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The Beck Factor at Fox: Staffers say comments taint their work
"They're right on the cusp of losing their image as a news organization," he declares. "Do they want to be the go-to place for conservative populist ideas on television, or do they want to be a news organization? Ailes has done a good job of doing both."
The internal tensions are fueled by two views of Beck's success. He is either a self-promoting independent operator, as some at Fox believe, or a team player who regularly talks up his new colleagues, as the Beck camp sees it. Some journalists and other staffers who are upset about Beck's language declined to be identified criticizing a fellow employee.
Before launching his Fox program in January 2009, Beck had a popular radio show and Web site, as well as a magazine (called Fusion) and a thriving career as an author. These ventures -- Beck doesn't even work at Fox's Sixth Avenue headquarters -- give him an outside base that his team believes doesn't sit well with some Fox executives.
There is no question that the Fox exposure has transformed his career. When Beck had a show on CNN's Headline News, he averaged 367,000 nightly viewers in 2008, according to Nielsen figures. His Fox program is drawing 2.8 million viewers so far this year, slightly more than Hannity's.
"What Glenn does is so unpredictable," says Mercury's Balfe, "that it gives people something to write about, chat about, blog and Twitter about."
Some Fox insiders say Ailes and his staff deserve much of the credit for Beck's new prominence, both by giving him a platform suited to a conservative audience and granting him the freedom to say what he wants. But with that freedom has come constant controversy.
More than 200 companies have joined a boycott of Beck's program, making it difficult for Fox to sell ads. The time has instead been sold to smaller firms offering such products as Kaopectate, Carbonite, 1-800-PetMeds and Goldline International. A handful of advertisers, such as Apple, have abandoned Fox altogether. Network executives say they believe they could charge higher rates if the host were more widely acceptable to advertisers.
Beck, who travels with a bodyguard and retains his own publicist, Matthew Hiltzik, has also clashed with Fox over media opportunities. Last fall Beck wanted to accept an invitation from Jay Leno's prime-time show, but Fox management was opposed. Beck kept pushing and finally got permission to appear on the program in December. A Fox News spokesperson says the network simply wanted Beck to wait until the reverberations from his racism charge against Obama had faded. The executive suite was also rankled last week when Beck spent two minutes of airtime to promote his one-man show at Broadway's Nokia Theater on Tuesday.
Fox staffers note that veteran producer Gresham Striegel left the network after clashing with Beck and say the host has surrounded himself with loyalists from Mercury, some of whom remain on that company's payroll. (Striegel did not respond to a request for comment.) When Fox covers breaking news during Beck's hour, some journalists say, they are flooded with angry e-mail from viewers about the preemption.
Friction between opinionated cable personalities and journalists has also flared occasionally at MSNBC. But Beck has caused such anguish at Fox that some of its journalists celebrated the failure of last week's interview with embattled ex-congressman Eric Massa, which Beck pronounced a waste of time.
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Love him or hate him, Beck is a talented, often funny broadcaster, a recovering alcoholic with an unabashedly emotional style. Yet even that has caused grousing. Some staffers say they have watched rehearsals, on internal monitors, in which Beck has teared up or paused at the same moments as he later did during the show. Asked about this, Balfe responded sharply: "Glenn reacts the same way to issues whether he knows people are watching or not, and is proud to show his emotions, unlike the cowardly, two-faced critics who hide behind anonymity."