Fox News Editor Told Reporters How to Couch Health Care Language

E-mail uncovered by Media Matters says “government option” preferable to “public option””

Last Updated: December 9, 2010 @ 12:08 PM

As the health care debate flared last year, Fox News' Washington managing editor sent a memo telling staff to use the phrase "government option" instead of "public option" to refer to one of the most-disputed aspects of President Obama's plan, according to e-mails obtained by the liberal activist group Media Matters.

The Oct. 27, 2009 memo went out weeks after Republican pollster Frank Luntz offered Fox News host Sean Hannity an on-air analysis of the two phrases: “If you call it a public option, the American people are split,” Luntz said. “If you call it the government option, the public is overwhelmingly against it.”  

“A great point,” Hannity said. “And from now on, I'm going to call it the government option, because that's what it is.”

The e-mail from managing editor Bill Sammon, which he sent the day Senate Democrats introduced a bill with an option for public/government (take your pick) health insurance, had the subject line, "friendly reminder: let's not slip back into calling it the 'public option.'"

It read:

1) Please use the term "government-run health insurance" or, when brevity is a concern, "government option," whenever possible.

2) When it is necessary to use the term "public option" (which is, after all, firmly ensconced in the nation's lexicon), use the qualifier "so-called," as in "the so-called public option."

3) Here's another way to phrase it: "The public option, which is the government-run plan."

4) When newsmakers and sources use the term "public option" in our stories, there's not a lot we can do about it, since quotes are of course sacrosanct.

Moments later, Fox's senior Michael Clemente, sent an email that seemed to tweak, if not contradict, Sammons' directive: “#3 on your list is the preferred way to say it, write it, use it.” He referred to the phrasing “The public option, which is the government-run plan.”

Nonetheless, Media Matters and The Daily Beast's Howard Kurtz have cited many cases where Sammon's preferred phrase was used in news coverage.

The option — which was cut from the health care plan that eventually passed — would have provided an alternative insurance exchange for people who could not get health coverage from their jobs, and would have been run by the Health and Human Services Department.

Sammon, a former Washington Times reporter, said in an interview with Kurtz that "public option" is "a vague, bland, undescriptive phrase,” adding, “who would be against a public park?”

The phrase "government-run plan," he said, was more neutral and was recently used by a New York Times columnist.

“I have no idea what the Republicans were pushing or not. It’s simply an accurate, fair, objective term.”

Supporters of the option disagree.

"Fox News incorporated politically charged language into its day-to-day reporting to mislead its audience into thinking the public option was something that it wasn’t," Ethan Rome, executive director of Health Care for America Now, said in a statement Thursday. "The public option would have competed with private insurance companies to help lower costs and give consumers more choices. The commonly used term was ‘public option’ for a reason – it was precise and descriptive of a policy that would have given consumers another choice of coverage."

Watch video, cited by Media Matters: