Monday, June 3, 2013

I Was a Liberal Mole at Fox News

 (photo: unknown)
(photo: unknown)
By Joe Muto, Salon
03 June 13
 
Inside the beast: O'Reilly hates Hannity. Producers know what's acceptable. Everyone fears a call from Roger Ailes

eople would often ask me about how Fox pushes a message.
And I would always tell them the message isn't so much pushed as it is pulled, gravitationally, with Roger Ailes as the sun at the center of the solar system; his vice presidents were the forces of gravity that kept the planet-size anchors and executive producers in a tight orbit; then all the lesser producers and PAs were moons and satellites and debris of varying sizes.
An organizational flow chart at Fox would be tough to draw up, as title alone was not the ultimate signifier of status. Sometimes the anchors outranked their executive producers, as was the case with "The O'Reilly Factor." (In fact, Bill had procured an EP title for himself, but he outranked the two other EPs on the show, both Stan, who oversaw TV, radio, and the website, and Gayle, who focused on television and also served as a fact-checker.) Sometimes the anchors were relatively weak - as was the case with a lot of weekend shows, and maybe some of the newswheel hours - and a strong senior producer or producer outranked, or at least pretended to outrank, the host. (For example, Lizzie from "The Lineup," who was only a producer but was tough enough that she probably could have bossed around Ailes himself had she been left alone in a room with him for more than five minutes.)
The bottom line is that each show had one person - be they anchor or producer or whoever - who was directly accountable to the Second Floor. That was the brilliance of the company's power structure. One misconception that outsiders always had about the channel is that we'd sit around all morning planning how to distort the news that day. But there was never any centralized control like that. No "marching orders," as it were. Instead, it was more a decentralized, entrepreneurial approach. Each show was an autonomous unit. Each showrunner - who had not risen to their position by being stupid - knew exactly what was expected of them, knew what topics and guests would be acceptable.
Theoretically, each show could talk about whatever they wanted to talk about, and take any angle they wanted to take, and book any guest they wanted to have on.
Realistically, there was tremendous pressure to hew closely to the company line. The Second Floor monitored the content of every show very closely. Each show was required to submit a list of all the guests and all the topics well before the fact; the list would be reviewed by one of the relevant vice presidents. Most of the time, this was just a formality - as I said, the showrunners knew their boundaries - but every once in a while, a certain guest or topic would set off alarm bells on the second floor, leading to a series of increasingly urgent and unpleasant e-mails and phone calls for the showrunner.
Even if a segment passed initial muster, the Second Floor reserved the right to pull the plug if it took a turn they didn't like. They were always watching, and never hesitant to exercise their authority. Roger himself had a phone in his office, a hotline he could pick up and immediately be connected to the control room. Every producer knew that, and dreaded seeing his name on the caller ID. If Roger took the time to personally call the control room, in my experience it was almost never complimentary.
It was a unique, bottom-up management structure that had built-in checks and balances coming from the top down. This approach had its advantages and disadvantages. On the upside, it often led to innovative programming, with adventurous hosts and producers coming up with story ideas and segments that a more buttoned-down, dictatorial management structure might otherwise never have approved. (O'Reilly was one of the beneficiaries of this, successfully experimenting with some of his more outlandish, barely news-related segments like Body Language and the Quiz.)
One of the disadvantages was that the Second Floor often put insane, arbitrary restrictions into place, with networkwide implications.
For example, some unlucky guests were banned for life from every show on the network, a result of a diktat from the Second Floor. Comedian Bill Maher, once a semi-regular guest on "The Factor" and some other Fox shows, made too many cracks about Sarah Palin over the years, raising the ire of a powerful female VP who banned him from our air and demanded that all Fox-affiliated websites refer to him only as "Pig Maher."
Sometimes entire organizations were given lifetime bans. The website Politico wrote something a few years back that rubbed Roger the wrong way (we were never told what exactly the transgression was) and word went out to all the shows: No more Politico reporters as guests. Also, any anchors who mentioned the site on air had to use the phrase "left-wing Politico" - an absurd designation for a publication that usually played it down the middle.
Some anchors and producers had enough juice - proportional to the size of their audience, generally - to push back against the Second Floor's mandates, with varying levels of success, though even O'Reilly, who had more juice than anyone, could only do so much. When one of his favorite guests, a fiery, young, liberal African American college professor, was banned, agreement with the Second Floor allowing him to continue to use the guy as long as his appearances were limited to once a month. O'Reilly wasn't happy with it, but it was better than walking away empty-handed.
