Behind the Scenes at Fox Is Like in Front of the Scenes

Gabriel Sherman’s new piece in New York magazine (5/22/11) about Roger Ailes and Fox News Channel offers more indications that whatgoes on behind the scenesat Fox is more or less what you’d expect, given the channel’s obvious on-air slant.

The person hired to run the news division has some peculiar ideas about news:

Bill Sammon, a former Washington Times correspondent, angered Fox‘s political reporters, who saw him pushing coverage further to the right than they were comfortable with. Days after Obama’s inauguration, an ice storm caused major damage throughout the Midwest. At an editorial meeting in the D.C. bureau, Sammon told producers that Fox should compare Obama’s response to Bush’s handling of Katrina. “Bush got grief for Katrina,” Sammon said.

“It’s too early; give him some time to respond,” a producer shot back. “This ice storm isn’t Katrina.”

The piece is mostly about presidential politics. We learn that Ailes is disappointed by the current Republican field, and wants to do something about it. He’s given airtime to several contenders–Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, Rick Santorum–but also works behind the scenes:

A few months ago, Ailes called Chris Christie and encouraged him to jump into the race. Last summer, he’d invited Christie to dinner at his upstate compound along with Rush Limbaugh, and like much of the GOP Establishment, he fell hard for Christie, who nevertheless politely turned down Ailes’ calls to run.

He doesn’t just try to encourage Republicans to run. He also protects Republican candidates from various threats–like, say, Fox reporters:

In September 2008, he secretly met Palin during her swing through New York, when she toured the UN and had her photo op with Henry Kissinger. That afternoon, Shushannah Walshe, a young Fox producer who was covering Palin’s campaign for the network, had gone on-air and criticized McCain’s staff, who had prevented reporters from asking Palin questions during her UN visit. “There’s not one chance that Governor Palin would have to answer a question,” Walshe said on-camera. “They’re eliminating even the chance of any kind of interaction with the candidate–it’s just unprecedented.”

Ailes didn’t know Walshe, but he was furious when he heard her comments. Liberal media outlets like the Huffington Post were seizing on her statement and made it appear that Fox was turning on Palin. Ailes called Refet Kaplan, a senior Fox executive, and demanded Walshe be taken off the air. “It’s not fair-and-­balanced coverage,” Kaplan later told Walshe. Walshe was allowed to continue covering Palin but was barred from future on-air appearances. She later quit Fox to co-write a book about Palin.

Protecting Palin wasn’t enough–Ailes needed to gear up for the Obama era:

By October 2008, Ailes recognized that Obama was likely to beat McCain. He needed to give his audience a reason to stay in the stands and watch his team. And so he went on a hiring spree. By the time Obama defeated McCain, Ailes had hired former Bush aide Karl Rove and Mike Huckabee and went on to assemble a whole lineup of prospective 2012 contenders: Palin, Gingrich, Santorum, and John Bolton.

For the record, CNN seemed to be trying to do the same:

Fox also had to compete with CNN for pundits. In early 2008, then-CNN-U.S. president Jon Klein invited Mike Huckabee to breakfast at the Time Warner Center. Klein sold Huckabee on the benefits of CNN. “If you believe what you’re saying, you should try and convince the middle,” Klein told him. It was the same pitch he made later to Karl Rove and to Weekly Standard writer Stephen Hayes. All three turned down Klein and signed with Fox.

You can’t say Ailes doesn’t have a somewhat ironic sense of humor. At one point, he reportedly worried that one Fox executive might have a conflict of interest:

Then, three weeks after the election, David Rhodes, Fox‘s vice ­president for news, quit to work for Bloomberg. Rhodes had started at Fox as a 22-year-old production assistant and risen through the ranks to become No. 2 in charge of news. His brother was a senior foreign-policy aide to Obama, and Rhodes told staffers that Ailes had expressed concern about this closeness to the White House.

You see, that kind of thing is not tolerated at Fox News Channel. It might leave people with the impression that things aren’t on the up and up.

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.