FOXLEAKS: How Bill Sammon Slanted Fox's Cairo Speech Coverage

On June 4, 2009, a couple of hours after President Obama delivered his much-anticipated speech in Cairo regarding America's relationship with the Muslim world, Fox News Washington managing editor Bill Sammon sent an email to Fox staff pointing out that Obama did not use “the words 'terror,' 'terrorist' or 'terrorism.' ”

The email, which did not include any text beyond the subject line, read as follows:

From: Sammon, Bill
Sent: Thursday, June 04, 2009 9:23 AM
To: 169 -SPECIAL REPORT; 069 -Politics; 036 -FOX.WHU; 030 -Root (FoxNews.Com); 050 -Senior Producers; 051 -Producers
Cc: Clemente, Michael; Stack, John; Wallace, Jay
Subject: FYI: My cursory check of Obama's 6,000-word speech to the Muslim world did not turn up the words “terror,” “terrorist” or “terrorism”

Sammon's “cursory check” quickly became the editorial focus for Fox News journalists covering Obama's speech, and was repeated (in some instances almost verbatim) by the network's hosts. Sammon himself appeared on Fox shortly after sending the email and claimed that Obama, in not using “terrorism” or any of its variants, showed that “he has taken us off a war footing as a nation.”

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.” Sammon's criticism also disregarded the analyses of Middle East and terrorism experts who viewed Obama's word choice as an effort to remove as a source of tension terms that, through overuse and misuse, have become incendiary in the Muslim world.

The New York Times noted the rationale behind Obama's word choice in a June 4, 2009, article:

But while he spoke uncompromisingly of the American fight against Al Qaeda, Mr. Obama never mentioned the words “terrorism” or “terrorist.” That was a departure from the language used by the Bush administration, but one that some Middle East experts suggested reflected a belief by the new administration that overuse had made the words inflammatory.

Similarly, then-CNN chief international correspondent Christiane Amanpour explained: “I don't know what goes on in his head. But I certainly know what the people in the Islamic world say. In all those countries which I visited, where there are wars or not, they are fed up with being completely and monolithically associated with terror. Perhaps that was what was going through the president's mind when he chose not to use that word.”

Obama's speech ended just after 7 a.m. EDT on June 4. Sammon sent his email at 9:23 a.m., informing Fox journalists: “My cursory check of Obama's 6,000-word speech to the Muslim world did not turn up the words 'terror,' 'terrorist' or 'terrorism.' ”

Ten minutes later, Sammon appeared on America's Newsroom -- one of Fox's supposedly objective daytime “news” shows -- with host Megyn Kelly.

Introducing the segment, Kelly said: “Well, the president talked a lot in his speech today about reaching out to Muslims. What he did not talk a lot about was terror.” The on-screen text for the segment asked: “Why didn't Pres Obama use the word 'terror' in Cairo speech?”

Kelly asked Sammon what he made of Obama not mentioning “terror, the war on terror, or terrorism.”

Sammon responded, “Well, I make of it that he has taken us off a war footing as a nation.”

KELLY: So he goes out -- this is a big speech, 3,000 people in attendance, but millions, if not more, watching around the world, and not one mention of terror, the war on terror, or terrorism. What do you make of it?

SAMMON: Well, I make of it that he has taken us off a war footing as a nation. And it's now clear -- when you give a 6,000-plus word speech to the Muslim world and you don't mention terror, terrorist, or terrorism, you know, that's not an accident.

I also noticed that, you know, he quoted from the Quran three times, and we did a search to see how many times as president he's quoted from the Bible, and he's quoted from the Bible three times as president. Including the one quotation he made from -- during today's speech. So--

KELLY: You mean total, from the time he took office until today.

SAMMON: Total, from the time he was inaugurated until today, he's quoted from the Bible three times. I'm not sure what that tells us, other than look, President Bush did a lot of outreach to the Muslim world as well. He gave speeches, he went into mosques, he took his shoes off, he gave interviews to Arabic TV stations. But with him it was sort of counter-programming. With Obama, I think, it reinforces what his critics feel are some concerns about him.

Later in the program, Kelly hosted former Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen, who said of Obama's speech: “I mean, he did say some things that were good, and we should give him credit for it. He did say that we're going to relentlessly confront the extremists and that -- and that was a good thing. Though interestingly enough, he didn't mention the word 'terrorism' once in the speech.”

