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Editorial: Memo provides a peek behind the Fox facade

Nov 25, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Fox News chief Roger Ailes says he did nothing wrong when he sent a memo to President George W. Bush in the days following the 9/11 attacks. The note, as described in the new Bob Woodward book “Bush at War,” offered words of wisdom on how the president might maintain the support of the American people.
Mr. Ailes, who had a long career as a Republican strategist before setting up shop as chairman and CEO of Fox News, says he quit politics when he entered the world of TV journalism. But his memo suggests old habits die hard.
In it, Mr. Ailes, who was a White House adviser during the administration of President Bush’s father, gives advice to the younger Bush on how to respond to the terrorist attacks. The memo, according to the Woodward book, warns President Bush that support for his actions will erode over time unless the public remains convinced that he will respond as harshly as possible.
Mr. Ailes denies using the word “harsh” in the memo, but otherwise seems to accept Mr. Woodward’s characterization of its content. He does, however, strongly disagree with the implicit characterization of his motives.
Ailes’ defense, echoed last week by his boss, News Corp. Chairman and CEO Rupert Murdoch, is that he was merely acting as a patriotic American outraged by the 9/11 attacks. It’s an argument that almost holds up, given the egregious nature of the attacks.
Almost, but not quite. The idea that national policy might be guided in part by a behind-the-scenes memo from the head of a news operation is appalling, regardless of the dire circumstances that might have inspired such a memo. Further, the memo’s focus on public support for the president rather than on national interest betrays Mr. Ailes’ political motives.
Mr. Ailes’ action flies in the face of journalistic ethics, revealing that he never quite left behind his partisan agenda when he took the reins of Fox News. But what makes his action even more offensive is the ongoing campaign by Mr. Ailes’ network to bill itself as “fair and balanced”-a campaign that contains the not-so-subtle assertion that Fox’s rivals, notably CNN and MSNBC, are less than objective.
Anyone who watches Fox News and the other cable news networks with a discerning eye already knows that the claim is nonsense. The memo merely provides an accidental peek at the prevailing attitude behind the facade of objectivity at Fox News-perhaps the least objective of the cable news nets.
Clearly, Fox News is doing something right. The network has surged ahead of CNN and continues to hold a sizable ratings advantage. But the memo incident underscores that viewers should take any news organization’s claims of objectivity with a grain of salt, maintaining a healthy skepticism and drawing their conclusions based on the quality of the reporting, not on promotional slogans.