Today I interviewed a former employee of Fox News about the guilt they feel about their time working there and about how the sausage is made. But first some context on why I wanted to talk.
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Fox News has a credibility problem. Most critics of the cable news network will be well aware of that, but in this case the admission is coming from Fox News itself.
That’s the opening of a piece I wrote for the Guardian yesterday which I am going to share here below. Sorry it’s written like a normal person with normal punctuation. I thought about translating it into my trademark depressed guy gets a concussion voice but I guess it doesn’t need it. The only thing I did was shove the commas and periods back inside of the quotation marks where they belong because it’s house style there to have them on the outside and that looks like dogshit to me.
Oh wait speaking of punctuation try reading this piece by Salman Rushdie in the New Yorker yikes.
Am I saying that I’m a better writer than Salman Rushdie and the editors of the New Yorker? That would be crazy but also yes. Ok back to the thing.
An internal research briefing obtained by the Daily Beast names four regular contributors to the network for peddling “disinformation,” particularly when it comes to the Ukraine scandal that led to Donald Trump’s impeachment.
Among those named in the lengthy document titled Ukraine, Disinformation, & the Trump Administration, put together by Fox News senior political affairs specialist Bryan S. Murphy, are frequent guests Rudy Giuliani, John Solomon, Victoria Toensing and Joe diGenova.
Solomon, a disgraced former writer for the Hill and a regular guest of Sean Hannity’s, comes under particular scrutiny. “John Solomon played an indispensable role in the collection and domestic publication of elements of this disinformation campaign,” the document explains.
Much of Solomon’s “reporting” on Ukraine formed the basis of Giuliani and other Trump officials’ efforts to smear and oust the former US ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, a figure seen as standing in the way of the president and former Ukraine officials’ shadowy machinations in the country.
Among the allegations against Solomon noted are “non-disclosure of conflicts, use of unreliable sources, publishing false and misleading stories, misrepresentation of sources, and opaque coordination with involved parties.”
Elsewhere in the file obtained by the Beast are details of Giuliani and his back-channel dealings to investigate former vice-president Joe Biden and his son Hunter, as well as his connections to now indicted figures Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman. Giuliani has a “high susceptibility to disinformation,” Murphy writes.
The credibility of Toensing and diGenova, a married couple of hyperpartisan Trump loyalists who were secretly working for the indicted Ukrainian oligarch Dmytro Firtash during the period of their regular appearances on Fox News, is also called into question as they did not disclose that relationship.
“Notable are the roles of Joe diGenova and Victoria Toensing in spreading disinformation and their parroting of beneficial narratives while employed by Firtash,” it explains.
Hannity, the popular primetime host and Trump confidant, is also criticized for laundering the reputations and trumpeting the trustworthiness of the guests in question.
According to Media Matters, the four individuals have made 348 appearances on Fox News weekday programs since 2018. About 203 of them were on Hannity’s program alone.
In a statement from Fox News, Mitch Kweit, senior vice-president of the Brainroom, said the research briefing was “being taken out of context and politicized to damage the network”.
Kweit added: “The Ukraine briefing book is nothing more than a comprehensive chronological account of what every person involved in the Ukraine controversy was doing at any identifiable point in time, including tracking media appearances of major players who appeared on Fox News and in many other outlets.”
Brainroom looool. Sounds like a David Roth bit.
I’m going to get to the interview in a minute but first since I don’t want to seem like I’m being too unfair to poor Fox News here’s some balance about how fucking deranged MSNBC and CNN are as well.
Check out my fellow Holy Cross Crusader Chris Mathews shortly after the debate last night speculating very normally that if Bernie wins there might be executions of people like him in Central Park.
“You know, I have my own views of the word socialist and I’ll be glad to tell them, share them with you in private,” he said. “They go back to the early 1950s. I have an attitude about them. I remember the Cold War. I have an attitude towards Castro, and I believe if Castro and the Reds had won the Cold War, there would have been executions in Central Park and I might’ve been one of the ones executed and certain other people would be there cheering. So, I have a problem with people who took the other side.”
“I don’t know who Bernie supports over these years. I don’t know what he means by socialism. One week it’s Denmark, we’re going to be like Denmark,” he said doing a Bernie voice. “Ok, that’s harmless. That’s basically a capitalist country with a lot of good social programs. Denmark is harmless.”
“He’s clearly in the Denmark category,” Chris Hayes explained.
