Fox News boss instructed staff not to use phrase ‘public option’ because it tested too well

Media Matters has posted a very interesting report that once again illustrates just how laughable the Fox News slogan “Fair and Balanced” really is. It seems the network’s Washington managing editor, Bill Sammon, sent around a memo instructing his staff not to the use the phrase “public option” because it was testing too well.

Instead, Sammon wrote, Fox’s reporters should use “government option” and similar phrases — wording that a top Republican pollster had recommended in order to turn public opinion against the Democrats’ reform efforts.

Journalists on the network’s flagship news program, Special Report with Bret Baier, appear to have followed Sammon’s directive in reporting on health care reform that evening.

Sources familiar with the situation in Fox’s Washington bureau have told Media Matters that Sammon uses his position as managing editor to “slant” Fox’s supposedly neutral news coverage to the right. Sammon’s “government option” email is the clearest evidence yet that Sammon is aggressively pushing Fox’s reporting to the right — in this case by issuing written orders to his staff.

Go read the whole report. It’s really very interesting – if not very surprising for those of us who have been casual viewers of Fox News for the past decade, or so. This kind of leak is helpful, however, because it provides empirical evidence straight from the Conservative horse’s mouth.

The report also confirms the popularity of the public option, and how it’s widespread positive polling had Conservatives running scared. Republican pollster Frank Luntz actually scolded Sean Hannity for using the term “public option.” He ordered Hannity to instead call it the “government option.”

Luntz argued that “if you call it a ‘public option,’ the American people are split,” but that “if you call it the ‘government option,’ the public is overwhelmingly against it.” Luntz explained that the program would be “sponsored by the government” and falsely claimed that it would also be “paid for by the government.”

“You know what,” Hannity replied, “it’s a great point, and from now on, I’m going to call it the government option.”

Of course, because Obama chose not to fight for the public option, Conservatives have since been able to frame the narrative as the public having “rejected” the public option. That simply isn’t the case. In fact, poll after poll after poll showed that a majority of the American people supported including a public option in the final health care bill.

That’s the danger of having a propaganda network like Fox News. This memo shows how the staff works to shape a Conservative narrative that they package as “What The American People Think.” Then Conservatives on the hill nod to Fox News as evidence that a Conservative agenda is What The American People Want, and that of course bolsters the whole fictional “America is a center-right country” bullshit fantasy Pat Buchanan jerks off to every evening.

Here’s a little mental exercise you can play at home: Imagine if Fox News got a hold of an MSNBC memo like this in which a network head was instructing his staff to refer to the Deficit Commission as the “Catfood Commission.” Can you imagine how fast Neil Cavuto or Megyn Kelly would rupture a lung screaming about the “liberal agenda?”


  1. chardomania

    …and isn’t it amazing to see how open sean hannity is to learning new things?

  2. Terry Ott

    I don’t follow your point about the “Catfood Commission” verbiage. That’s just a cutesy way to discredit Obama’s commission and whatever they might recommend.

    Government option and public option are both reasonable terms. “Public option” is less descriptive as it implies “an option open to the public” like “public accommodations” (including privately owned ones) are: restaurants, hotels, theaters, retail stores and malls, cleaners and laundromats, pharmacies, hospitals, museums, libraries, parks, zoos, private schools, day care centers, health spas, sports venues, etc.

    “Government option” could be misconstrued, I suppose, to the extent that people might think it is intended only for government workers, not for everyone. But that’s a stretch; basically I think nearly everyone would understand that it is an option administered by or through government.

    I think the best term would be “Government Administered Option.” That’s really what it is, right?

  3. Allison Kilkenny

    Think you’ve missed the point, Terry. The reason “public option” was dismissed by Fox is because it was polling well. On the other hand, as Luntz pointed out, “government option” had a less favorable rating, and that’s the sole reason Fox went with that term instead.

    I admit the “Catfood Commission” example is off, but only because the Deficit Commission’s proposals are deeply unpopular. I would have needed to find a *popular* program — like the public option – to make the comparison work.

  4. Ken

    So now that this is out there, everyone is going to realize that Fox is nothing more than conservative propaganda right?


  5. Terry Ott

    Sure, that’s why Fox preferred “government” terminology in the reporting. We hardly need any proof of Fox’s reportage and commentary being from the perspective of the “right”. But there is nothing inherently wrong with using certain verbiage if the terminology is descriptive and not misleading.

    “Public” is a squishy word, like “vintage” is. A sign near me advertises “vintage apartments”. What does that mean? One set of synonyms: classic, traditional, prime, pure, first-rate, first-class, archetypal. Another set of synonyms: out-of-date, dated, antique, old-fashioned, old, outmoded, antiquated.

    Thus it is with the term “public option”. Doesn’t tell you anything about it, so it’s no wonder people are ambivalent when they hear the term “public option” in a poll. Few could describe what that is, actually. Yet some people sort of inherently like things “public”, seemingly sort of benevolent and open. They like the ring of our “Public Market” in my city, but it’s a collection of vendors and shops, just like a shopping center.

    Others sort of inherently like “private” such as “private schools”, “private collection”, “private parking”, etc., because it has a kind of “special’ connotation. But most people feel warmer and fuzzier about “public”.

    Most people have a generally negative perception about large government because their dealings with government (or ones they hear about from others) tend to be either aggravating or insufficient or at least somewhat unsatisfactory. Government in the abstract, the “ideal” of government, can be noble, but up close and in the real world, not so much.

    So I can see why those who favor the public option (and I am one) would rather it not be associated with the terms “government run” or “government administered”. But that’s what it would be. Agree?

    So how can Fox be criticized for saying it like it is in this instance? Just because calling it what it is reminds people why it may not be so attractive to them?

  6. Jon

    I think you answered your own question. They called it the “government option” or “government provided health care” people reacted more negatively than “public option”. That is exactly why Fox used it, so that they could attack heath care reform as some government takeover which played into people’s unease about government. It’s wrong because fox is supposed to be “fair and balanced” but here we have a clear case of them slanting the news.

  7. Pingback: Fox News’ mainstream apologists » FoxMart

    [...] I wrote that the e-mail “once again illustrates just how laughable the Fox News slogan ‘Fair and Balanced’ really is.” Here was a high-ranking Fox News official explicitly instructing employees to avoid using the term “public option.” In short, Sammon was ordering employees to slant their coverage. [...]

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