‘Mission creep’ at Fox News

White House versus Fox News eye gouging has been all the rage in recent days. The Obama administration calls the cable outlet a partisan political organ. Fox retorts that the president can’t take a fair punch.

Fox says just check its news programs -- filled with “fair and balanced” coverage -- and don’t peg its reputation solely on the work of commentators like Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly.

The debate over the meaning of Fox News has become so routine, and so routinely partisan, that one hesitates to join the fray again. But when the debate reaches a presidential level, it seems worth reminding everyone, again, how much the boundaries between news and opinion have blurred and how sanguine most people have become about it all.

A survey released Thursday by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found Americans equally divided on the question of whether it is a “good thing” or a “bad thing” for cable news hosts to have strong opinions.


I’m still burdened with the antique notion that news people have more power and influence when they can bring unique information to the table. But as I noted in an earlier column, opinion making is on the rise. Witness the NBC and CBS news correspondents who recently felt they needed to give us not just their reports from the battle front in Afghanistan but also their personal opinions on whether a U.S. troop buildup is a good idea.

I spend part of virtually every day with Fox. Yes, there are stretches of straight reporting apparently bereft of ideology. And then there are all-too-frequent instances of what the military might call “mission creep,” opinion journalism bleeding into what are ostensibly news programs.

So Fox news anchors and reporters hype “tea parties” that rail against the Obama administration. Reporters flog liberals who support healthcare reform while tossing softballs to conservatives who are sure government is growing out of control. The nightly “Fox All Stars,” capping a news program, employs a quirky math that finds two rock-ribbed conservatives plus one neutral party equal one balanced panel.

In one not atypical session this week, the all-stars and host Bret Baier returned to the ubiquitous question of healthcare reform. The Weekly Standard’s Steve Hayes asserted that “the Democratic Party seems like it’s in disarray on this, the signature domestic policy item of the president.” Columnist Charles Krauthammer repeated a regular Republican talking point, finding it “astonishing” that Democrats are pushing “restructuring one-sixth of the American economy and don’t even have a bill, don’t even have a scoring, don’t even know what opting in and opting out means.”

Baier, the ostensibly unbiased host, then helpfully reminded Krauthammer that he had previously contended that the so-called public option is merely a “camel’s nose under the tent” toward single-payer insurance. Of course, Krauthammer agreed, “it is the royal road to government-controlled healthcare.” This is the nightly pattern on the All-Star panel that caps off Fox’s “Special Report.” Two conservative panelists express opinions ranging from mild disdain to utter disgust with the Obama administration. Then a third panelist, typically a journalist like Juan Williams or Mara Liasson, stakes out far less ideological ground.

I asked a Fox spokeswoman how this represented balance, and she said I seemed so set in my disapproval that it wasn’t worth offering a rebuttal.

Fox employs some other neat devices for infusing its newscasts with the view from the right. How about zippy headlines, like the one this spring that asserted: “House Dems vote to protect pedophiles, but not veterans.”

Outrageous! And outrageously misleading. That claim referred to hate crimes legislation designed to protect gays and others, a proposal which at least one Republican lawmaker falsely claimed could protect pedophiles, even though federal law already made it clear such statutes covered only consenting adults.

What about those tea party promos? I suppose the constant stories, listing times and locales for the protests, could be explained away as strictly informational. So why did Fox offer up a “virtual tea party” online for those who couldn’t make the real events?

Fox’s news hosts don’t offer up extended screeds as Hannity and Beck do, but some can’t seem to resist lending their voices to the company line.

When Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann in March decried a government that seemed to be pushing “toward socialism,” Martha MacCallum, host of the day-time “The Live Desk” seemed to have no reservation saying: “I think you’re absolutely right about that.”

Just this week, MacCallum’s on-air partner, Trace Gallagher, asked Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell sympathetically how Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada could possibly accuse Republicans of being obstructionist when they “haven’t seen what’s in this bill, much less how much it’s going to cost.”

After guiding McConnell gently through his interview, Gallagher then challenged and interrupted health reform defender Eliot Engel, a Democratic congressman from New York.

Fox champions suggest the tough edge has become even more of a necessity to counter-balance the Obama-worshiping lap dogs in the rest of the mainstream media.

But the Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University -- whose findings have been used in the past to prop up arguments of liberal bias -- has found the broadcast networks have not rolled over for Obama. (It doesn’t examine MSNBC, because MSNBC does not run the equivalent of a nightly news program, but I plan to devote a column to how much the left-leaning cable outlet mixes news and opinion.)

Researchers at the center tag statements on news programs as either positive, negative or neutral, then total the results. Of the opinion statements about President Obama on the networks between Inauguration Day and Oct 10, the center found 65% to be negative and 35% positive.

So Fox is not alone in giving the president a tough once over. But it would appear a more dispassionate broker if it more routinely went after both sides, as its top anchor, Shepard Smith, has done on occasion.

Earlier this month, for instance, Smith challenged Sen. John Barrasso’s (R-Wyoming) assertion that a healthcare public option would push all Americans into a public health plan. Smith described the reform proposal and asked: “That’s not a government takeover, if we are being fair, is it senator?”

This week, Smith apologized that Fox hadn’t done more to get an interview with Democratic New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine for a segment on his reelection campaign.

A spokeswoman told me Smith’s “Fox Report” is the cable outlet’s “signature newscast.” It would also be nice to see some confirmation of my silly faith that Smith’s admonitions might be something more than another marketing ploy.