October 23, 2013
Roger Ailes and Rupert Murdoch
Fox News chief Roger Ailes, left, and Rupert Murdoch (Richard Drew/Associated Press)

Pity the journalist who wishes to write about Fox News. It can be very dangerous.

In his new book “Murdoch’s World,” NPR media reporter David Folkenflik documents one of the perils as part of a chapter on the sharp-elbowed ways of Fox News’s PR operation. These are the folks who take all incoming press inquiries on Fox News, ignore some, scoff at others and arrange access or statements on yet others. An easy way to antagonize this group, says Folkenflik, is to propose writing anything that acknowledges their key competitors — MSNBC and CNN — as existing.

“They are a different entity than anything you’ve ever dealt with,” says Folkenflik in a chat with the Erik Wemple Blog. Whenever he’s proposed rolling Fox News into a trend story about how cable channels are handling a particular story or issue, for instance, Fox News PR protests, says Folkenflik. “We will not participate in a story about journalism if you include” our competitors, Folkenflik says in summing up the approach. “They don’t want to be in the same category of them,” says the author, observing that the PR operatives think Fox News has “transcended cable news.”

An anecdote from Folkenflik’s book brings the policy into relief. In early 2008, Matthew Flamm of Crain’s New York Business set out to write a story about the ratings success of CNN in February 2008, when it beat Fox News in prime time among the precious 25- to 54-year-old demographic. Flamm contacted all three cable networks but “hit a brick wall at Fox News,” writes Folkenflik. Even so, Flamm received a note from the private Hotmail account of someone claiming to be a Fox News producer. The person claimed to be familiar with the story that Flamm was then pursuing. Executives were concerned about the ratings, said the e-mail, adding this: “They want to copy the success that MSNBC has had with [Keith] Olbermann and [Chris] Matthews anchoring their coverage.

The Erik Wemple Blog obtained the full e-mail, which sounds quite convincing. Here’s what Flamm found in his inbox:

I work at Fox but I heard from a friend at CNN that you were doing a story on them beating us in February ratings. Thought I’d pass along a tip for you. Fox execs had a meeting yesterday and decided that Bill O’Reilly will anchor our texas and ohio primary coverage on Tuesday night. They want to copy the success that MSNBC has had with Olbermann and Matthews anchoring their coverage.

Don’t think they want it out there since we’ll catch too much heat between now and Tuesday especially in light of O’Reilly’s recent lynching remarks. And FOX PR reps would never confirm this, at least not on the record. But O’Reilly, not Brit Hume, will be in the anchor chair Tuesday night. I feel it’s worth you knowing that we’re going to have an opnion monger anchor what’s always been our hard news election coverage.

A conversation ensued, and the tipster sent this to Flamm:

There was a meeting with execs where the decision was made. It was then relayed on to me and others. I’m a producer here so you can identify me as a producer.
Brit will serve in a senior analyst role and handle the exit polls since Megyn Kelly will be on her honeymoon

If true, that’d be huge news, as Folkenflik points out. Consistent with its “fair and balanced” slogan, Fox News prefers to anchor news with its objective — or “objective” — newspeople, not their opinionated counterparts to Olbermann and Matthews. “To ask O’Reilly to handle actual anchoring duties would be to erase that clear line of separation,” writes Folkenflik.

Even though Flamm had only a private e-mail — one source — he put the report online. Fox News had fun with the “news.” It released a statement to a TVNewser: “The notion that O’Reilly would ANCHOR election coverage of any kind is beyond absurd and wildly inaccurate. If Flamm is so off base with this ‘fact,’ you’d have to question of all his other ‘reporting’ when it comes to Fox News.” Let Folkenflik take it from here:

What the hell had happened? Flamm called the producer at Fox who had given him the errant tip. She was incredulous when he finally reached her. Who are you? she asked him coldly. I have no idea what you’re talking about. Panicked, the reporter sent an email to the Hotmail account from which he had received the original scoop. It bounced back. The account had been shut down. As Flamm and his editors conceded to associates, they should have treated the email as a tip rather than a confirmation. A former Fox News staffer knowledgeable about the incident confirmed to me they had been set up.

Voilà — what was once a story about CNN beating up on Fox News in ratings becomes a story about false information being spread about Fox News. Of the PR operation, Folkenflik tells the Erik Wemple Blog, “They are essentially a political unit appended to something that presents itself publicly as a cable news operation.”

Read more from Erik Wemple about Fox News

RELATED: Worst ideas of 2013

RELATED: 10 lies about Obama (that people actually believe)

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.