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October 30, 2003

The Fox News Daily Memo: Is the Fix In?

According to a former news producer there, The Memo is the daily bible at Fox News, and it tells how stories are to be played. It's management. It's politics. It's fear, he says. Fox has already responded with: discredit the source. Next step?

I have argued at PressThink that there is a war—but maybe it’s just a roaring argument—about the terms of legitimacy in broadcast news. Fox is trying to de-legitmate others: CNN, especially, but also ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, NPR. Others are trying to de-legitimate Fox, or would like to see it done. Skirmishes go on almost every day; after all, it is a war of words.

Today (Thursday, Oct. 30) there was significant action along the fault. It can be watched over at Romenesko Letters: This is one of those hmmmm moments when very large and complicated arguments about politics, culture and media—including the you’re biased debate—come down to how you read a document. Before today I did not know it existed: The Memo guiding producers and reporters at Fox News.

10/29/2003 4:46:23 PM
Posted By: Jim Romenesko

From CHARLIE REINA: …My advice to the pundits: If you really want to know about bias at Fox, talk to the grunts who work there— the desk assistants, tape editors, writers, researchers and assorted producers who have to deal with it every day. Ask enough of them what goes on, promise them anonymity, and you’ll get the real story.

The fact is, daily life at FNC is all about management politics. I say this having served six years there - as producer of the media criticism show, News Watch, as a writer/producer of specials and (for the last year of my stay) as a newsroom copy editor. Not once in the 20+ years I had worked in broadcast journalism prior to Fox—including lengthy stays at The Associated Press, CBS Radio and ABC/Good Morning America—did I feel any pressure to toe a management line. But at Fox, if my boss wasn’t warning me to “be careful” how I handled the writing of a special about Ronald Reagan (“You know how Roger [Fox News Chairman Ailes] feels about him.”), he was telling me how the environmental special I was to produce should lean (“You can give both sides, but make sure the pro-environmentalists don’t get the last word.”)…

The roots of FNC’s day-to-day on-air bias are actual and direct. They come in the form of an executive memo distributed electronically each morning, addressing what stories will be covered and, often, suggesting how they should be covered. To the newsroom personnel responsible for the channel’s daytime programming, The Memo is the bible.

These are selections from the full text of the letter. Some questions I have about the document and its meaning:

If bias is inevitable, is The Memo a legitimate thing? If it’s a legitimate thing, then could it be released, say, on the Fox News site?

If The Memo is not the sort of thing you release, should it perhaps be leaked daily, as one Romensko reader, Don Russell of the Philadelphia Daily News, has already pined for?

Does the memo represent not the normal healthy bias that’s inevitable—a perspective on the news—but undue “spin,” which is insidious and unfair?

But then why shouldn’t there be a memo about perspectives to take seriously, arguments to keep in mind, ways to end things when putting the daily news report together? Is that transparently a bad thing? Or a possibly good thing gone bad? Or always bad?

And suppose you wanted the daily mix of news and commentary at a big network to move in the direction you thought right, (or stay with your direction and not lapse back) would a memo like Fox’s be an effective way to do it? How would you do it without such a device?

When I learned of The Memo, I wondered if others at Fox would say it works as described. I expected that debate to begin soon, and I expected some dispute immediately from Fox. But maybe not. There’s always “yeah, we have such a memo, and you don’t?” which has worked in the past for Roger Ailes.

I was just about to write, “its inconceivable to me that Fox won’t comment. They like a good argument…” when their initial response was posted at Romensko.

Among the many rhetorical options Fox News Channel had in front of it, first choice, it appears, is to discredit the source in standard American source-discrediting fashion. Malcontent couldn’t cut it, now wants revenge. Or as Romensko, a talented headline writer, puts it: Fox News veep says Reina is a “disgruntled” ex-employee.

10/30/2003 5:30:53 PM
Posted By: Jim Romenesko

From SHARRI BERG, VP-News Operations, Fox News Channel:
Like any former, disgruntled employee, Charlie Reina has an ax to grind. He was employed at Fox News Channel for six years as the Producer of NewsWatch and of many different specials… During that entire period, we were unaware that anyone at Fox News was holding a metaphorical gun to his head.