There was nothing Bill hated more than management impositions on his show. These impositions almost always followed the same pattern - Stan would get a phone call in his office from one of Roger's underlings, usually a vice president named Bill Shine. I'd hear Manskoff's end of the conversation. "You're killing me here, you know that, don't you," Stan would say. "You know he's going to hate this." Manskoff would hang up, shaking his head in disbelief, and make the fifteen-foot trek to Bill's office, closing the door behind him. Through the door, we'd hear muffled talking from Stan, then muffled shouting from Bill, followed shortly by the door popping open and Stan bolting from the office like a pinball from a launcher.
"I'll do it this time, Manskoff," Bill would call after him, "just this once. But I'm tired of this bullshit!" He'd always slow down for the next part, hammering each phrase so there would be no mistake in the future: "I want the interference! With my show! To stop! Now!"
Relations were rocky enough between O'Reilly and the Second Floor that VP Shine was dispatched on a regular basis to smooth things over, meeting in O'Reilly's office every Tuesday at four p.m. These meetings would sometimes last upward of forty-five minutes. Though I was never privy to what was said in the meetings, neither man ever looked particularly pleased upon completion.
It was Stan's job to run interference between O'Reilly and management, keeping the bosses out of Bill's hair but also insulating the suits from Bill's fits of rage. Ninety-nine percent of all issues could be solved with Manskoff and Shine collaborating, not having to involve Ailes or O'Reilly. But every once in a while, O'Reilly would refuse to back down, and Ailes would be forced to intervene.
The most memorable instance of this was in late 2008, when Lehman Brothers went tits-up and the whole economy was teetering on the brink. President Bush prepared a massive bailout package for the banks, and conservative talk radio exploded with outrage and opposition. One prominent conservative voice in favor of the bailout? Bill O'Reilly, who believed that the entire financial system would collapse without it. He took to his radio show that day and excoriated the radio hosts who opposed the bailout:
"Let's get back to this talk radio stuff. These idiots. I mean, they're misleading you. They're lying to you. They're rich, these guys. Big cigars. All of that. 'Yeah, oh yeah, my private jet!' And they're saying, 'Oh, no! No bailout!' Walk away from these liars, these right-wing liars. Walk away from them! They're not looking out for you."
The cigar and private jet stuff was a thinly veiled swipe at Rush Limbaugh, someone O'Reilly has never liked, but also a figure who had a lot of fans at 1211 Sixth Avenue, including Roger Ailes and Sean Hannity.
When word filtered to the Second Floor that O'Reilly planned on repeating some of his radio rant on the TV show that night, the order came back quickly: Absolutely not. But O'Reilly put his foot down. Neither Stan Manskoff nor Bill Shine could dissuade him, and it took a phone call from Roger himself to put the matter to rest.
Bill took the call in his office, politely but insistently pleading his case to Ailes, but Roger held firm. Bill reluctantly agreed to toe the party line, excused himself from the call, gently hung up the receiver, then loudly yelled a string of expletives that could be heard all over the seventeenth floor. But after he got it out of his system, he spiked the Limbaugh reference from the TV show.
I said earlier that O'Reilly had more juice than anyone. That wasn't entirely true. He had higher ratings than anyone, to be sure, but it could be argued that Hannity actually had more juice, owing to his closer affiliation and friendship with Ailes. The two of them are fellow travelers, both devoted to Republican causes. Bill is not on that train with them - he's truly devoted only to O'Reilly-related causes. (Which just so happen to dovetail with Republican causes most of the time, but still ...)
This has led to no small amount of tension between the parties. O'Reilly and Hannity, the two biggest stars at Fox News Channel, have basically no working relationship. Their shows are back-to-back, yet they're barely on speaking terms. O'Reilly is convinced that Hannity is trying to sabatoge his show, and vice versa. The two of them fight constantly, almost entirely through intermediaries and over the pettiest of issues - mostly over guests. Both shows like to use Fox News analysts - specifically Karl Rove, Dick Morris, and Bernie Goldberg - and 90 percent of the squabbling is over which show gets which guest on which night. Roger did the situation no favors in 2011, when he spoke to Howard Kurtz of The Daily Beast and engaged in a bit of provocative muckraking:
"O'Reilly hates Sean [Hannity] and he hates Rush [Limbaugh] because they did better in radio than he did," Ailes said. Bill was furious for weeks. Because it turns out there is one thing he hated even more than management meddling: someone insulting his ratings.