In addition to Kelly, other Fox News journalists adopted Sammon's framing of Obama's speech.

Later in the day on Studio B with Shepard Smith, Smith told White House deputy press secretary Bill Burton: “I want to tick off a couple of things I've gotten in the email inbox, Bill, from viewers who are upset about a couple of things. One, not a lot of talk about terrorism or the war on terror, and they wish there had been more.” Smith then asked Burton: “Why no more war on terror and why is it not being addressed?” Burton corrected Smith, saying: “First, I think that the president did spend quite a bit of time talking about terrorism and terrorist attacks, and he said specifically that what people do when they execute a terrorist attack is they surrender their moral authority.”

On the June 4 edition of Fox News' Special Report, both host Bret Baier and correspondent Wendell Goler noted that Obama did not use the word “terror,” but neither explained the possible reasons for Obama's word choice. Baier introduced his report on Obama's speech by saying: “Well, President Obama today said in a speech directed at the world's 1.3 billion Muslims that the cycle of suspicion and discord with the U.S. must end. The address from Cairo, Egypt, featured references to both the 9-11 attacks and the war in Iraq, but did not use the words 'terror,' 'terrorist,' or 'terrorism.' ” Goler noted: “Although he didn't use the word 'terrorism,' the president noted Islamic extremists have killed more Muslims than anyone else and he called on believers to fight them.”

Later in the same program, Baier kicked off the “All-Star Panel” segment by saying: “It lasted a little over 55 minutes, was 6,000 words. Words that you did not hear in the speech -- 'terror,' 'terrorist,' or 'terrorism' -- although the president did talk about the 9-11 attacks and a lot of other topics.”


Fox News' commentators also seized on Sammon's framing to attack Obama. On the June 4 edition of The O'Reilly Factor, former Bush adviser and Fox News contributor Karl Rove said:

ROVE: He talked about confronting extremism but could never bring himself to say “terrorism.” He had eight paragraphs mostly devoted to criticizing the United States and then one paragraph in which he called upon the Muslim world to confront extremism. He was critical constantly of the United States.

Sean Hannity accused Obama of “blaming America first,” saying on the June 4 edition of Hannity: “And that is our headline tonight: Blaming America first. Now in his remarks, Mr. Obama refused to use these words -- 'terror,' 'terrorism,' 'terrorist' -- or even that term 'manmade disasters.' But he repeatedly quoted the Quran and even accused Americans of overreacting to the 9-11 terror attacks.” Appearing on Hannity's program, Fox News contributor Newt Gingrich agreed with that analysis:

HANNITY: The word “terror” didn't come up. “Terrorism” didn't come up. “Terrorist” didn't come up. “Manmade disaster” didn't come up. Don't you think that that would be -- those would be vital terms to use in a speech like this?

GINGRICH: Well, I think you captured part of what's going on here, which is you have a man who's in considerable conflict with himself. On the one hand, he's trying to reach out to the Muslim world and trying to open up a new dialogue. On the other hand, he just can't help himself in blaming America first and saying things about America.

On June 5, Fox & Friends co-host Steve Doocy, speaking to Rove, criticized Obama's speech using language very similar to Sammon's email: “President Obama was at Cairo University, he had a 6,000-word speech, and yet, of those 6,000 words, not once did he use the word 'terrorist,' 'terrorism,' or 'terror,' 'war on terror' or any of that stuff.” Doocy asked: “What's going on here?” Rove responded:

ROVE: I'll tell you what's even more troubling than that is he did say the word “extremism,” he did make it clear that we would fight against those who attacked America on 9-11, he did use the word “Al Qaeda,” but in the section of the speech devoted to the war on terror, he had eight paragraphs mostly critical of the United States, and one paragraph in which he called upon the Muslim world to confront extremism that emerged from within.

Sources familiar with the situation in Fox's Washington bureau have told Media Matters that Sammon, who became the network's Washington managing editor in February 2009, uses his position to “slant” Fox's news coverage to the right. He has instructed reporters to adopt Republican terminology when reporting on health care reform and to cast doubt on climate change science. Just before the 2008 election, when Sammon was serving as Fox's Washington deputy managing editor, he spearheaded a campaign to link Obama to “Marxists” and “socialism.”