Media Matters: All aboard the Fox Tea Party Express (except you, Hannity)

Is Fox finally feeling the pressure and realizing that claiming to be a “fair and balanced” news outlet means you can't flat-out endorse and promote a political movement? Yes and no.

Following Fox's incessant promotion of the tea party rallies last year and the heavy criticism that ensued, one might have expected that Fox's coverage of the tea party rallies would be slightly more subdued this year. After all, News Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch acknowledged that Fox shouldn't be “supporting the Tea Party or any other party” just last week.

But that didn't stop some of Fox's usual suspects from praising, promoting, and downright gushing over the events. In fact, Fox News on-air talent participated in over a dozen tea party events. Neil Cavuto, dedicating his entire show to a tea party event in Atlanta, actually promised to devote his hour on Fox to “what [the tea partiers] want to see happen.”

Not to be outdone, chronic opportunist Dick Morris advertised his undoubtedly lucrative headlining appearances at tea party rallies in Arkansas, saying to Megyn Kelly, “I'm going to go there because Blanche Lincoln needs to be defeated.” In case you still couldn't quite connect the dots between Fox's paid contributors and their participation in the tea party events, Morris told Kelly that he had a “minor role” in the tea party movement.

The brain trust at Fox & Friends tried to defend their shameless promotion of the rallies by claiming that the tea party is nonpartisan, despite the fact that the majority of those who identify themselves as tea party supporters are Republican. It also didn't help that the next day, fill-in-host Eric Bolling called the tea party principles “all very, very conservative issues” and “all great ideas.” So much for the tea party being nonpartisan.

Fox also followed up on its coverage of the Tea Party Express, especially Sarah Palin's stop in Boston, with Caroline Shively reporting, “The idea is the same from the Boston Tea Party, too, 237 years ago.” Brian Kilmeade also commented, “It's 1773 all over again.” Greta Van Susteren promoted “Boston Tea Party Take 2” with an extensive excerpt of Palin's keynote address.

But these are just examples from Fox's opinion shows, right? The straight-up news programs would never compare this highly partisan political pep rally to an emblematic event that helped trigger America's fight for independence, right? There are significant distinctions between Fox's opinion programming and the hardworking, shoe-leather journalists whom Fox viewers rely on to provide the objective news of the day, right?

You tell me:

Special Report declares Tea Party Express protest the “21st century version” of the Boston Tea Party

None of this should be too surprising, considering we also found out this week that when a Republican consultant originally pitched the idea for the Tea Party Express in a GOP consulting firm, he counted on “some mentions and possibly even promotion from conservative/pro- tea party bloggers, talk radio hosts, Fox News commentators, etc.” The consultant, Joe Wierzbicki, even cited the fact that “the April 15th tea parties may have been promoted by Fox News” in his pitch for the Tea Party Express.

Now for the encouraging news, a sign that Fox News executives may be getting the message that the salad days of “celebrat[ing] with Fox News” at any of four “FNC Tax Day Tea Parties” have come to an end. As Media Matters' Eric Hananoki noted, the Cincinnati Tea Party sold tickets to what was supposed to be a broadcast of Sean Hannity's Fox News show. Myriad criticisms from media experts and ombudsmen followed. The Los Angeles Times reported in an April 15 article that "[a]ngry Fox News executives ordered host Sean Hannity to abandon plans to broadcast his nightly show as part of a Tea Party rally in Cincinnati on Thursday after top executives learned that he was set to headline the event, proceeds from which would benefit the local Tea Party organization." The article added: “Furious, top officials recalled Hannity back to New York to do his show in his regular studio. The network plans to do an extensive post-mortem about the incident with [John] Finley [the show's executive producer] and Hannity's staff.” I hope this was the straw that broke the camel's back and not a flash in the pan -- a harbinger for a new day in Fox News' tea party coverage. After all, Megyn Kelly couldn't even bring herself to inflate the crowd size at the “most high profile” tea party rally of the season.

Other stories this week

O'Reilly's whopper (he gets it his way)

Oh, Bill, we missed you. Good to have you back. O'Reilly's triumphant return to staunch misinformer started when Sen. Tom Coburn told a constituent that the recently passed health care reform legislation wouldn't put anyone in jail for failing to purchase coverage, adding that the false claim “makes for good TV news on Fox.” Like a bear defending her cub, O'Reilly invited Coburn on his show and pushed him to explain his remarks. O'Reilly told Coburn: "[W]e researched" and "[n]obody" on Fox “ever said you are going to jail if you don't buy health insurance.”

Naturally, we called Merriam-Webster to see if they had changed the definition of “nobody.” Turns out: no change. It still means “no person” or “not anybody.” O'Reilly must have gotten confused, because Glenn Beck (on O'Reilly's own show!), Rush Limbaugh on Fox & Friends, Dick Morris, Sean Hannity, Andrew Napolitano, Bill Hemmer, Greta Van Susteren, The Fox Nation, and Fox & Friends all falsely claimed that failing to buy health insurance could result in jail time.

Luckily, Neil Cavuto was there to help Bill out the next day, commenting, “I've researched this, and a number of Fox personalities had made that comment.” Cavuto's correction fell on deaf ears, apparently, as O'Reilly told Dennis Miller that night that Coburn “didn't really have his facts in line.”

Bitter to the end, O'Reilly subsequently said that “NBC News has highlighted dishonest propaganda from the far-left Media Matters outfit” and claimed that when “jail time” had been “on the table,” Fox had reported on it, but no one on Fox made the claim after that provision was supposedly removed. In fact, the health care bill Fox had been reporting on at the time also did not have “jail time” as a penalty for not having health insurance. We still appreciate the shout-out, though.

Help wanted: CBS News ethicist

With the announcement of Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens' retirement, it's only appropriate for news outlets to reach out to various corners of the political arena for commentary and analysis on potential nominees for his replacement. What might be less appropriate is a major news organization providing an online forum for a known plagiarist and disgraced Republican operative to spread unsubstantiated rumors about the personal life of the current solicitor general of the Untied States and potential Supreme Court nominee.

Yesterday, published an “opinion” article by Ben Domenech that baselessly claimed Solicitor General Elena Kagan would be the “first openly gay justice” appointed to the Supreme Court. Next, Domenech published an “update” baselessly asserting that Kagan “is apparently still closeted” and that “her female partner is rather well known in Harvard circles.” CBS later published an “editor's note” explaining that the White House said “Domenech's reference to Ms. Kagan as gay is innaccurate [sic].” Later still, CBS published an update to the editor's note in which Domenech stated: “I offer my sincere apologies to Ms. Kagan if she is offended at all by my repetition of a Harvard rumor in a speculative blog post.”

Wow. That's a lot of updates; all of which could have been avoided if CBS had considered at all Domenech's status as a serial plagiarist. Maybe CBS looked at the line on his resume as a Washington Post blogger, but missed the fact that his tenure lasted all of three days. Media Matters' Jamison Foser reminded us of Domenech's history of plagiarizing everything from movie reviews to political commentary in his writing for the National Review Online and the College of William & Mary's student newspaper. Domenech is also the kind of guy who thinks it's appropriate to call Coretta Scott King a communist and attack “the Judiciary” as “worse then [sic] the KKK” for upholding the legality of abortion.

Maybe next time, CBS will avoid such an embarrassing episode by actually reviewing who is contributing to its website and what those contributors are saying.

This weekly wrap-up was compiled and edited by Tom Allison, a researcher at Media Matters for America.