* * *
Bill was, if nothing else, a man of habit - to the point where he got incredibly angry if anything went awry with his schedule. For someone as pugilistic as he, he's shockingly unable to roll with the punches. He's like a taller, Irish version of Dustin Hoffman in "Rain Man." Even a slight delay or deviation from the plan could set off a lecture or, on occasion, a screaming match. As a result, he was tightly scheduled down to the minute.
Bill's daily routine was really a marvel of efficiency. It wasn't quite "The 4-Hour Workweek," but it came pretty damn close to being the four-hour workday. Now, he would tell you he's up early, reading the paper, communicating with his staff, etc. And this is all true. He's a hardworking guy. I don't want to give the impression that he isn't. But as far as actual time spent in the building? We're talking four and a half hours a day, tops.
Here's how it went:
9:30 a.m.
We'd compile and send to Bill the "Newsfax," a ten-page document with excerpts from what we thought were the day's most important stories, op-eds, sound bites, and so on. We called it the Newsfax because it was easier to tell Bill we were faxing it to him than it was to explain that we were remotely printing it to his home printer.
This is actually a familiar pattern with Bill. It's often simpler to let him believe something erroneously than it is to correct him.
Case in point: In summer 2011, a story surfaced on the right-wing blogs that an auditor for the Justice Department had found out some DOJ employees attending a meeting at the Capital Hilton in Washington, DC, had been served refreshments, including muffins for which the hotel charged sixteen dollars apiece.
It's no surprise that the story spread like wildfire on the blogs and was soon picked up by cable news. It was a great story for the right, reinforcing preexisting notions of government excess and willingness to waste taxpayer money, the incompetence of the Obama Justice Department, etc.
One problem: It wasn't true.
A few days after the story broke, a representative from Hilton Hotels came out and said that the auditor had misread the bill, that the sixteen dollars referred to a full breakfast-coffee, tea, fruit, muffins, plus tax and gratuity. Not a bargain by any means, but also not too bad for a hotel continental breakfast.
A producer named Steiner Rudolf was line producing - assembling the stories in the rundown and making sure they all timed out correctly - on the day that Bill wanted to include the muffin anecdote in a Talking Points Memo. "Actually, Bill, the muffin thing got debunked," Steiner started to tell him. "A guy from the hotel came out and said -"
"I don't give a shit what the guy said," Bill interrupted, suddenly angry. "It's the same old thing. They come out and deny it, but the story is there. We know it's true. We have the proof."
Steiner tried gamely one more time to convince Bill to drop the story, explaining that he didn't have the proof, but O'Reilly was adamant. He'd latched on to the story, and pesky things like "facts" weren't going to convince him otherwise. The muffins went into the Talking Points. Over the next few weeks, he repeated the story several times on his own show, on Jon Stewart's show, on David Letterman's show, and on Good Morning America.
Unfortunately for the embarrassed Hilton Hotels and some nameless DOJ bureaucrats, the muffin story, false though it may be, perfectly coincided with Bill's book tour.
10:00 a.m.
The morning conference was when the real work of building the day's show began. The senior staff connected on a four-way call. From my vantage point outside Stan's office, I could hear them on speakerphone gearing up for it like troops going into battle. "Are you ready for this?" "Yeah, are you?" "Here goes nothing."
One of them would dial Bill's house. He's all business when he picks up the phone. A curt "good morning," then Gayle begins reciting what she calls the "comp report." Right off the bat she tells him how many e-mails came in after the previous night's show, and what topic elicited the most messages. ("We had thirty-five hundred e-mails last night, most of them in reaction to the immigration segment ...")
Bill took the e-mails - sent by our audience to OReilly@foxnews.com - pretty seriously, regarding them (not inaccurately, I'd say) as a direct gauge of viewer interest. Each morning, two unlucky women on the staff had the unenviable job of sorting through the e-mails and printing out a representative sample of fifty to sixty. Bill, to his credit, reads these personally. He selects a handful to be read on the air. If he likes some others but doesn't consider them airworthy, he'll instruct our lucky mail combers to send a signed book or some "kind words" - a response e-mail reading, Thanks for the kind words. Signed, Bill O'Reilly. I'd glanced at the show's in-box from time to time and had been blown away by the sheer incoherence and illiteracy of some of the respondents. This would sometimes present a problem, for Bill liked his e-mails to be short, pithy, and not written by a complete moron.
This was a surprisingly tall order on certain days.
On one occasion, there was an e-mail that Bill really wanted to read on the air. One of the producers noticed that the e-mail was signed with an obvious gag name: Jack MeHoff. Clearly, that's unreadable on television. But Bill liked the text of the e-mail so much that he couldn't bear to cut it from the mail segment. After pondering for a bit, he decided on a course of action: "Let's just change the last name to Mehoffer." Despite producers pleading with him that the slight name change was not much, if at all, better than the original, Bill stuck to his guns, reading the letter with the modified name on air. The rest is YouTube history.
