County Fair

What Happened to Fox News Watch?

April 22, 2010 1:21 pm ET by Joe Strupp

Fox News Watch, the network's media watchdog program launched in 1997, was long considered among Fox's best and most balanced shows.

But in recent years, and especially the past few months, the show has taken a decidedly different turn toward conservative views and anti-liberal approaches. Its once standard brand of media critique, which gave all of the media outlets fair scrutiny and praise, has seemed to focus mostly on right-wing views and taken aim at perceived progressive bias.

And just this past weekend, it drew further scrutiny when it ignored one of the biggest media stories of the week - Sean Hannity's Tea Party appearance dispute, in which Fox executives ordered the host not to do his show from a Tea Party event in Cincinnati.

"That surprised me that a media review show wouldn't handle that," said David Zurawik, a media critic for The Baltimore Sun. "That was worthy of some kind of discussion and commentary. In a journalistic sense, it should have been done."

Others contend the show has veered away from the approach it had taken as a watchdog program looking at all media issues on all networks, including its own.

"When I was on the show it was very different from most of the network content," said Jeff Cohen, one of the original panelists who appeared from 1998 to 2002. "There was sensible discussion and a good host and we really had one of the smarter and more balanced programs on cable news. Now it looks like the rest of Fox News."

Eric Burns (no relation to Media Matters president Eric Burns), who hosted the show from 1998 to 2008 before being let go, agreed. He said it began to change in his final year and has been more right-leaning ever since. "The show was getting to be more and more of a struggle to do fairly," he told me. "There was a progression of interference to try to make the show more right-wing. I fought very hard against it."

Fox officials and producers of the show either declined comment or ignored requests for comment from Media Matters.

[Full disclosure: I appeared on the show six times in late 2008, but received no compensation. I have also contacted the show in the past about possible openings.]

After Burns left, other changes followed, with Jane Hall, an American University journalism professor, departing months ago. She declined comment.

"It is not the way the show used to be," Burns added. "There is a constant use of the phrase 'liberal media.'"

Other Fox veterans who requested anonymity said the show tends to paint many issues as right- or left-leaning rather than about media issues, ethics and news judgment.

A time change occurred in 2009 from Saturdays at 6:30 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. -- and a later re-showing at 11:30 p.m.

According to data from Horizon Media, which analyzes and tracks viewership, Fox News Watch went from an average of 916,000 viewers for the first airing in December 2009 to an average of 793,000 for the first airing so far in April 2010.

Currently, the regular panelists include Rich Lowry of the conservative National Review, liberal Newsday columnist Ellis Henican, conservative columnist Cal Thomas, Fox News analyst Kirsten Powers, and Judith Miller, the former New York Times reporter who was criticized for her flawed reporting about supposed WMDs prior to the invasion of Iraq.

"I have looked at it lately and they often have Judith Miller," notes Cohen. "Not exactly a leading light of ethical journalism."

Miller contends the show remains fair: "I think the cast of characters is the same, I find it balanced. I don't have a problem at all with the selection of stories." 

One of the biggest hits against Fox News Watch came just last weekend when the Saturday show failed to examine a major media issue of the preceding week, Sean Hannity's Tea Party appearance snafu.

Media Matters raised questions about Hannity's planned appearance at a Tea Party event last Thursday in Cincinnati, for which attendees would pay admission.

During the ensuing controversy, Fox executives ordered him to return to do his show from New York as usual.

Although Reliable Sources, the CNN media watchdog show, discussed the issue, Fox News Watch ignored it.

Bill Carter, who covers media for The New York Times, said Fox's incomplete handling of the incident was surprising: "It is interesting that they hadn't followed that up with a more coherent policy statement. When you get to be in first place and want more ratings, you get more scrutiny."

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    • Author by cst (April 22, 2010 2:05 pm ET)
      FOX has now moved into full-fledged "you're with us or against us mode"- just like it's subsidiry, the Republican Party.
      Shep Smith better watch his back- FOX may decide he's no longer a "useful fool"...
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      • Author by News Corpse (April 22, 2010 7:00 pm ET)
        Fox may be afraid of what Shep would say if they fired him.

