Journalism 101

Posted: Nov 08, 2003 12:00 AM

Charlie Reina is mad as hell. And, yes, he’s not going to take it anymore.
The former producer, copy editor and writer for Fox News was angered when Chris Wallace, just hired to anchor Fox News Sunday, told The Washington Post that Fox’s “reporting is serious, thoughtful and evenhanded. . . . If they wanted someone to push a political agenda, they wouldn’t have hired me.”

 Reina disagrees. He says bias is a big problem at Fox. Well, sort of a big problem, anyway. “There are probably more people there who tend to be conservative or Republican than I have encountered at other places,” he told
That’s hardly the condemnation Reina seems to think it is, especially since he later admits, “there are many people who work at Fox, as there are elsewhere, that are much more liberal and Democrat-leaning than management is.”

 Still, let’s assume Reina is correct. Imagine: Conservatives in a newsroom. And of course, once you let them in, they’re going to slant news coverage to the right. Luckily, that doesn’t happen when liberals are in charge. “People in journalism tend to be liberal or Democrat,” Reina told Salon. But “I haven’t found that that had much of an effect on the news.” No, of course not.

 So how is this coterie of conservative journalists getting its marching orders? Reina blames “The Memo,” a daily editorial note at Fox that explains where reporters are and what stories they’ll be covering. Reina says it also imparts advice. “The memo sort of gives you hints. If they [Fox executives] are worried that what we write or what the anchors say might make the wrong point, it will show up in the memo.”

 Reina, who’s also worked for CBS, ABC and the Associated Press, says he’s never encountered anything like the Fox memo. Sadly, that’s not true. The memo most journalistic outlets take their cue from is called The New York Times.

The surest way to predict the top stories on any evening network newscast is to read the front page of the Times. Most journalists consider the paper fair and balanced, and they follow it almost religiously. A story just isn’t a story until it’s in the Times.

Reina goes a step farther than simply alleging bias, though. He says Fox has engaged in overtly partisan acts.

For example, when then-Senate minority leader Trent Lott was in hot water over some allegedly racist comments, Reina says he was surprised at the network’s coverage of the story. “It was clear that Fox, through the anchor, was anti-Trent Lott,” Reina told Salon. “So I went right to the memo, and sure enough the memo said we should make sure our viewers know that this wasn’t even the first time Lott has made such remarks.”

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, 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.