“Is he?” Matthews said. “How do you know? Did he tell you that?”
He has used that comparison very many times to be clear!
And just before the debate this gathering of the minds took place on MSNBC on Chuck Todd’s panel.
“Going back to this idea of you don’t take money from billionaires,” María Teresa Kumar of Voto Latino said. “I think the challenge with the Democrats is that there are plenty of billionaires who are actually aligned with this whole proposal of what America should look like.”
“And Bernie is alienating them,” Todd said.
”And I don’t think it’s effective,” she went on. “There’s not an American that wakes up every single morning that doesn’t say I’m gonna get up so I can be rich or my kid can be rich.” [CITATION NEEDED]
“So this whole misalignment, that the Democrats have…”
“Against aspiration,” Todd interjected.
“It doesn’t feel productive.”
“This is what people forget about,” Todd said. “Democrats blow this sometimes, particularly with voters of color, by not coming across as aspirational. Corey Booker and Tom Steyer have been the only two on this debate stage that say, wait a minute, people want to make money.”
“And when you think of billionaires in America, I think of Bill Gates. I think of Jeff Bezos,” added Michael Steel a former advisor to Jeb Bush and John Boehner who was very helpfully on hand to tell Democrats how to win elections.
“Well don’t forget Donald Trump has given billionaires a bad name,” Todd added. Billionaires were very good before Trump imo.
“But they’ve made a fortune making our lives better,” Steele said.
Then they said some other shit and Kumar said “we have to be very careful about creating unnecessary class war when we have people that do actually contribute” and then Todd said “class war inside a primary is usually a problem” and he did this sort of Jim Halpert smirk to the camera as if what he was saying was very obvious to all of us and he’s just telling it like it is.
At the same time CNN had a piece on how the Bernie Bros are mean.
If you're in the media in 2020 and you don't know the difference yet between actual violent online threats which are real! and people telling someone they are a poo poo dumb dumb you are fucking up. Everyone knows that getting flipped off in traffic or someone saying hey fuck you pal on the street is not the same thing as someone showing you their gun as a threat or following you to your home to intimidate you. That distinction exists online too.
Oh and check out famous Democrat power-broker James Carville in an interview with Vox this week talking about how the party has swung too far left.
“Here’s another stupid thing: Democrats talking about free college tuition or debt forgiveness. I’m not here to debate the idea. What I can tell you is that people all over this country worked their way through school, sent their kids to school, paid off student loans. They don’t want to hear this shit. And you saw Warren confronted by an angry voter over this. It’s just not a winning message.”
Pretty sure college cost like $45 a semester when Carville went but ok.
Sometimes people like me for example will say there isn’t that much of a difference between Republicans and Democrats and that makes people frustrated but take a look at the ostensible leftwing cable news channel and some of the more prominent pundits saying straight up Republican shit like that while crossing the huge hurdle of doing so while being slightly less obviously racist than the likes of Fox News. That’s pretty much the distinction. Democrats are Republicans who don’t want to be perceived as racist.
Ok here’s my chat with the former Fox News employee. They didn’t want to use their name for fear of retaliation.
What was your reaction to the news about this Brainroom (lol) document?
I was surprised something like that hasn’t come out sooner. The brain room is a really interesting place in that it doesn’t toe the Fox News line. There are a lot of people down there who have more liberal sensibilities, and who are jobbers. A lot of them were relatively uncomfortable with what was going on by the time I left.
What goes on down there?
The Brainroom is composed of like 15-20 people at a time. Bryan Murphy, it’s possible he wasn’t the only person to put the book together. There are a lot of contributions that go into the books. They’re important for guiding coverage.
If internal guidance like this is important, why would they keep having these untrustworthy assholes on air?
I couldn’t tell you. Remember, it is an entertainment product. One thing that I recall is a lot of people in the Brainroom thought their job was mostly supporting the daytime shows. Those require a lot of research, and you could say those hew closer to actual news. But entertainment is entertainment. Look at MSNBC. People, aside from brain-rotted neo-libs, just aren’t addicted to it because it’s boring. On Fox you have these people on because they’re fascinating and crazy and it’s entertaining.
If you had to watch one hour of television, would you rather watch an interview between Tom Perez and Joy Reid, or Sean Hannity and Rudy Giuliani? I’ll tell you which one is more interesting. It’s not a matter of whether or not they are morally reprehensible, or create problems for the network, they are interesting. I find Fox News to be reprehensible, but at the same time I can wholly admit it’s so much more watchable than anything on the centrist news networks.