Earlier this year, Mr. Reina objected to an adjustment in his assigned duties — duties which he was qualified to perform and paid to do….. One of them said this morning, “Charlie actually NEVER had a job in the newsroom. He worked out of some space up on 17 or 18 reserved for overpaid feature producers on career life support. The ‘grunts’ knew him mainly as one of any number of clueless feature producers who would call the desk at random and ask ‘do we have…’ … In fact, its not editorial policy that pisses off newsroom grunts — its people like Charlie.”

How could Mr. Reina have worked at this company for six years if the picture he paints of life at Fox News is true?

Mr. Reina’s premise about “the memo” is unfounded. People are proud to work here….

These are snippets of the Fox VP’s letter. And there is bound to be more.

If you like tracking press think, then attend closely to which facts—if any—in the Charlie Reina letter are disputed, which are not, how the denials are worded. Equally important is how critics of Fox “read” The Memo, as evidence for… what?

About Reina’s letter: if it’s largely true, and its suggestions are on the mark—and I do not know that—it could not be true just for him. That means others might tell of The Memo and how it works. Romenesko already has a Memos section sitting there like a big soft catcher’s mitt. This one bears watching.

Update: Salon has an interview with Reina today that includes this anecdote:

I came in one morning, and the first thing I saw on the monitor was our anchor doing a story [Trent Lott’s praise of Strom Thurmond]. And it was clear that Fox, through the anchor, was anti-Trent Lott. So I went right to the memo, and sure enough the memo said we should make sure our viewers know that this wasn’t even the first time Lott has made such remarks. And I thought, “Wow, I don’t understand.” So I go to the wires, and sure enough, there it is: Bush has condemned what he had said, and Bush wanted to get rid of Lott as the majority leader.

Interesting to me is that Reina agrees that mainstream newsrooms are mostly filled with Democrats and liberals: “Part of what Fox’s message is, and I have to say that to a certain extent I agree with it, is that political correctness is a terrible thing. There are a lot of assumptions that are simply made and not questioned, and a lot of that, liberals like me have perpetrated. And I have to agree that there’s too much of that.” But of course he sees a different form of political correctness operating at Fox.

Events of the last few months are putting increased pressure on Fox’s claim to be both the conservative alternative and not only fair and balanced, but without any definable perspective. Many—including me—marvel at this strategy of playing both sides, which I wrote about in more detail here. But there are costs to keeping these two contradictory claims running.

The Reina letter shows it. For if Fox News Channel had no problem declaring, “we’re the conservative alternative,” then the Memo would be easier to explain. Lots of other attacks would be voided. Roger Ailes could shift from, “we’re fair and balanced, the real news, you’re just liberal spin” to, “sure, we have a perspective and we’re willing to defend it, you have a perspective and you’re not willing to defend it.” Which is stronger?

PressThink’s latest on The Memo (Nov. 1): The Other Bias at Fox News: Volume

Andrew Cline of Rhetorica says: “FOX has every right to spin the news any way its owners and editors please.”

PressThink: Bill O’Reilly and the Paranoid Style in News.

Wall Street Journal, Review and Outlook: “Remember, the people who think this WNET list provides an objective overview of the subject are the same people who can’t keep their brie down when the subject turns to the conservative domination of Fox News or talk radio.”

Los Angeles Times: Av Westin, former ABC news executive, now executive director of the National Television Academy: “Nothing about this surprises me. The uniform smirks and body language that are apparent in Fox’s reports throughout the day reflect an operation that is quite tightly controlled. The fact that young and inexperienced producers acquiesce to that control by pulling stories is further evidence that nonjournalistic forces are at work in that newsroom.

“Roger runs the place with an iron hand and he was put in place there by Murdoch, who selected him for his politics. In that sense, what’s happened at Fox is a carry-over from all Murdoch’s print publications, where the publisher’s politics and editorial preference is reflected in the news hole to an extent that isn’t true anywhere else in American journalism.”

Romenesko’s Letters has new, Saturday material on the Fox memo. Some quite interesting.

Posted by Jay Rosen at October 30, 2003 3:06 PM