March 27, 2013
Roger Ailes at Fox News
Roger Ailes and Rupert Murdoch in 1996, at a press conference announcing the creation of Fox News. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, file)

Daytime programming means everything to the defense of Fox News. Ever since the network’s founding in 1996, critics have bashed it as a biased and tendentious network, a house organ of the Republican Party and much, much worse.

The big shots with multimillion-dollar salaries at Fox News have increasingly settled on a standard response to the criticism. Sure –the prime-time lineup and the morning show, “Fox & Friends,” deliver right-leaning fare, in much the same manner that a newspaper has an editorial page. The network’s daytime hours, however, are like the hard news pages, an extended block of straight-up-the-middle reporting and the ideologically blind guts of “Fair and Balanced.”

As the New York Times’s Brian Stelter reported, Fox News executives tout the weekday hours between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. (as well as 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.) as “objective” coverage. In a memorable exchange last year with respected newsman Ted Koppel, Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly cited this block as the difference-maker between Fox News and the competition: “We actually do hard news here from 9 in the morning until 5 in the afternoon,” said O’Reilly, overstating the network’s official position by an hour. “MSNBC doesn’t do one hour of hard news. It’s all, let’s push the liberal Democratic agenda from sign-on to sign-off. So this is a news agency here.”

That argument received a flying buttress last week from a venerable third party. The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism completed a study of content at the leading cable-news providers, and the data yielded this chart:

“That’s about right,” said O’Reilly on his program, referring to the 55-45 breakdown for
Fox News.

An endnote in the Pew study explains how the outfit decided on its classifications between opinion/commentary and factual reporting: “An individual story was considered commentary or opinion if 25% of the time if that story included opinionated statements. Otherwise, the story was coded for being a factual reported piece.”

A fair and balanced methodology, as far as it goes. It’s far from foolproof, however. Though Pew may be right in labeling 45 percent of Fox News content “factual reporting,” the finding doesn’t mean that the network’s coverage, in toto, is impartial. All that the Pew study indicates is that the stories that they examined were bereft of opinion as far as they looked.

Look at what the study did not consider: “For this report, we simply coded whether the coverage examined represented opinion or reporting, not the topic or tone of that coverage or story selection,” notes Mark Jurkowitz, who assisted with the study. The bold text highlights a key factor. Let’s say that next month, the unemployment rate rises by a few tenths of a percent. More people out of work would be bad news for the Obama administration. Cable news organizations would then face an editorial judgment call as to how many segments the story merits over the course of a day. None? Five? Suppose that one network decided to go with 47 segments. All of those pieces could be perfectly factual, tainted by no expressions of opinion whatsoever; together, however, they’d constitute a heavy editorial decision against the administration.

As a day-in, day-out viewer of Fox News 9-to-4 programming, the Erik Wemple Blog has watched carefully how the network builds its coverage. We watched Benghazi star in an endless loop of programming last fall; we watched live as Shepard Smith attempted to get his people to cut away from the post-car chase suicide; we’ve watched enough of those binary “fair-and-balanced interviews” to qualify as a Nik Wallenda couch potato.

Fox’s claim of dayside “objectivity” has always seemed highly subjective to this writer. Now that their contention received a boost from Pew, we decided it was time to fact-check our informal observations about the coverage.

So, last Friday, March 22, the Erik Wemple Blog spent the hours between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. doing nothing but watching Fox News, taking notes, and time-stamping everything. Bathroom breaks coincided with commercial breaks, during which we’re sure we missed our chance to buy some killer precious metals.

Friday was a good day to do the wall-to-wall Fox News test. Nothing earth-shaking happened that day — certainly nothing politically significant or scandalous that might cause a shift in normal coverage patterns. In terms of news, March 22, 2013 was any old day.

What emerged was our miniature Pew-esque study of Fox daytime coverage. And like any think-tank document, this quasi-version has a long list of findings:

Findings:

No. 1: Bill Hemmer is the smoothest broadcaster on earth.

