Fox News "scandal": They called the public option the "government option" instead

A fine item to obsess about on a day when Chris Matthews is insisting that Hardball is “absolutely nonpartisan” and Mediaite is chronicling the top ten Nazi analogies used by Keith Olbermann against his enemies in the 8 p.m. hour on MSNBC.

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 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.

The objection is that not only was this perfectly accurate description of the public option imposed on the news division by Fox’s editorial braintrust, but Frank Luntz had advised Hannity a few months before to use “government option” when discussing it because that polled much more negatively than the alternate term. Thus was launched the great right-wing Fox News conspiracy to clue the public in, however obliquely, to the fact that not everything on the left’s ObamaCare wish list might ultimately be to their liking. A fun footnote to all this: The left at times worried that the term “public option” was itself too tainted to win public support, to the point where prominent Democrats would occasionally float amusingly Orwellian alternatives. My very favorite was Debbie Wasserman-Schultz calling it the “competitive option,” which is the precise opposite of what government-run health care would accomplish vis-a-vis private insurers forced to try to keep pace with it. But see, Fox is a news organization and is supposed to be accurate (which, again, it was) and Democratic leaders are sleazy doublespeaking statists whom no one trusts anyway, so it’s really only Fox who’s engaged in any betrayal of standards here.

Even Jack Shafer at Slate can’t muster any outrage over this. Newsbusters has a few thoughts as well about the funny little word games frequently played by media outlets whenever abortion or gun rights happens to come up. (Left unmentioned: The media’s charming habit of emphasizing a conservative speaker’s ideological bent but letting a liberal’s pass unnoted.) But that’s different, I guess, because it doesn’t involve a memo from management and isn’t deliberately aimed at casting anyone in a bad light. It just sort of … happens. Exit question: Didn’t NBC make a big self-congratulatory show a few years ago of labeling sectarian conflict in Iraq as a “civil war”? Arguably that was a perfectly accurate description too, but it carried an obvious political significance by depicting the situation as more dire than many Americans had realized. Hawks naturally howled and doves naturally cheered. (To this day, as far as I know, there’s been no formal announcement by NBC that the civil war is over or suspended or resurgent or anything of the sort.) Which is to say, this isn’t the first time a news agency has bucked conventional terminology for a phrase which it feels better describes reality and which might move public opinion through its usage. So why single out Fox?