David Carr of the New York Times seems to finally have noticed what has been obvious for years to any objective news analyst. Fox News has a long-standing scorched Earth policy when reacting to other media who dare to report on Fox News.
In his column titled, “When Fox News Is the Story,” Carr confesses that just the thought of having to deal with Fox News as a subject in a story makes him and his peers nervous:
“Once the public relations apparatus at Fox News is engaged, there will be the calls to my editors, keening (and sometimes threatening) e-mail messages, and my requests for interviews will quickly turn into depositions about my intent or who else I am talking to.”
The key tactic in Fox’s PR strategy is to intimidate reporters and editors, and by Carr’s own admission, it’s working. Carr goes on to profile the Fox news PR machine as an operation modeled on political warfare, as directed by CEO Roger Ailes, a veteran of campaigns going back to Richard Nixon. He describes it as “a kind of rolling opposition research” effort intended to cause material harm to their perceived enemies. Carr cites the recent example of the hosts of Fox & Friends taking out their revenge on two Times reporters who wrote about how the competition is gaining on Fox. Brian Kilmeade and Steve Doocy displayed altered photographs of the reporters that were at best unflattering, at worst anti-Semitic.
While Carr’s revelations are interesting, they don’t go nearly far enough to provide an historical context for Fox’s behavior. This is not a recent phenomena. Three years ago David Folkenflik wrote about how Fox bears its fangs when it doesn’t like what’s being said. And the AP’s David Bauder documented what has become known as Fox’s “Wishing Well,” a back-handed slap at anyone who says anything about Fox News that isn’t complimentary:
- Because of his personal demons, Keith [Olbermann] has imploded everywhere he’s worked. From lashing out at co-workers to personally attacking Bill O’Reilly and all things Fox, it’s obvious Keith is a train wreck waiting to happen. And like all train wrecks, people might tune in out of morbid curiosity, but they eventually tune out, as evidenced by Keith’s recent ratings decline. In the meantime, we hope he enjoys his paranoid view from the bottom of the ratings ladder and wish him well on his inevitable trip to oblivion.
- Ted [Turner] is understandably bitter having lost his ratings, his network and now his mind. We wish him well.
- Tim [Russert]’s sour grapes are obvious here, but at least he’s not using his father as a prop to sell books this time around. That said, we wish him well on his latest self-promotion tour.
- We are disappointed that George [Clooney] has chosen to hurt Mr. O’Reilly’s family in order to promote his movie. But it’s obvious he needs publicity considering his recent string of failures. We wish him well in his struggle to regain relevancy.
- We wish CNN well in their annual executive shuffle. We wish Jon [Klein] well in his battle for second place with MSNBC.
- We can understand David [Shuster]’s disappointment in being let go by Fox News Channel, but he’s too young to be so bitter. We wish him well in getting his career back on track.
It’s not just PR flacks volleying in this debate. The big dogs at News Corp. are fully engaged. Rupert Murdoch’s spokesperson delivered an ultimatum to GE, saying that if they reined in Keith Olbermann, Fox would call off Bill O’Reilly. Roger Ailes stepped into the fray personally, threatening…
“…that if Olbermann didn’t stop such attacks against Fox, he would unleash O’Reilly against NBC and would use the New York Post as well.”
In the weeks that followed, Ailes made good on his threat. Bill O’Reilly, Steve Doocy, Neil Cavuto, Sean Hannity, Gretchen Carlson, and others at Fox News all laid into NBC/GE with renewed vigor. O’reilly even has his own Media Hall of Shame. The New York Post’s gossips on Page Six initiated a week-long assault on Olbermann’s personal life, alleging tax evasion, calling him unstable, and even publishing his home address – a vile act whose only purpose could be to cause him harm.
The risks faced by reporters who merely want to do their jobs is very real. Fox News will throw whatever they can at you to derail your reporting and/or tarnish your reputation. Carr relates horror stories from his colleagues who have dared to cross Fox News:
“…they have received e-mail messages from Fox News public relations staff that contained doctored photos, anonymous quotes and nasty items about competitors. And two former Fox employees said that they had participated in precisely those kinds of activities but had signed confidentiality agreements and could not say so on the record.”
“…few were willing to be quoted. In the last several years, reporters from The Associated Press, several large newspapers and various trade publications have said they were shut out from getting their calls returned because of stories they had written. Editors do not want to hear why your calls are not being returned, they just want you to fix the problem, or perhaps they will fix it by finding someone else to do your job.”
That’s an old tactic practiced by political operatives and office holders. They know that if they deny you access, your editor is going to have to get someone else who doesn’t have that problem. In effect, they get you fired. It is unprecedented, however, for a media company to employ such hardball tactics against other media companies. But that is the way Fox does business, and their peers had better develop strong stomachs if they hope to endure.
The impression left by Carr is that many in the media have already given up fighting. They will either decline to report on anything having to do with Fox News (if it’s critical), or they will simply adjust their reporting to be more positive. That is the danger of letting bullies get away with their bad behavior. Once again, it will be up to the people to insist that they get honest, responsible journalism from the Conventional Media. It is up to us to force them to do their jobs. If we succeed then it won’t matter what Fox’s attack dogs do. Their vacant yelping will disperse like a fading echo. We wish them well as they collapse from the fatigue of chasing their own tails.
Gawker has more on Fox News PR Priestess, Irena Briganti.