by Eric Alterman | April 7, 2011
In July 1999 Vice President Al Gore paddled down the Connecticut River in New Hampshire to spread what then–Rolling Stone reporter Eric Boehlert termed “his green theme of protecting the environment” while posing for the obvious photo-op. His hopes for making this message heard, however, went over the side when Bill Sammon, a reporter for the then-Moonie-owned Washington Times, wrote that local authorities had granted Gore a special favor when they released nearly 4 billion gallons of water from a nearby dam, at a cost of $7 million, in order to (literally) float Gore’s boat. As Boehlert noted in his masterful forensic audit of the story, Sammon’s point was clear: “In a clumsy abuse of power, Al Gore, a supposed friend of the environment, gladly wasted precious natural resources to stage-manage a political event.”
The rest of the press corps swallowed and regurgitated Sammon’s item, all but unmasticated. Newsweek dubbed it the “photo op from hell,” and CNN covered the “wave of criticism after floodgates are opened on a New Hampshire river to keep Al Gore afloat.” The New York Times report mocked the “mishap,” and the Washington Post chuckled with its readers about “Gore’s Four Billion Gallons for a Photo Op.”
Alas, it was almost all fiction. Nobody connected to the Gore campaign ever requested the release of the water. (The Secret Service did.) The correct figure for the amount of water released was 500 million gallons, or one-eighth of the amount roundly reported. The local utility company that operates the dam was already dumping millions of gallons into the parched Connecticut River every day, but for Gore’s trip this routine exercise was moved up a few hours. The alleged $7 million cost was also made up. The water in question made its way through hydroelectric turbines that generated power to be sold by the utility companies.
When Boehlert contacted Sammon, he waved off the question of accuracy entirely, because, he said, the story successfully made “a point about Gore’s political reflexes, [which are] to spin furiously and resort to deception.”
I suppose I could pretend to hope that such shoddy professional practice would cause problems for a reporter in the furtherance of his career, particularly in these difficult times. But that would assume that conservative journalists are actually journalists, rather than just conservative operatives masquerading as journalists.
Having proved his merit as a right-wing fabricator at the Washington Times, Sammon—who earned the ironic moniker Big Stretch from America’s worst president, owing to his 6-foot-7 frame rather than the endless string of pro-Bush books and stories he wrote—landed at Fox News, where he is now its vice president and Washington managing editor. On a 2009 Mediterranean cruise for rich right-wingers, he was taped admitting that he merely pretended to believe the nasty things he frequently said about Barack Obama on his network. Rather than tell his viewers what he understood to be the truth, he preferred to mislead them with what he called “rather farfetched…mischievous speculation.”
Among the lies: that Obama’s campaign platform was “tantamount to socialism” and that Obama, “in his own words,” “talks about being drawn to Marxists.” To spread the stupidity, Sammon e-mailed his staff highlighting “Obama’s references to socialism, liberalism, Marxism and Marxists” in Dreams From My Father. As with his lies about Gore, he told a reporter he had no regrets, since these lies were “a main point of discussion on all the channels, in all the media.” Later, he found himself “astonished by how the needle had moved.”
He went on to pervert Fox’s coverage even further, sending a memo to reporters to make certain to “use the term ‘government-run health insurance,’ or, when brevity is a concern, ‘government option,’ whenever possible” because “public option” was too popular. He also instructed Fox anchors to “refrain from asserting that the planet has warmed (or cooled) in any given period without IMMEDIATELY pointing out that such theories are based upon data that critics have called into question.”
Remember, Fox continually insists that while Beck, Hannity and O’Reilly are “opinion” shows, its news programs can be trusted to play it straight. So again, the naïve among us might imagine that its executives would evince some discomfort with the network’s managing editor admitting to being a proud and purposeful liar. Alas, nobody at Fox appeared to notice—not even anchor Bret Baier, who, just a week before Media Matters broke the story of the taped Sammon cruise confession, had gone on The Daily Show to humiliate himself with the argument that at Fox, “we respect the viewers’ ability to discern” between opinion and hard news.
These events demonstrate yet again that the problem with Fox is not that it’s conservative. It’s that it lies. Any discussion of its role in American political life is itself a lie if it rests on that foundation. When a “real” journalist—as Baier appears to imagine himself—lends his name to Fox, he is simply empowering these lies. When journalists from media enterprises that profess to value truth defend Fox—as Jake Tapper of ABC News did in response to the Obama administration’s unsuccessful 2009 attempt to isolate it from the other networks—they are enabling its lies. And when politicians, pundits and anyone else not formally employed by Rupert Murdoch or Roger Ailes appear on Fox without pointing out that they are there to tell the truth for once, then they, too, are participating in a scam at the bottom of which is not only the comforting of the wealthy at the expense of the rest of us but also the undermining of our democracy under the weight of a teetering tower of lies.
Just ask Bill Sammon. He’ll tell you the truth, for sure…
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