Back to the conference call. After the e-mail tally, Gayle would read off the list of guests on the competing shows - whatever guests CNN and MSNBC had the night before, and whatever guests Hannity and Greta were scheduled to have that night.
Next, the call got to the real nitty-gritty: Bill started talking about what he wanted on the show that night. "The Factor" was one hour long, divided by commercial breaks into seven "blocks," identified by letters A through G. The first six blocks all needed a topic and a guest, while the last block - the shortest one - usually contained the viewer e-mail segment, plugs for merchandise, and other "Factor" business.
"The Factor" differed from a straight news program in that all of the segments are, with a few exceptions, interview segments. The advantage of this is that interview segments are incredibly easy to produce. A single associate producer can put together an entire segment by his- or herself in about an hour, without even getting up from a desk. The associate producer (also sometimes called a segment producer, for obvious reasons) would call the guest on the phone and get them to agree to come on; conduct a pre-interview; book a car to bring the guest either to the New York studio to sit with Bill or to a remote studio with a satellite connection; do some research on the topic; cut some B-roll; plug in some graphics; and call it a day.
Contrast that with something like the nightly network news, which uses an anchor who tosses to reporters who introduce highly produced taped pieces known in the industry - somewhat suggestively - as "packages." (As in, "Hey, did you see Jake Tapper's package last night?" or "The local affiliate has a great package on that.") A good package will combine B-roll, graphics, interviews, and narration from the reporter.
The advantages of the network news model is that the reporter packages are a lot more slick and tell a better story in a much more concise and visually appealing manner. The downside to the network model is that it's very time- and labor- intensive, with each package requiring painstaking work from a reporter, producers, a cameraman, a sound technician, an editor, and so on.
Also, a pretaped package lacks some of the urgency, some of the energy and excitement that a spontaneous interview segment contains. The interview format is one of the reasons for Fox's financial success. They churn out our product faster, for less money and with fewer staffers. It's simple economics.
When O'Reilly picked the topics for the show, he'd usually have a specific guest in mind. Sometimes he'd give it to one of our "regulars," guests who appear every week. (These include, in addition to the aforementioned Messrs. Rove, Morris, and Goldberg, figures like comedian Dennis Miller and Fox daytime anchor Megyn Kelly.) But sometimes he'd want a guest who was not one of the regulars but, rather, someone who would take a certain side on an issue, or an expert with certain biographical details.
Often these requests got hilariously specific: "We're doing a gay marriage segment - get me a black lesbian civil rights attorney!" or "I want to do a segment on the Super Bowl next week - find me a funny white sports expert under forty! But he can't be bald."
One of the most important things the segment producer did was the pre-interview, which was exactly what it sounds like- we'd interview the guest a few hours before Bill interviewed them. We tried to think of the same questions Bill would ask, and would take notes, condensing and bullet-pointing whatever the guest said. Eventually, we'd give this "POV" to Bill, along with research on the topic.
The end result was that, barring the occasional surprise, Bill knew exactly what his guest was going to say in the interview, sometimes down to the last word. In this way, cable news somewhat resembled professional wrestling: The outcomes were predetermined, with the host not only choosing his guests based specifically on the stance he knew they were going to take, but actually getting a preview of their arguments several hours in advance so he could formulate his counterarguments.
Noon
Bill would get into his chauffered town car for the drive from his Long Island home to Fox headquarters in Manhattan. During this drive, he'd call the line producer and dictate the script for that night's show.
Cursed with speedy typing skills, I would occasionally get roped into taking dictation on these calls. Listening to him write the entire show in his head on the fly, I realized that Bill O'Reilly is much smarter than any of his critics give him credit for. There's not a ton of writing in a typical episode of "The O'Reilly Factor" - once you get past the Talking Points Memo, it's only relatively short introductions ("Our next guest is a Fox News analyst coming to us from Washington, D.C. ...") and teases before the commercial break ("Coming up, Karl Rove will weigh in on the GOP primary race ...") - but the mere fact that Bill writes the whole thing himself, every word, separates him from almost every anchor in the building. And the fact that he does it all in his head, dictating it on the fly, is nothing short of astounding.
