Veteran D.C. Bureau Chiefs Rip Sammon: 'This Isn't Journalism'

The revelation that Fox News Washington managing editor Bill Sammon intentionally misled viewers in 2008 with speculation linking Barack Obama to socialism has drawn criticism from a handful of veteran Washington bureau chiefs.

Several former D.C. newsroom leaders told Media Matters that Sammon acted unethically when he publicly hinted several times in 2008 that Obama might have socialist tendencies, only to later admit that at the time, he “privately” believed the allegations were “far-fetched.”

“At that time, I have to admit, that I went on TV on Fox News and publicly engaged in what I guess was some rather mischievous speculation about whether Barack Obama really advocated socialism,” Sammon said in a 2009 speech that Media Matters publicized this week, “a premise that privately I found rather far-fetched.”

Later in the speech, Sammon said his “mischievous speculation” was actually proven correct during the first months of Obama's presidency.

John Walcott, former McClatchy Washington bureau chief who stepped down in 2010 and ran the bureau during the 2008 election, criticized the actions.

“I don't think deception is ever acceptable in journalism,” Walcott said. “I think there are times when we don't say everything we've learned for reasons of personal security and national security. But outright deception, saying something that you know to be untrue or have no basis for believing is true is not journalism, it is propaganda.”

“This also reflects an increasing tendency to abandon the fourth estate's role of holding those in power -- political, economic, whatever -- accountable, regardless of their ideology, political party or social standing, in favor of taking sides.”

Walcott added: “In theological terms, this is a sin of commission. This is more overt. This isn't journalism.”

Frank Sesno, CNN Washington bureau chief from 1995 to 2001, said of Sammon: “Of course he's partisan. If Fox wants to define the role of its reporters and its bureau chief in a traditional journalistic capacity, then they have no business offering opinions or political speculation in any fashion.

”But if Fox wants to define itself differently, not as a traditional news organization but a news and opinion organization, then he is free to do that."

Marc Sandalow, San Francisco Chronicle bureau chief from 1996 to 2007, said Sammon's actions were not proper for a news person.

“Journalists should not be involved in mischievous speculation, journalists should not engage in mischievous speculation, they should be provocative and if they identify it, they can be analytic and opinionated,” Sandalow said. “But mischief is not part of journalism.”

Asked what it means for Sammon's newsroom leadership role, Sandalow added: “That's a problem, he is overseeing the news operation. For news gatherers, credibility is everything. You should never deceive viewers or readers.”

Max Frankel, former executive editor of The New York Times and its Washington bureau chief from 1968 to 1972, called Sammon's actions “clear partisanship.”

“In our politics, the word socialist is a curse word,” Frankel said. “Especially when hurled at the Democrats, it is a clear case of partisanship and I don't believe that anybody who is calling Obama a socialist to this very day, really believes that.”

“It is obviously name-calling, and partisanship of that sort has no place in fair journalism,” he said. “The only surprising thing about the episode is that he would go so far as to admit it.”

Marvin Kalb, a former NBC News chief diplomatic correspondent and one-time Meet The Press host, said Sammon went too far:

“I believe that Bill Sammon crossed a line between reporting and editorializing in his 2008 coverage of candidate Obama,” Kalb said, later adding, “Decades ago, his campaign commentary would have been unacceptable. Reporters reported and did not offer personal critiques.”

Steve Goldstein, former Washington Bureau chief for The Philadelphia Inquirer, e-mailed this view:

“If I'm not mistaken, Sammon also wrote a column for the Examiner. In any event, that's where his work came to my attention. After reading some pieces by him, it was abundantly clear that he was writing as some sort of party apparatchik and not as a journalist.”

Dean Baquet, the current Washington bureau chief for The New York Times, told Media Matters: “Come on, it is Fox. So no surprise, right?”