Washington (CNN) – The claim is ubiquitous on Fox News Channel: we're "fair and balanced". To many observers, that's a way of saying Fox is a conservative foil to what some believe is the liberal-leaning mainstream news media. Was there a blueprint for Fox News Channel in the early days of the Nixon administration?
A fascinating document from the early-1970s, obtained by CNN from the Nixon Presidential Library, is entitled "A Plan for Putting the GOP on TV News." The memo openly says it's an idea to avoid "the censorship, the priorities and the prejudices of network news selectors and disseminators." The stated goal: "To provide pro-Administration, videotape, hard news actualities to the major cities of the United States."
In extraordinary detail, the memo lays out how to accomplish this. Production hands would interview Republican lawmakers and other officials every morning in Washington, they'd put together a produced TV piece in a specially-outfitted truck as it moved toward Washington National Airport by mid-day, and fly the package to selected TV news markets for air on local stations, hopefully in time for their 6 p.m., 10 p.m. or 11 p.m. newscasts.
It's not clear who wrote the memo. The Nixon Library tells CNN it's in the files of Richard Nixon's later-convicted Chief of Staff, H.R. 'Bob' Haldeman. But there is handwriting all over the memo with detailed suggestions on how to make the plan work better. The handwriting says "Bob, if you decide to go ahead we would, as a production company, like to bid on packaging the entire project." He later signs off, "Best regards, Roger.”
The website Gawker.com, which first discovered this memo, says the handwriting is that of Roger Ailes. Ailes was then an outside media consultant for President Nixon, and went on to establish Fox News Channel in 1996.
Howard Kurtz, host of CNN's “Reliable Sources”, says it's not fair to compare Ailes in the early-1970s with his role as a news executive now.
But Kurtz says "Ailes recognized then, and recognized when he helped create Fox News Channel, that there was a mighty media machine that he believes leans to the left, and Fox was created in part as an antidote to that- not to put out Republican talking-points, but to give what Fox would say is the other side of the story."
Kerwin Swint, author of a 2008 book on Ailes entitled "Dark Genius", says the memo is a telling reflection of the toxic relationship between the Nixon White House and the broadcast networks' news divisions. "It says very clearly that they did not trust the mainstream media", Swint says, "that they viewed the media as an instrument of the political left. They believed that they were never going to get a fair shake through the mainstream media."
The plan detailed in that White House memo never appears to have gotten off the ground. Ailes went on to work at a right-wing news service called “Television News Incorporated” (TVN) in the mid-1970s, which also failed, before becoming a well-known consultant to the presidential campaigns of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
CNN contacted Fox News Channel for a response. A Fox spokeswoman said they would provide a statement only if CNN promised to run the statement, sight unseen and in its entirety. It is against CNN policy to make such promises.