From his perch on Fox News’s “America’s Newsroom,” which runs between 9 a.m. and 11 a.m., Hemmer chews through the news with co-host Martha MacCallum (who, incidentally, was off on the day of our study). Whether the story is budget-cutting, mass murder, non-mass murder or gooey human-interest, Hemmer dials up the perfect tone. Just check the archives of his live stuff in the wake of the Newtown shootings — not too detached, not too emotional, just right.

What Hemmer has mastered to a fine point, in particular, is the often-mindless yet consequential banter that moves a cable-news program from one story to the next. After Fox News on Friday, for example, aired a little piece about how a Texas woman burned down her house by dousing a snake with gasoline and igniting it, Hemmer remarked, “She may want to try a shovel next time.” And after contributor Juan Williams participated in a debate pegged to the third anniversary of Obamacare, Hemmer asked the commentator, “You singing happy birthday, Juan?”

No 2: Fox News produces a ton of hard news in the daytime hours.

Based on the copious notes of the Erik Wemple Blog, over six hours Fox News produced nearly 40 beefy, meaty segments of straight-up news coverage totaling around 132 minutes. A note on methodology: That figure counts content that lasts more than a minute—not the teases and short “talkers” that so populate newscasts on Fox News and other channels as well. Were those other forms of straight-news reporting included in this category, the tallies would be higher.

Hemmer kicked off the 9-to-4 block with a live interview with Marine Corps spokesman Sgt. Christopher Zahn. The topic was the double-murder-suicide that had occurred late Thursday night at Quantico Marine base. Hemmer nailed down key facts of the episode with Zahn, including the fact that that the killer had indeed taken his own life. When asked whether there was a standoff, Zahn responded that there wasn’t. “My best to you and everybody there,” Hemmer said in signing off.

Fatal shootings at a Marine installation sit at the crossroads of two Fox News sweet spots: crime and the military. So the network kicked in with resources, sending reporter Elizabeth Prann to Quantico, where she continued giving live coverage for the remainder of the day.

Fox News reporters spread across the globe on this quiet Friday:

– Ed Henry and Leland Vittert on location in the Middle East, covering President Obama’s diplomatic tour.
– Greg Palkot on location in Cyprus, covering the island nation’s economic turmoil.
– Trace Gallagher on the bizarre story of a Frenchman who impersonated an Air France pilot.
– Alicia Acuna on the possible connection between the killing of Colorado’s state prison chief and a fatal shootout in Texas.
– William La Jeunesse on a report documenting dysfunction in the federal “Fast and Furious” gun interdiction program.

And much more, too.

No. 3: Fox News produces a fair amount of ideologically tilted coverage in the daytime hours.

The Erik Wemple Blog counted 14 meaty, beefy segments totaling around 64 minutes in which a rightward tilt was somewhere between slight and overwhelming. Here are some examples of how Fox News engineered the slant:

On Friday, Fox News’s Alisyn Camerota substituted for the distinguished Megyn Kelly as host of “America Live,” which runs from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. Camerota moderated a discussion between two guests on the clash between the Democrats and Republicans over the federal budget.

The discussion was ho-hum, as many discussions on the federal budget tend to be. What put it in the column of tendentious Fox News coverage was not so much how it proceeded, but what preceded it. Fox News producers chose to tease the segment with the ad below, which comes from the Congressional Leadership Fund, a group that bills itself as “focused solely and exclusively on maintaining the Republican majority in the House of Representatives.

The ad repeats a frequently invoked talking point for Republicans in the battle over government spending: Families have to balance their budgets, so why doesn’t the government? When Democrats are faced with that argument, they generally point out that families carry debt in the form of mortgages and student loans and the like.

Yet Fox News didn’t play a Democratic attack ad with any such talking points.

Stripping the fairness and balance out of the network’s “fair and balanced” interviews before they even start has the look of policy at Fox News. Recall this low point, when the channel kicked off a discussion of immigration by playing a Rush Limbaugh rant for 57 seconds?

