Former producer notes Fox's bias

November 01, 2003|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

There's a reason some critics find a consistently conservative tone in Fox News Channel's newscasts, a former Fox producer says: The network's executives issue a daily memo that often sets out ideological cues for anchors and producers to follow.

In a telephone interview yesterday, former Fox News producer Charlie Reina said the network clearly "leans toward the conservative" on social issues.

Even when there's no explicit direction, Reina said, Fox reporters and anchors know to be defensive of President Bush in response to critical media reports elsewhere. Producers often feel subtle pressure from news executives to reflect a philosophical line sympathetic to the White House, Reina said.

"Sometimes this bias of theirs is not directly political," Reina said. "But when it's a political situation, then it mirrors the current administration."

He first made his claims in a lengthy posting earlier this week on Jim Romenesko's media Web site for the Poynter Institute. They were sharply disputed by Fox News officials.

Sharri Berg, Fox News' vice president for news operations, responded Thursday evening on the Poynter site, calling the charge "unfounded." She termed Reina a "disgruntled employee" who was, she wrote, considered a washout by colleagues.

"These false accusations are the rantings of a bitter employee," Fox News spokesman Robert Zimmerman said yesterday. "It's unfortunate that his career ended the way it did. We wish him well."

Fox executives have always rejected the charge by media critics, especially liberal ones, that contend the 7-year-old news service leans right politically. Led by CEO and Chairman Roger Ailes, Fox News officials argue the establishment media are so instinctively liberal that bias is detected when someone else plays the news straight. The news network's motto is: "Fair and Balanced."

Reina left Fox News in April after six years as a producer of the media criticism show Fox News Watch and other shows. He previously worked for ABC News and other major outlets. He said he was prompted to write after recent statements by ABC News' Chris Wallace praising Fox as even-handed while speaking of his decision to join the news channel.

Subtle, unintended bias sympathetic to liberal causes periodically seeped into press reports, Reina said, such as coverage of the civil-rights movement. But Reina said Fox was the only place he had felt pressure from managers to adopt a specific editorial stance before stories were completed. As most staffers are not represented by unions, he argued, they "have no recourse but to do what they often know is not objective journalism."

The telephone number of a judge who ruled the Pledge of Allegiance unconstitutional was listed on screen - which Reina said was an inducement to harassment by angry viewers. Anti-war protesters were dismissed as "whiny."

Fox News has always prized its edgy, sometimes flip style as one way to stand out in a crowded media field. Online commentator Jay Rosen, chairman of the journalism department at New York University, says that Fox has usurped the language of the conventional media in order to chip away at its credibility.

"There is a war of legitimacy going on in broadcast news," Rosen said yesterday by telephone. "There's this running argument about who is fairer and who's the truth teller." Fox News talk-show host Bill O'Reilly, who is famously combative and often casts a skeptical eye on older news organizations, recently stormed out of an interview with National Public Radio talk-show host Terry Gross, when she posed a series of unsympathetic questions.

But Rosen also suggested that people who are not conservative - Reina characterized himself as a liberal - may bring their own biases to reading the internal Fox memos.

Fox News has often challenged standard journalistic practices, adopting the term "homicide bombings" to describe attacks in Israel, for example, when others have called them "suicide bombings." The station routinely runs a U.S. flag as part of its package of graphics. But others have made some similar shifts. After reports of U.S. bombing raids killed Afghan civilians, CNN executives sent a memo to anchors instructing them to remind viewers that the U.S. invasion followed the Sept. 11 attacks that took thousands of lives.

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