        Here is what Jane Hall said to Howard Kurtz:

        HALL: I'm also, frankly, uncomfortable with Beck, who I think should be called out as somebody whose language is way over the top. And it's scary.
        KURTZ: Was that a factor in your decision to leave Fox?
        HALL: Yes, it was.
        And here is what Burns said after his dismissal:

        BURNS: I do not have to face the ethical problem of sharing an employer with Glenn Beck.
        I don't think Shep is any more likely to hold his tongue than Hall and Burns were.
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    • Author by draftedin68 (April 22, 2010 2:11 pm ET)
      Dark is good...

      Light of any kind - sun, flash, strobe - you name it, makes FOX NEWS honchos more nervous than a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.

      Roger Ailes is pasty white for a reason.

      Report Abuse
    • Author by Bill Wilson (April 22, 2010 3:21 pm ET)
      Is the Eric Burns they mention the Media Matters guy?
      Report Abuse
      • Author by js--mm (April 22, 2010 3:59 pm ET)
        Nope. The Eric Burns quoted above is the former host of Fox News Watch. He is not the Eric Burns who is president of Media Matters.

        Thanks for the question.
        Report Abuse
        • Author by kfraz43 (April 22, 2010 4:20 pm ET)
          Thanks for the clarification - I was wondering as well...
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          • Author by didi (April 23, 2010 2:37 pm ET)
            Eric Burns needs to change his name..... I'll leave them to fight it out ;-)
            Report Abuse
    • Author by doggeddem (April 22, 2010 3:23 pm ET)
      What a surprise. FAUX News, we distort, we crap all over democracy, is being driven to the right. Maybe if they drive far enough to the right, they will eventually fall of their flat earth.
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    • Author by FNC Liberal (April 22, 2010 7:32 pm ET)
      Controversy regarding a Fox News employees or contributors will not be covered by Fox News. I'm not surprised that Fox News Watch didn't cover Sean's goof.

      Sweep it under the rug. That's how they operate.
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    • Author by marklweb2553 (April 22, 2010 8:34 pm ET)
      No mention of James Pinkerton? He's been a regular on Fox News Watch for many years and served in the White House staff's of Reagan and George H.W. Bush. He also worked on Mike Huckabee's 2008 presidential campaign. He's a total hack. With the addition of Jon Scott and Judith Miller, the show is now very biased, and no longer worth watching.
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    • Author by tharri874 (April 22, 2010 10:37 pm ET)
      What a fine column about a once-fine show.

      I used to watch Fox News just to see how long it would take me to switch it off in disgust.

      Then I watched Fox Newswatch, and found myself intrigued, especially by the host, whose questions seemed to be phrased as if he wanted to hear what his panelists think. The debate was lively and respectful. It was the best news talk show I'd ever seen.

      I once said to someone, if Fox News ever wants to clean up its act, it should put Eric Burns in charge. He's a Republican, but he cares more about news than ideology.

      Of course, Fox News didn't put Burns in charge, they put him out to pasture.

      The decline of Fox Newswatch into a Sunday Afternoon edition of Red Eye is best seen as a testament to the steady hand of Burns.

      Watch your back, Shepard Smith.
      Report Abuse
      • Author by albertsenj (April 23, 2010 12:32 am ET)

        I used to watch Fox News just to see how long it would take me to switch it off in disgust.

        I've done that too. I usually don't even make it to the 1st commercial break on Hannity & Beck but, I can usually hang in there with O'Reilly a little longer.
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        • Author by draftedin68 (April 23, 2010 10:59 am ET)
          Me too.

          I seldom make it through Hannity's first few sentences.

          With Beck, I swallow the surging bile and use his idiocies for cussing practice.

          I can now string together combinations of Carlin's "the seven words you can't say on TV" in ways even George never dreamed of.

          Our cats aren't too crazy about it though.

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    • Author by shelby73 (April 23, 2010 7:14 am ET)
      I use to watch it all the time. It was the only show on Fox that I did watch. Neil Gabler use to be on, and I think he was the main reason they changed the format. He was critical of Fox, and Bill O'reilly hated him. It was fair and balanced, and they just couldn't have that!
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    • Author by goonhee9633 (April 23, 2010 3:37 pm ET)
      Great article. That did used to be a great show. I haven't watched it recently because FOX in general has become something you only tune in when you want to challenge your blood pressure medication.
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