Press Box

In Defense of Fox News

If using the phrase government option is spinning the news, so is using public option.

The only times I tune into Fox News Channel are when I accidentally sit on my remote control, when I’m feeling blue and need the amphetamine rush that is Shepard Smith flapping his gums, and when I want to inspect Bill O’Reilly’s show for crimes against civility.

Although I watch Fox News sparingly, I’m glad it arrived to break up the centrist monopoly on news, information, and opinion led by CBS, NBC, ABC, and CNN. Thanks to Fox News, most of our premises are subject to review—even the language that we use to express our premises. But such deviations from the groupthink line upset the delicate flowers at Media Matters for America, who gave some internal Fox News memos to Howard Kurtz of the Daily Beast. In the memos, Bill Sammon, a Fox News vice president and Washington managing editor, instructed his staff on Oct. 27 to use the term government-run health insurance or government option instead of public option when reporting on the political battle over government health care. Sammon also instructed his employees to call the public option theso-called public option.

The call to refer to the program as the government option instead of the public option came from Republican pollster Frank Luntz, Media Matters and Kurtz report. But this shouldn’t disqualify the new term from the Fox News stylebook. Government option is superior to public option in that it emphasizes that the government—and thus the taxpayers—will be footing the bill. As a modifier, public has many nongovernmental uses, as in public appearance, public figure, public display, public-key cryptography, public editor, public enemy, public storage, and public opinion.

But when government is used as an adjective, there is no such confusion. Does that make Fox News’ semantic solution superior? I’ve always thought that Social Security should be renamed Government Ponzi Scheme. I’d also like the Export-Import Bank to be renamed the Government Subsidy Depot—but that’s another column.

That Sammon issued a memo directing Fox News reporters to use a phrase he considers more accurate hardly constitutes “spin,” as the headline to Kurtz’s piece has it. If government option is spin, isn’t public option spin, too?

Usage cops walk the beat at every large news organization, commanding reporters to obey the ruling stylebook. For instance, some newspapers used pro-life and pro-choice in their abortion coverage until somebody pointed out that being anti-pro-life wasn’t the same thing as being pro-death—and that pro-choice was closer to meaning pro-abortion, although that gets slippery, too, since you can be against the pro-lifers and not want to have an abortion yourself.

That the Washington managing editor of Fox News disagrees with the journalistic pack on how to cover a story is no crime against journalism. Hell, he should be celebrated as a minor hero and given a balsa-wood and tin plaque to commemorate his independence.

There are reasons to hate Fox News. This isn’t one of them.


However, I would prefer that second references to Rupert Murdoch on Fox News describe him as a genocidal tyrant. Send your stylebook ideas to and luxuriate in the glitter of my Twitter. (E-mail may be quoted by name in “The Fray,” Slate’s readers’ forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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