One funny point about this, though - Bill is, unsurprisingly, the ultimate back seat driver, so the dictation calls are constantly punctuated with his yelling at Carl, his poor beleaguered driver. Bill would dictate a couple of lines, then scream a bit at Carl, berating him for getting caught in traffic. Then he'd tick off a few more lines, then bark at Carl again, telling him that if he didn't find a different route, Bill would be forced to take over driving duties.
1:30 p.m.
Bill would usually arrive about this time, traffic permitting, then head into his office and have lunch, which his long-suffering, saintly assistant, Margaret, would bring to him. He wasn't into fancy lunches - strictly a soup-and-sandwich-at-his-desk kind of guy. But he was still as demanding with his orders as he was with everything else in his life.
A sandwich shop got his order wrong one time, and Bill called Margaret into his office.
"Look," he said. "I'm not mad at you, Margaret. But they put the wrong cheese on this thing."
"Do you want me to get you a new one?" Margaret asked, sounding relieved that she wasn't going to catch the blame for once.
"No," Bill said. "I want you to take it back to them, tell them they screwed it up, and get the money back."
"Okay," she said.
"Are you actually going to say that? Because I definitely want you to say that to them. 'You screwed it up. Bill O'Reilly wants his money back.' Are you going to say that to them?"
"Yes, yes, I'll say that," Margaret insisted.
I don't know if she did end up doing it or not. She's one of the nicest, most soft-spoken people in the world, so it's hard for me to picture her throwing a sandwich back in the Quiznos guy's face. But on the other hand, she's worked for O'Reilly for more than two decades, so who the hell knows what she's capable of?
2:00 p.m.-4:00 p.m.
On Mondays and Thursdays, we had pitch meetings during this block of time. On Tuesdays, O'Reilly had his weekly powwow with the company VP, Bill Shine. And it seemed as if the other two days of the week there were always other things clawing for his attention. But every once in a while, he got this time to himself, and we'd find him lounging on the couch in his office, shoes off, his six-foot-four frame spilling over both sides, just reading the paper. It was kind of endearing, actually.
4:30 p.m.
Bill would get anxious around this time every day, like a kid on Christmas Eve - because it was ratings time! The number crunchers e-mailed out spreadsheets at the same time every afternoon, with data about the previous day's shows. We'd get ratings for not only all the Fox News shows but also all the shows on CNN, MSNBC, and Headline News, broken down into fifteen-minute increments and separated into total viewers as well as the coveted age twenty-five to fifty-four demographic.
As much as I'd thought my colleagues on "The Lineup" were obsessed with the ratings data, O'Reilly made them look like absolute amateurs. First, if the number crunchers were even one minute late with the data, Bill would get agitated, calling Manskoff every few minutes to impatiently ask him if the e-mail with the spreadsheets had come in yet.
When he finally did get the sheets, about fifteen pages in all, with tiny print and column after column of numbers, he'd pore over the digits as if they held the secret to finding the Holy Grail. If the number for "The Factor" was good, he'd crow about it for the rest of the day. If the number was bad, he'd panic, making phone calls until he determined what had gone wrong: "Eugene, we dropped thirty-three thousand in the demo last night in the final quarter. Remind me what we had in the back of the show last night?"
Eugene would tell him the name of the guest, or the topic, and Bill would decide that the show would no longer be covering that topic, or would cease inviting that guest.
Most of my fellow producers took the boss's cue and obsessed over the numbers as much as he did, but it always felt like chicanery to me. To make changes in programming, important decisions about what stories to cover and which guests to use, based on minute changes in a system as imprecise and imperfect as the Nielsen ratings seemed irresponsible, barely better than reading chicken entrails. But Bill had lived and died by those ratings for so long that he didn't know another way. (And to be fair, his method seemed to be working, because he's enjoyed more than a decade at number one. So maybe I'm the one who doesn't know what he's talking about.)
4:45 p.m.
Bill heads down to a private room in the basement to get his hair and makeup done. A device that Ailes had installed in every green room in the building methodically sucks the life force out of five adorable baby puppies and deposits it into Bill's face, keeping him fresh and youthful-looking for one more day.
5:00 p.m.
Showtime!
6:00 p.m.
Show's over. A quick wipedown with a hot towel in the green room to get rid of the makeup and puppy tears.
6:05 p.m.
Back to the O'Reilly pod for the show's postmortem meeting, where we'd discuss what went right and wrong that night. These were short and uneventful normally, consisting of nothing more than Bill looking at the big bulletin board, sighing, and saying, "That was okay tonight. I think we might get away with that."
6:10 p.m.
O'Reilly gets into the town car to head home, warming up his vocal cords in case Carl the driver takes yet another wrong turn.
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