So the Brainroom is like researchers and fact-checking and production notes?
The Brainroom is by and large the research wing of Fox News. The idea is producers can’t get everything right, so the job of most of the people in the Brainroom is to provide information that can be used on air. Information that regular programs can use. They work for every live program, everything from regular new shows in the middle of the day to stuff that goes on at night. There are researchers and lawyers whose job it is to make sure the information is usable, and to advise shows on what can be said without causing legal issues. There are people who do some of the research, but also do production on some of the shows kind of like gofers. Some people might provide information that can be used in lower thirds, chyrons.
Tell me about the run up to the 2016 election and the general uneasy feeling inside the building about Trump?
There was definitely a feeling of dread and unbelief around the building. I would say it almost sort of mimicked the larger feeling among conservatives. It feels so long ago now but conservatives were petrified of Trump. Around the building there was this feeling that it couldn’t possibly happen. Sometimes someone in the office would troll and say ah Trump’s my guy he’s gonna do it! But everyone thought there would be a firewall or some delegate math that would prevent him from coming to power. It was a strange and dark feeling in a building that already had a very dark feel.
Would you say a lot of the people you worked with aren’t ideologues?
I think one thing people need to understand about how Fox News works is it’s not fully operated by ideologues. There are some simply pragmatic people there. Like I said they are jobbers, people who have their training, or started their career there and don't want to leave. The reality of working in media, you know this, is once you have a job, regardless of the situation, you don't want to lose it. It might be your last one. There are a lot of folks there that are just garden variety libs in a job that can’t really be reconciled with their beliefs.
You have a lot of personal guilt and regret about working there, but it seems like you’re also being maybe generously fair to people there?
I think personally if someone works at Fox News you can’t really forgive them for their time there, but if they make meaningful contributions to society after you can judge them after. I’m sympathetic to anyone who has to hold a job. I worked with a ton of people that would bolt if they could find something else. But at the same time you are working for an organization that is morally reprehensible. You are working for an organization that you know spreads misinformation.
It’s sort of like the old joke about the contractors working on the Death Star?
That's exactly it. Most people at Fox News... think about pro sports. A baseball team is made up of so many people, and so many disappear after five years. No one is going to remember them but dorks and freaks [Editor’s Note: here’s the second Dave Roth reference of the newsletter] but the people in charge are going to be memorable. They’ll be what people recall. At Fox you’ll be able to hide behind that in a sense. I’ll always be able to say that my organization was evil. I was only a teensy little part of it, but I will have worked there. There’s no changing that.
I’m kind of sympathetic but not really. I was wondering about this the other day when I called my insurance company about some fucked up bill they sent me. The woman who answered the phone, she’s not evil. But, she still works for a predatory company.
I agree it can be hard to separate the person from the job.
You made an analogy before that it’s like having to join the military to pay off student loans.
Right. There are only so many jobs that you can take. But I think joining the military to pay off your student loans is one of the most evil widely accepted crimes of America in the 21st century. You have to…no you don’t have to. Everybody at some point has the option to take a job that they find morally questionable. Is there anything particularly evil about going to work for an insurance company? Maybe a little. But at the same time you are a human trying to feed yourself and your family. A lot of businesses in the country can be seen as being reprehensible. But there is something a little over the line about working at Fox News.
I didn’t have my political worldview aligned when I got out of college. Very few people actually do. It is now, but working at Fox kind of helped.
You get into arguments with true-believers a lot who are all in for Fox and you tell them, look, I actually worked there and I am telling you they are manipulating you and lying to you and things like that. And they still don’t buy it!
It’s very interesting. You can literally say to people I worked at Fox News and even people in the building don’t believe [this or that story], or that we know that’s not entirely a perfect truth and they’ll pushback on you. They trust the source more than they trust the employee. That is some powerful brain washing. It is fascinating and kind of upsetting.
What do you think about the idea of Fox News stealing people’s families like I wrote about last year?
I think that is a wildly underrated phenomenon. I feel as though it’s the first time, outside of religious fervor, that something like this has happened, which I think is terrifying. People are stolen away from their families. They truly are. They lose the things about them that are kind and merciful, and people grow up and they realize they don’t recognize their parents anymore. One thing that is particularly jarring that other people told me, is how people raise you to have a certain set of values, a moral code, whether religious or not, and you grow up and watch them try to hew to that set of values. Then they start to lose it. They become sour and angry. The only reason it’s happening is because of a TV show that they’re addicted to. I would guess the number is in the hundreds of thousands of people who have parents that aren’t really their parents anymore. They’re completely different people all because of a TV show.