In a segment of Friday’s “Happening Now,” which spans the hours of 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., host Jon Scott orchestrated a discussion of President Obama’s standing with the American public. He could have introduced the topic with a classic on-one-hand-and-on-the-other-hand treatment. He, instead, gave us this:

Jon Scott: There are signs that the president’s second-term honeymoon is SO over. We have told you about the president’s poll numbers taking a dive. Now, some new data could suggest why. Take a look at this graphic. It is from a Republican consulting firm that tracks every time an issue, organization or celebrity or corporation is mentioned in any media and it measures the tone of that coverage. Those bubbles show the top five issues brought up in relation to the president. The redder they are, the more negative the tone.

Scott also engaged in a polite discussion with contributor Joe Trippi on the third anniversary of Obamacare. Given that Trippi comes from the Democratic side of things, you might expect that the discussion tilted toward President Obama. Not on Fox News! Scott made sure that the tenor of the discussion didn’t go all southpaw on him. He did that by inserting the following questions/comments into the discussion:

“Do you agree with that premise, that Obamacare still has really not swayed people?”

“But as you well know, there was a bipartisan effort the other day that stripped away the tax on medical devices. I mean, a bunch of Democrats voted on that. That’s gonna reduce the funding for the law and it’s kind of a slap in the face to President Obama by his own Democratic Senate, when he comes back from his overseas trip.”

“But there are 33 states that have refused to set up those exchanges. That means that the federal government is going to have step in and do the job in those 33 states. That’s going to cost a huge amount of money and that money wasn’t budgeted as part of the process on top of that. You’re going to have to have hugely complicated computer systems to run the benefits and the enrollment in all of this thing. That money—it’s going to have to come from somewhere. Where does it come from, Joe?”

“It is complicated, and it’s three years old and most of its provisions really haven’t kicked in yet. That’s what remains to be seen—how people adjust to it as they actually have to sign on for this thing.”

The last sentence is bolded to highlight an “objective” Fox News anchor making a program to provide medical help for citizens sound like enlisting for an unpopular war.

Camerota, on “America Live,” also marked the third anniversary of Obamacare by entertaining a discussion with Fox’s Chris Stirewalt, who said the following, among other things:

Stirewalt: “The message here is that three years — tomorrow’s the third birthday of the president’s new health-care entitlement, health insurance entitlement — and nobody is covered by it. And they’re supposed to be starting to be covered by it next year. But as we get closer and closer to implementation, things start to look a little less certain, and implementation looks like it’s going to be delayed and like it’s not going to occur as expected…you’re going to see more Democrats…feeling “politically anxious” about it.

Bold text added to highlight the point at which Camerota should have stopped Stirewalt and asked him, “Really?” The plain-language implication of Stirewalt’s words was that the legislation hadn’t yet affected anyone. As the New York Times noted over the weekend, the legislation has already had an impact: “An estimated 6.6 million people ages 19 through 25 have been able to stay on or join their parents’ plans as result, with more than 3 million previously uninsured young adults getting health insurance.”

Obamacare couldn’t get a break on this day. On “America’s Newsroom,” Stuart Varney, a trusty source of bad news about the Obama administration, yammered away about how much “dissent” there is with regard to funding the Affordable Care Act. There was also an interview with Melissa Francis of Fox Business Network that left the viewer feeling that the administration’s healthcare project was doomed.

Graphics can also be deployed to advance the beatdown on Obamacare. In a discussion on “America’s Newsroom” on the three-year-old legislation with commentators Juan Williams and Mary Katharine Ham, text boxes flashed these “Fox Facts”:

– HEALTH CARE BILL PASSED BOTH HOUSES OF CONGRESS WITHOUT A SINGLE REPUBLICAN VOTE

– FIVE TAXES ENACTED AS PART OF THE HEALTH CARE LAW ARE COSTING TAXPAYERS $36 BILLION IN 2013

– HEALTH CARE LAW INCLUDES 20 NEW OR INCREASED TAXES ON AMERICAN FAMILIES OR SMALL BUSINESSES

– RASMUSSEN POLL: 54% OF LIKELY VOTERS SAY U.S. HEALTH CARE SYSTEM WILL LIKELY WORSEN OVER THE NEXT COUPLE YEARS

One-sided coverage of Obamacare comes from the top. In his new book on Fox News chief Roger Ailes, author Zev Chafets asks the executive what he’d do if he were elected president. Killing the Affordable Care Act tops his list of priorities. His on-air lieutenants do a wonderful job of carrying forward that sentiment.

