Why Fox News Needs To Fire Bill Sammon

Any claim Fox News has to being a legitimate news organization is premised on the supposed wall that separates their “news” and “opinion” programming.

When Fox execs or network personalities are challenged on the conservative tilt of the network, they often trot out this defense. Writing in October 2009 about the then-blossoming feud between the White House and Fox News, the New York Times' Brian Stelter reported that, “Fox argues that its news hours -- 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and 6 to 8 p.m. on weekdays -- are objective.”

In the article, Fox News senior vice president for news, Michael Clemente, is quoted as saying: “The average consumer certainly knows the difference between the A section of the newspaper and the editorial page.”

Special Report anchor Bret Baier spent much of his interview with Jon Stewart last week championing the supposed division between Fox's news and editorial content. Similar to Clemente, Baier said that Fox “respect[s] the viewers' ability to discern the difference” between their news and opinion programming.

The problem, of course, is that the division between the news and opinion programming at Fox is a farce. In addition to regularly promoting dubious stories and supposed scandals that damage liberals or benefit conservatives, Fox's Washington news bureau is run by a political hack.

It's not realistic to think that all journalists are automatons that have no political leanings -- they are human. A problem arises when their politics infect their news coverage, and that's what has clearly happened in Fox News' Washington bureau under the heavy hand of Bill Sammon.

So, for the sake of argument, let's set aside the fact that Sammon has fundraised for conservative groups and organizations. Ignore that he wrote numerous fawning books about the Bush campaigns and administration, which were published by a company that exists to prop up the conservative movement. And pay no attention to his Fox News colleagues saying he is “conservative” and “coming from that point of view.”

What matters is whether Sammon lets his political leanings infect his supposed “journalism,” and over the course of the past few months, that has become undeniably clear.

Last year, a source with knowledge of the situation at Fox's Washington bureau told Media Matters that Sammon shapes the network's news coverage in an “often brutish way.” A separate Fox source told Media Matters that they “keep hearing things from staffers about Sammon,” and that “when news is being tampered with, you have to worry.”

As evidenced by the series of internal Fox emails Media Matters has released over the past several months, Fox's news is certainly being “tampered with.”

Some lowlights:

  • In an email sent to the network's journalists during global climate talks in 2009, Sammon instructed news staff to cast doubt on established climate science. His directive came fifteen minutes after Fox reporter Wendell Goler had accurately reported on-air that the United Nations' World Meteorological Organization announced that 2000-2009 was “on track to be the warmest [decade] on record.” Sammon's directive placed him at odds with the overwhelming majority of climate scientists, not to mention News Corp honcho Rupert Murdoch.
  • During the height of the health care reform debate, Sammon sent an email to news staffers instructing them to avoid uses of the phrase “public option” and instead use variations of “government option” - language that had been recommended by Republican pollster Frank Luntz to turn public opinion against Democrats' reform efforts.
  • Shortly after President Obama's June 2009 speech in Cairo, Sammon sent an email to Fox's journalists pointing out that Obama did not use “the words 'terror,' 'terrorist' or 'terrorism.' ” Sammon's criticism, however, was misleading. Obama devoted a significant section of his remarks to denouncing and confronting Al Qaeda and other “violent extremists who pose a grave threat to our security.” Nevertheless, the critique was repeated -- both by Sammon and other network personalities -- throughout the network's coverage of the speech.

This morning, Media Matters released audio of a speech Sammon gave on a pricey cruise sponsored by a right-wing college, in which he admitted that when he repeatedly speculated on-air in 2008 “about whether Barack Obama really advocated socialism,” he was being “mischievous,” because it was “a premise that privately [he] found rather far-fetched.”

In the weeks leading up the 2008 election, Sammon used his position at the network to try to tie Obama to “Marxists” and “socialism,” including sending an email to news staffers highlighting what he called Obama's “references to socialism, liberalism, Marxism and Marxists” in his 1995 autobiography Dreams From My Father.

Sammon's motivation for engaging in this “mischievous speculation” is clear: he thought he could damage the Democratic candidate for president by insinuating he was a socialist right before the election. This is not something a journalist does - it's the action of a political operative.

Sammon's use of his “news” position at Fox to advance his conservative politics makes a mockery of the supposed division between the straight news and editorial sides of Fox News. Sean Hannity using his show to repeatedly push absurd conspiracy theories about Obama's birth certificate is not balanced out by a Washington managing editor that goes on-air right before an election and suggests the Democratic presidential candidate is a socialist, even though he “privately” doesn't really believe that.

Fox News is an organization that is almost devoid of accountability. It is, after all, the network that refused to even comment on the fact that one of their hosts publicly revealed himself as a 9-11 truther. But if Fox wants to continue to defend its news programming as separate and distinct from its openly conservative opinion programming, something has to give.

Find a new defense, or fire Bill Sammon.