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REGARDING MEDIA TIM RUTTEN

Miles from 'fair and balanced'

November 01, 2003|TIM RUTTEN

A veteran producer this week alleged that Fox News executives issue a daily memorandum to staff on news coverage to bend the network's reporting into conformity with management's political views, refocusing attention on the partisan bias of America's most watched cable news operation.

The charges by Charlie Reina, 55, whose six-year tenure at Fox ended April 9, first surfaced Wednesday in a letter he posted on an influential Web site (www.poynter.org/column)maintained by Jim Romenesko for the Poynter Institute, an organization that promotes journalistic education and ethics.

Concerns about Fox, which styles its news coverage as "fair and balanced," begin with its owner, Australian-born Rupert Murdoch. The corporate boards and family investors who control most of the American news media generally feel obliged to maintain a wall of separation between news and editorial opinion. Murdoch, by contrast, operates in the style of the traditional Fleet Street proprietors, who dismiss such distinctions as inconvenient fictions.

And as a deeply conservative man, he is willing to put his money where his politics are: Murdoch, a naturalized U.S. citizen, subsidizes publication of the Weekly Standard, one of the country's most influential right-wing journals. According to a forthcoming book by the New Yorker's Ken Auletta, he loses as much as $40 million a year maintaining the New York Post as an outlet of conservatism in Manhattan.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday November 17, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 1 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
Cal Thomas -- A description of Cal Thomas as a "religious conservative commentator" in the Regarding Media column in the Nov. 1 Calendar was incomplete. Although Thomas sometimes writes and speaks from a religious perspective, he often addresses secular topics.

As Fox's founding president, he hired Roger Ailes, a shrewd Republican political operative who earned a well-founded reputation for bare-knuckle campaigning while working for Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. As one of the architects of the elder George Bush's media strategy in his campaign for president against Democratic rival Michael Dukakis, Ailes helped devise the notorious Willie Horton commercials. As he told Time magazine in August 1988, "The only question is whether we depict Willie Horton with a knife in his hand or without it."

The late Lee Atwater, another Bush aide, described Ailes as having "two speeds -- attack and destroy." Before joining Fox, where he serves now as chairman, Ailes produced Rush Limbaugh's short-lived television talk show.

According to Reina's letter, "Daily life at [Fox] is all about management politics....Editorially, the FNC newsroom is under the constant control and vigilance of management. The pressure ranges from subtle to direct. First, it's a news network run by one of the most high-profile political operatives of recent times. Everyone there understands that [Fox] is, to a large extent, 'Roger's Revenge' against what he considers a liberal, pro-Democrat media establishment that has shunned him for decades. For the staffers, many of whom are too young to have come up through the ranks of objective journalism, and all of whom are nonunion, with no protections regarding what they can be made to do, there is undue motivation to please the big boss."

Fox News spokesman Rob Zimmerman told The Times that "these accusations are the rantings of a bitter, disgruntled former employee. It's unfortunate that Charlie's career ended the way it did, but we wish him well." Asked whether Reina's quotations from the memos were inaccurate or taken out of context, Zimmerman said, "All we are saying is that these are false accusations." The Times' request to speak with Ailes was denied: "Roger is not addressing this and is not available," Zimmerman said.

Reina, who told The Times he left Fox in a dispute over salary and workload -- not politics -- hardly comes across as a knee-jerk liberal. He is at pains, for example, to say that he believes his former employer's cable rivals -- CNN and MSNBC -- also air news reports riven with bias on both ends of the political spectrum. At Fox, he not only produced the network's weekly media criticism show, "News- Watch," but also a series of specials on Newt Gingrich and a talk show with conservative religious commentator Cal Thomas.

Still, Reina, whose 30-year career includes stints at the Associated Press, ABC News and CBS, said Fox's ideological problems begin with Ailes.

"Roger is such a high-profile and partisan political operative that everyone in the newsroom knows what his political feelings are and acts accordingly. I'd never worked in a newsroom like that," he said in an interview. "Never. At ABC, for example, I never knew what management or my bosses' political views were, much less felt pressure from them to make things come out a certain way. I'm talking about news bias, and I never experienced it there. At CBS or the AP, if a word got in that suggested bias -- liberal or conservative -- it was taken out.

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