Would you ever overhear higher-ups express disbelief or consternation with the bullshit they were putting on air?
It’s been a while now but there’s one that really sticks out to me. It was before the 2016 election and it was just me and my boss and he looked up at me from behind his computer and said something like I can’t do this anymore. The clear meaning was this is so much deeper than what I thought I would ever do here. So much more morally weighty. Maybe I'm interpreting him wrong, I never followed up. It was like when your dad tells you a sad story from his childhood and you don't know how to respond.
It took a while for the entire Fox News operation to fall in line behind Trump right?
It definitely did. There were definitely people inside pushing against him, but it was mostly all down to business decisions, like, are we committing resources to a wacky clown who’s definitely not going to win? It’s weird if you look back on the tone and tenor of Fox News before Trump started climbing. The daily guests were a lot more buttoned up. A lot more thoughtful. Once they figured out what the score was they just went for it.
Did you ever come across any of the major personalities?
You pass them in the elevator. They come over to say hi. There’s not much overlap. Every department is pretty well sequestered. They operate in their own world.
So there were no rules or anything about, for example, not talking to Hannity?
No, I don't think so. People in the real world, regardless of who they are or how odious their beliefs are, can just be pretty regular when you say hi to them in the elevator.
Do people there in the rank and file like Hannity?
There are people at Fox News who are occasionally embarrassed. You can go up to the line with your personal moral beliefs, then someone crosses it, and you're like jeez there he goes again. You can attribute that to so many anchors. There are a lot of anchors in that building who say stuff that people find galling and upsetting.
Everyone thinks Jeanine Pirro is dumb right?
Yeah. Jeanine Pirro was definitely a source of strife for some people. Like I said there's a line and the second you go over… She crosses that line a lot. Even for folks in the building.
You mentioned something about the whole Muslim prayer rug found at the border story being particularly embarrassing at the time.
All I remember from the time is it seemed fishy and it seemed fishy to people watching and people within Fox News. But they ran with it anyway. I’m pretty sure there was some pushback against running that story anymore.
Do you think we’re too far gone collectively? Is it too late to right the ship?
I think Fox News goes with the times. It depends on what right the ship means. Fox is never going to be MSNBC because there already is an MSNBC and it does a crappy job of being MSNBC. Will Fox News forever trumpet the Trump doctrine of essentially hedonism and xenophobia combined? No. I don’t think so. I think that whatever the conservative fashion is of the time they will go there. Fox is an amplifier and a mimic. They will do the thing that makes the most money. They'll toe the line, go right up to it, see what’s acceptable, what’s not, what we can say and can’t say, and do a profit analysis, and determine and calibrate where the perfect rightwing spot is for them. During the Bush years it was Rove-era conservative neoliberalism. Now it’s hedonism and xenophobia. I’m sure in a couple years when it’s president Tom Cotton or whoever it’s gonna be hyper-Americana military fetishism. It’s gonna be whatever works. Fox is never going to be a liberal news network.
You said it took you a while to find your political bearing. How would you describe your politics now?
I would describe myself as pretty far left of center. More than anything I am kind of a victim of the Obama era like a lot of us are. We thought that with good intentions centrism can actually get you somewhere. But after it failed, they shrugged their shoulders and were like sorry guys! That’s kind of what’s brought me here. I don’t care if Bernie does it or doesn’t do it, I just want him to try and to be angry about it.
At least fucking try. Don’t hamstring yourself before even going in.
Right. Obamacare was Romney care. It was a hedge before it even arrived. A policy dictated by conservatives only to be dismantled by conservatives as soon as they had the opportunity. That’s kind of what pushed me over the edge more than anything.
Anything else you want us to know?
Again, more than anything, for most people at Fox News it’s just work. You go to your job, you do it, and you go home and try not to think about it. Every job that everyone has in the world is a compartment of life they try to shut out of everything else. For a lot of people there it’s no different. Part of American working life is doing something you don’t want to do. For some people it’s doing something you don’t want to do forever.
Do you want forgiveness or absolution or something?
It’s up to other people to decide whether people who work at Fox News should be forgiven. I wouldn’t ask for forgiveness for working there. I would just have people look at what I've done since.