In the final stretch of the 2008 campaign, a Fox News executive repeatedly questioned on the air whether Barack Obama believed in socialism.
Now it turns out he didn’t really believe what he was saying.
Bill Sammon, now the network’s vice president and Washington managing editor, acknowledged the following year that he was just engaging in “mischievous speculation” in raising the charge. In fact, Sammon said he “privately” believed that the socialism allegation was “rather far-fetched.”
These remarks, unearthed by the liberal advocacy group Media Matters, raise the question of whether Sammon, who oversees Washington news coverage for Fox News, was deliberately trying to sabotage the Democratic presidential candidate. He has come under fire before for memos he sent to the network’s staff that have seemed less than fair and balanced.
Sammon’s admission came on a 2009 Mediterranean cruise—cabin rates ranged as high as $37,600 per couple—sponsored by conservative Hillsdale College. Here is what he said, according to an audio recording:
Click Below to Listen to Bill Sammon's Speech
“Last year, candidate Barack Obama stood on a sidewalk in Toledo, Ohio, and first let it slip to Joe the Plumber that he wanted to ‘spread the wealth around.’ 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, a premise that privately I found rather far-fetched.”
That he did—on several occasions.
On Oct. 14, 2008, Sammon said on the air that Obama’s “spread the wealth” remark “is red meat when you’re talking to conservatives and you start talking about spread the wealth around. That is tantamount to socialism.”
On Oct. 21, he told Greta Van Susteren: “I have read Barack Obama’s books pretty carefully, and he in his own words talks about being drawn to Marxists… Now all this stuff’s coming out about whether he’s a socialist. I don’t know why anyone is surprised by it, because if you read his own words and his sort of, you know, orientation coming up as a liberal through college and a young man, it’s not a huge shock.”
Sammon, a former Washington Times reporter, also made sure his troops got out the word. On Oct. 27, he sent an email to staffers highlighting what he described as “Obama’s references to socialism, liberalism, Marxism and Marxists” in his 1995 autobiography, Dreams From My Father.
In an interview, Sammon says his reference to “mischevious speculation” was “my probably inartful way of saying, ‘Can you believe how far this thing has come?’” The socialism question indeed “struck me as a far-fetched idea” in 2008. “I considered it kind of a remarkable notion that we would even be having the conversation.” He doesn’t regret repeatedly raising it on the air because, Sammon says, “it was a main point of discussion on all the channels, in all the media”—and by 2009 he was “astonished by how the needle had moved.”
Sammon notes that in the same talk on the cruise, he pointed out that George W. Bush had his own stimulus package and had spent half the TARP bailout money: “I was talking about both sides being big spenders.” (True; he also told the cruise guests that “when it comes to spending money, Obama makes Bush look like a piker.”)
In that speech, Sammon said he eventually concluded that what he had thought was baseless speculation among Obama’s socialistic views turned out to be accurate:
“Now imagine my surprise when this year, I witness President Barack Obama standing in the cross hall of the White House and having taken over the American car industry, look into the camera, and announce to the nation essentially, that he would personally vouch for the warranty on your car’s muffler. All of a sudden, the debate over whether America was heading for socialism seemed anything but far-fetched…The debate over whether America is headed for socialism seems all too real, especially to those who still believe in capitalism.”
During last year’s health-care debate, as The Daily Beast has reported, Sammon urged Fox News staff in a memo to “please use the term ‘government-run health insurance,’ or, when brevity is a concern, ‘government option,’ whenever possible.” He acknowledged that the phrase “public option” was “firmly ensconced in the nation’s lexicon,” so when it was necessary to use it, he wrote, add the qualifier “so-called,” as in “the so-called public option.” And “here’s another way to phrase it: ‘The public option, which is the government-run plan.’” Many Fox News journalists followed suit, using terminology that Republican pollster Frank Luntz had pushed on the network.
In an interview at the time, Sammon defended the memo and said his 25-year record as a newspaper reporter demonstrates that he hasn’t favored either side. “Have I said things where I take a conservative view? Give me specifics,” he said.
Howard Kurtz is The Daily Beast's Washington bureau chief. He also hosts CNN's weekly media program Reliable Sources on Sundays at 11 a.m. ET. The longtime media reporter and columnist for The Washington Post, Kurtz is the author of five books.