to a YouTube video featuring Huckabee soliciting donations, the website asks for “any contribution of $15 or more.” HuckPAC financially supports Republican candidates and also pays Huckabee's daughter's salary. On December 21, Kurtz reported that “Fox executives told Huckabee to stop plugging the Web site on the air after learning that it linked to his political action committee, which the network deemed a conflict of interest.”

Huck PAC asks “balancecutsave.com” petition signers to help remove Democratic health care proponents from office and campaign for conservative candidates. A Media Matters employee who signed Huckabee's petition at balancecutsave.com has subsequently received several emails from HuckPAC soliciting political activism on the part of the recipient. For instance, a November 9 email from HuckPAC solicited donations for campaigns against Democrats who voted for health care reform. The email said: “I urge you to make a donation of $25 or more towards our efforts to vote these Democrats out of office.” A November 1 email from HuckPAC asked people to participate in a phone bank for Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob McDonnell, Republican congressional candidate David Harmer, and Conservative Party congressional candidate Doug Hoffman. The email said that "[w]e need to help get each of these fine men elected" and asked recipients to “take a moment now to make phone calls to voters.”

Fox News targets ACORN

Fox News led charge against ACORN. On the September 9 edition of his Fox News program, Beck previewed an “exclusive” that would air on his program the next day, which he claimed would make “things change a lot for those in power.” Beck later aired snippets of a video of conservative activist and videographer James O'Keefe and Townhall.com columnist Hannah Giles entering the Baltimore office of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN). Beck suggested the video was the “exclusive stuff” that he predicted the media would be “talking about” instead of health care. Fox News dedicated 1 hour, 1 minute, and 51 seconds to the story, according to a Media Matters review of Fox News' programming between 5 p.m. and 11 p.m. ET on September 10. Beck himself spent 38 minutes and 11 seconds discussing the tapes that night. In the following weeks and months, Fox News ran dozens of segments on ACORN, often advancing false attacks.

O'Reilly: ACORN story “driven by Fox News almost entirely.” According to a study by the Pew Research Center, ACORN was the sixth most covered story during the week of September 14-20 and the “story generated the most attention on cable news (9%), with the Fox News Channel aggressively covering it.” On September 18, Fox News host Bill O'Reilly said that the ACORN “story is driven by Fox News almost entirely,” adding that “Fox News and talk radio are now setting the conversation.” In a September 16 World News report, ABC News senior White House correspondent Jake Tapper said: “Republicans have long opposed ACORN's politics and methods. Last year, they attacked the president and his campaign for ties to the group. Those allegations didn't stick, but these videos, shown frequently on Fox News Channel, seem to constitute a tipping point.” An investigation later confirmed that there was no evidence of illegal actions by ACORN employees in the videos.

Republicans thanked Fox News for its ACORN advocacy. Several Republican members of Congress have lauded Fox News for its coverage of ACORN. For instance:

  • An October 31 Washington Post article about the ACORN videos and conservative publisher Andrew Breitbart quoted Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) stating that Republicans “don't need The Washington Post to cover things anymore. ... Something can get on a conservative blog, then on Fox News, then it's everywhere.”
  • Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) said in a floor speech that “Fox reports the stories that the national media ignore. For example, without Fox News, you might not have heard about the recent ACORN scandal.” [October 28, Congressional Record]
  • Rep. Dan Burton (R-IN) stated in a September 14 floor speech, “This weekend and today I watched a number of these shows that I watch on a regular basis because those of us in this body, we follow the news very, very closely. Mr. Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and Mr. O'Reilly, who are all on FOX, focused attention over the past few weeks on this ACORN organization.”

Hannity advocates against endangered species protections in California

Hannity repeatedly pushed claim that Endangered Species Act protections are responsible for farmers' hardship. Broadcasting live from California's Central Valley on September 17, Hannity continued his oft-repeated attack on “radical” environmentalists and the Obama administration for supporting water pumping restrictions that protect threatened delta smelt, by claiming the restrictions are “drying up this once fertile area” and calling on Obama to “turn this water on now.” Prior to his live show, Hannity pushed claims on several previous programs that the regulations are responsible for farmers' hardships. But according to the Department of the Interior, the pumping restrictions ended on June 30 and the pumps have been returning to capacity since; moreover, water resource issues in the valley persist for many reasons, including years of drought in California, despite conservatives' attempts to blame problems solely on the pumping restrictions.

Hannity reportedly persuaded to do show by Republican congressman. A September 23 McClatchy Newspapers article reported that Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) had “helped persuade Fox News Channel commentator Sean Hannity to do an hour-long special on the Valley's water woes, and [Nunes spokesman Andrew] House said the television special aired last week 'elevated the attention' given the region.”

Hannity advocacy praised, seized on by Republicans. Hannity's advocacy was praised on the House floor by Rep. John Duncan (R-TN) and in a blog post by the Republican House Committee on Natural Resources. The San Francisco Chronicle reported on October 19 that “California Republicans are seeing political gold in California's water problems, hoping to steal the issue from Democrats and win support from one of that party's key constituencies -- Latinos. ... The cause drew national attention last month when highly rated Fox News commentator Sean Hannity broadcast his show from Fresno, where the unemployment rate in the area is twice the county's 14.4 percent.”

Fox News promotes contributor Gingrich's anti-Obama advocacy

Fox News devoted round-the-clock coverage to Gingrich's anti-Obama advocacy. Fox News promoted Gingrich's so-called "Real Jobs Summit," which he described as a response to “the Obama-Pelosi-Reid machine['s] attempts to force its secular-socialist model on Americans in the form of job-killing health, energy, and big labor legislation.” Between 9 p.m. ET on December 2 and 4 p.m. ET December 3, Fox News devoted more than 17 minutes to Gingrich on five different programs. In addition to interviewing Gingrich, Fox News dispatched correspondent Jonathan Serrie to cover Gingrich -- “considered by some political analysts to be a potential 2012 presidential candidate” -- in Jackson, Mississippi. While promoting his jobs summit on Hannity, Gingrich launched false attacks on the Obama administration.

Gingrich frequently promotes falsehoods, engages in advocacy on Fox News. Throughout 2009, Gingrich frequently used his position at Fox News to launch false attacks on progressives and advocate for conservative causes. For instance, Gingrich has urged Fox News viewers to call Congress to oppose the Democratic budget and cap-and-trade legislation. Gingrich has also advanced baseless claims, including wondering if Dunn wanted to subject Fox News commentators to a “Cultural Revolution” and falsely claiming that then-Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor “clearly supported racial quotas” in the Ricci v. DeStefano case.