What Happened to Fox News Watch?

Fox News Watch, the network's media watchdog program launched in 1997, was long considered among Fox's best and most balanced shows.

But in recent years, and especially the past few months, the show has taken a decidedly different turn toward conservative views and anti-liberal approaches. Its once standard brand of media critique, which gave all of the media outlets fair scrutiny and praise, has seemed to focus mostly on right-wing views and taken aim at perceived progressive bias.

And just this past weekend, it drew further scrutiny when it ignored one of the biggest media stories of the week - Sean Hannity's Tea Party appearance dispute, in which Fox executives ordered the host not to do his show from a Tea Party event in Cincinnati.

“That surprised me that a media review show wouldn't handle that,” said David Zurawik, a media critic for The Baltimore Sun. “That was worthy of some kind of discussion and commentary. In a journalistic sense, it should have been done.”

Others contend the show has veered away from the approach it had taken as a watchdog program looking at all media issues on all networks, including its own.

“When I was on the show it was very different from most of the network content,” said Jeff Cohen, one of the original panelists who appeared from 1998 to 2002. “There was sensible discussion and a good host and we really had one of the smarter and more balanced programs on cable news. Now it looks like the rest of Fox News.”

Eric Burns (no relation to Media Matters president Eric Burns), who hosted the show from 1998 to 2008 before being let go, agreed. He said it began to change in his final year and has been more right-leaning ever since. “The show was getting to be more and more of a struggle to do fairly,” he told me. “There was a progression of interference to try to make the show more right-wing. I fought very hard against it.”

Fox officials and producers of the show either declined comment or ignored requests for comment from Media Matters.

[Full disclosure: I appeared on the show six times in late 2008, but received no compensation. I have also contacted the show in the past about possible openings.]

After Burns left, other changes followed, with Jane Hall, an American University journalism professor, departing months ago. She declined comment.

“It is not the way the show used to be,” Burns added. “There is a constant use of the phrase 'liberal media.'”

Other Fox veterans who requested anonymity said the show tends to paint many issues as right- or left-leaning rather than about media issues, ethics and news judgment.

A time change occurred in 2009 from Saturdays at 6:30 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. -- and a later re-showing at 11:30 p.m.

According to data from Horizon Media, which analyzes and tracks viewership, Fox News Watch went from an average of 916,000 viewers for the first airing in December 2009 to an average of 793,000 for the first airing so far in April 2010.

Currently, the regular panelists include Rich Lowry of the conservative National Review, liberal Newsday columnist Ellis Henican, conservative columnist Cal Thomas, Fox News analyst Kirsten Powers, and Judith Miller, the former New York Times reporter who was criticized for her flawed reporting about supposed WMDs prior to the invasion of Iraq.

“I have looked at it lately and they often have Judith Miller,” notes Cohen. “Not exactly a leading light of ethical journalism.”

Miller contends the show remains fair: “I think the cast of characters is the same, I find it balanced. I don't have a problem at all with the selection of stories.”

One of the biggest hits against Fox News Watch came just last weekend when the Saturday show failed to examine a major media issue of the preceding week, Sean Hannity's Tea Party appearance snafu.

Media Matters raised questions about Hannity's planned appearance at a Tea Party event last Thursday in Cincinnati, for which attendees would pay admission.

During the ensuing controversy, Fox executives ordered him to return to do his show from New York as usual.

Although Reliable Sources, the CNN media watchdog show, discussed the issue, Fox News Watch ignored it.

Bill Carter, who covers media for The New York Times, said Fox's incomplete handling of the incident was surprising: “It is interesting that they hadn't followed that up with a more coherent policy statement. When you get to be in first place and want more ratings, you get more scrutiny.”