These findings don’t disprove the Pew study, but they call into question Fox’s claim that its 9-to-4 is objective.

No. 4: Cold weather is not “extreme weather.”

We get it—March has indeed been a cold month. Temperatures in some areas have undershot averages by significant margins. Even so, a little chill in the air should not trigger a trip to the so-called “Fox News Extreme Weather” center, as the network’s Rick Reichmuth did at 12:53 p.m. on Friday. Tough to call that “factual reporting.”

No. 5: One-on-one interviews set a tone

Talk to any seasoned viewer of Fox News, and they’ll likely cite the merits of the network’s moderated debates between two people of opposing points of view. OK.

But many interviews on Fox News last Friday featured a much more simple format:

– As discussed above, Camerota discussed Obamacare with Stirewalt: “Nobody’s been covered.”
– In an “America Live” segment on New York’s new gun control laws, Camerota’s only guest was conservative radio personality Lars Larson, who pushed back heavily against the law.
– Camerota discussed health-care economics with Melissa Francis of the Fox Business Network: Obamacare’s numbers, Francis argued, just don’t add up.
– Camerota also talked about Benghazi with Fox News national security analyst KT McFarland, a former Reagan aide and Republican Senate candidate, who said we “don’t have answers about…why did nobody try to rescue” U.S. personnel, dismissing what reasons the White House has given as “excuses.”
– On “America’s Newsroom,” Hemmer discussed the cancellation of White House tours with Karl Rove, who called it an “incredibly stupid decision.”
– In a segment on “Happening Now,” Scott discussed gun-control politics with The Hill’s Bob Cusack.  “It sounds like the Senate is just maybe far left or somewhat to the left” of America, said Scott.
– In another segment, Scott discussed foreign affairs with the Wall Street Journal editorial page editor Paul Gigot, which included questions like: Is Obama’s Middle East trip just “window dressing”?
– Uma Pemmaraju (subbing for Jenna Lee on “Happening Now”) talked about women in the Senate with Fox News contributor and conservative commentator Monica Crowley, who expressed hope that the first female president is not Hillary Clinton.

No. 6: Favorable comments about President Obama are not banned at Fox News.

*At around 9:34 a.m., Jack Keane, a retired four-star general, said that Obama was “right on the mark” in saying that Syrian use of chemical weapons would be a game-changer.

*At around 3:41 p.m., Martin Indyk of the Brookings Institution told Fox News anchor Shepard Smith that the president had done well to convince the “Israeli public that he is in their corner.”

No. 7Cable news is short-form tyranny.

Fox News knows how to present its news. As you’ll learn in Chafets’ biography of Ailes, the Fox News topper prides himself on nailing down the fine points of television production. Daytime programs on the channel reflect the perfectionist’s touch. Interviews start and end without hitches; the writing is generally strong and unambiguous; tosses are caught; bells toll when there’s a news alert.

Even when there’s no news in the alert. Which is where the problem lies. No matter how wonderfully Fox engineers its product, it cannot engineer news, a problem that plagues its competitors to the same degree. How many times, that is, can Fox go to Prann for a live update on the Quantico situation, when few new details are available? How many times can it go to Greg Palkot in Cyprus camped out by the out-of-commission ATM? And how many times can it re-play the clips of Paul Ryan’s appearance the night before on Greta Van Susteren’s show?

Many, many times, is the answer. Cable news can give its viewers 40 minutes of coverage on a given issue, yet never attain more than two minutes of depth.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.