Reina says the memo highlighted that because President Bush wanted Lott out. But there’s a simpler explanation. In a court of law, Lott’s prior behavior would be inadmissible. But this is journalism, not jurisprudence. What Lott said in the past had a big bearing on this story, and the author of the Fox memo was correct to insist it be mentioned.
Reina says his bosses even went so far as to tell him how to write his stories. In a letter to the media Web site Poynter.org, Reina wrote that a supervisor “[told] me how the environmental special I was to produce should lean (‘You can give both sides, but make sure the pro-environmentalists don’t get the last word.’)”
Sounds bad. But the media have a record of being less than fair and balanced when it comes to covering environmental stories. Recall that TIME magazine named “Endangered Earth” as “Planet of the Year” in 1988. The Jan. 2, 1989 issue intoned: “Taking effective action to halt the massive injury to the earth’s environment will require a mobilization of political will, international cooperation and sacrifice unknown except in wartime.” The magazine’s editors made clear they were willing to set aside their journalistic fairness to aid that mobilization.
The usual template for an environmental story is: “Environmentalists say…Some disagree…But as environmentalists say…And isn’t this issue just too important to take a chance?” Possibly Reina’s boss was simply reminding him that he shouldn’t follow that trite story construction.
Fox News may well lean somewhat to the right. Or it may simply seem to, when compared with all the other news outlets that lean toward the left.
Either way, Fox has found a smart business tactic. After all, about 40 percent of Americans call themselves conservative, and until Fox came along, those people had no news outlet they were eager to turn to.
Charlie Reina claims that doesn’t make for good journalism. Maybe he’s correct. But he’ll have to do better than this if he wants to prove that case. For now, the jury’s still out. Sorry, Charlie.