How Fox News Spun the Health-Care Debate

As the debate over the health-care public option heated up, a Fox News executive told staffers to change the way they talked about it. Howard Kurtz on the memo that echoed a GOP talking point.

Fox News personalities (clockwise from top left) Neil Cavuto, Sean Hannity and Bret Baier. (Photos: Fox News (2); Seth Wenig / AP Photo)

As the health-care debate was heating up in the summer of 2009, Republican pollster Frank Luntz offered Sean Hannity some advice.

Luntz, who counseled the GOP on how to sell the 1994 Contract With America, told the Fox News host to stop using President Obama’s preferred term for a key provision.

“If you call it a public option, the American people are split,” he explained. “If you call it the government option, the public is overwhelmingly against it.”

“A great point,” Hannity declared. “And from now on, I'm going to call it the government option, because that's what it is.”

On Oct. 27, the day after Senate Democrats introduced a bill with a public insurance option from which states could opt out, Bill Sammon, a Fox News vice president and Washington managing editor, sent the staff a memo. Sammon is a former Washington Times reporter.

“Please use the term ‘government-run health insurance,’ or, when brevity is a concern, ‘government option,’ whenever possible,” the memo said.

Sammon 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.’”

The exception was when newsmakers used "public option": “There’s not a lot we can do about it, since quotes are of course sacrosanct.”

Sammon had raised the issue before. His note was titled “friendly reminder: Let’s not slip back into calling it the ‘public option.’”

Michael Clemente, Fox’s senior vice president for news, weighed in minutes later: “#3 on your list is the preferred way to say it, write it, use it.” That referred to the longer version: “The public option, which is the government-run plan.”

The memos were obtained by the liberal advocacy group Media Matters. The public option—an alternative insurance exchange for those who could not get health coverage from their employers—would in fact have been run by the Health and Human Services Department. (The provision was eventually dropped before Congress passed the legislation.) The significance of the marching orders is that they were issued to the news division, which aims to be fair and balanced and is run separately from the opinion side, populated by the likes of Hannity and Glenn Beck.

Sammon said in an interview that the term "public option" “is a vague, bland, undescriptive phrase,” and that after all, “who would be against a public park?” The phrase "government-run plan," he said, is “a more neutral term,” and was used just last week by a New York Times columnist.

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“I have no idea what the Republicans were pushing or not,” Sammons says. “It’s simply an accurate, fair, objective term.”

“I have no idea what the Republicans were pushing or not. It’s simply an accurate, fair, objective term.”

Other news organizations periodically described the plan as government-run or used the terms interchangeably, but not as part of any edict. While news executives routinely offer guidance about proper wording in news stories, the semantics in this case were clearly favored by the Republicans.

Sammon’s message was received. On that night’s Special Report, the Washington newscast, anchor Bret Baier began by teasing “a look at the fight over government-run health insurance in the Senate reform bill.” Chief Washington correspondent Jim Angle referred to “a government insurance plan, the so-called public option.”

On the previous night’s program, Baier had repeatedly referred to the “public option,” as did conservative panelist Charles Krauthammer.

Anchor Neil Cavuto, a pro-business commentator, teed up an interview that day with House Republican Leader John Boehner by saying: “My next guest says name it what you want; it is still government-run.”

After hearing a clip of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi calling the provision the “consumer option,” Boehner said: “They are worried about it because whether you call it the government option; whether you call it the consumer option; whether you call it a co-op or an opt-out or an opt-in, these are all just terms about their big government takeover of our health-care system.”

Brit Hume, Sammon’s predecessor as managing editor—and an unabashed conservative—generally stressed balance in news coverage and would not likely have issued such a directive. Some Fox staffers are concerned about Sammon’s role because he leans right in his on-air analysis and is the author of such books as Strategery: How George W. Bush Is Defeating Democrats, Outwitting Opponents and Confounding the Mainstream Media, and At Any Cost: How Al Gore Tried to Steal the Election.

Sammon said in the interview that he was a newspaper reporter for 25 years and his record demonstrates that he hasn’t favored either side. “Have I said things where I take a conservative view? Give me specifics,” he said.

In his Fox appearances since his promotion last year, Sammon has been notably unsympathetic to the Obama administration. “The mainstream media hates the Tea Party movement almost as much as it hates Sarah Palin,” he said this year. “And the reason is simple. That’s because both are a threat.” Less than a month after the president took office, Sammon said of the stimulus bill: “I think this has turned into a public-relations disaster for Obama. People look at this thing and see, you know, some mouses being protected in Pelosi's district, some rail lines being built in Harry Reid's state… I think as we get deeper into the details of this bill, it's going to get uglier and uglier. So yes, Obama won, but he won ugly.”

Sammon has also accused Obama of making decisions that “take America off its war footing… the opposite of what the Bush and Cheney folks did in the wake of 9/11.” And during a discussion of Iraq last year, he said: “That's the difference between liberals and conservatives. Conservatives have the intellectual honesty like Bill Kristol here to support both surges, whereas a lot of Democrats reflexively opposed George Bush’s surge because—it wasn’t so much because they were antiwar. It's because they wanted to destroy the Bush presidency.”

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.