Fox is quickly becoming the second-chance employer for fiery figures

Don Imus
Don Imus
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By Paul Farhi
Thursday, December 2, 2010

Don't panic. Fox is hiring.

The leading cable news network and its business news offshoot, Fox Business Network, have made a habit of signing up reporters and media personalities who've found themselves on the wrong side in employee-employer spats. For Fox, it seems, the more controversy the better.

This week, the network welcomed a new Washington reporter, Doug McKelway, who is actually an old Washington reporter. The veteran anchor spent the past 18 years at two stations in town (Channels 4 and 7) before his local-news career blew up over the summer. McKelway got into a shouting match with his boss at WJLA (Channel 7) in late July after criticizing Democrats and President Obama in a live report. He was formally dismissed in September for what the station called gross insubordination and misconduct.

His hiring followed by just a few weeks Fox's decision to sign Lou Dobbs, the controversial former CNN host, to star on the Fox Business Network, and to award a new, nearly $2 million contract to commentator Juan Williams just hours after Williams was fired by NPR for statements he made while appearing on Fox.

Fox also decided late last year to simulcast Don Imus's radio program five days a week on Fox Business. The program is the successor to Imus's last radio program and TV simulcast deal with MSNBC, which Imus lost after making his "nappy-headed 'hos" crack about the Rutgers women's basketball team in 2007.

There's a thread running through all these personnel decisions: McKelway, Dobbs, Williams and Imus all were controversial media figures. In each case, they ran afoul primarily of liberals who objected to something (and in some cases, a lot of things) they said. Dobbs, for example, was a liberal bete noir for his nightly criticism of federal immigration policy and illegal immigrants on his CNN show; he also kept alive questions about President Obama's birth certificate long after the issue had been discredited.

By hiring each one at or near the peak of their notoriety, Fox chief Roger Ailes "is being opportunistic," says Andrew Tyndall, who writes a newsletter, the Tyndall Report, covering television news. "It's a way to play the culture wars."

Tyndall jokes that the hiring policy may be turning Fox into "the safety-net network. If you say something outrageous, there's still a paycheck waiting for you."

Fox did not respond to phone and e-mail requests for comment.

McKelway, probably the least well-known of the new hires, is an experienced reporter and anchor. But he has not been shy about expressing his conservative sensibilities. In 2000, when he left WRC (Channel 4), he did so with a parting shot, blasting the station for its supposed liberal favoritism in an interview with the Washington Times.

Last year, during an interview program on WJLA's sister cable station, NewsChannel 8, he got into an argument on the air with a gay activist who advocated "outing" closeted politicians. As the conversation grew more heated, McKelway threatened to punch the man in the nose.

The circumstances of his firing from WJLA also stemmed from a politically tinged episode. Reporting live on a Capitol Hill demonstration this summer, McKelway described the participants as members of "far left" groups, and went on to criticize congressional Democrats for their energy policy and Obama for accepting campaign contributions from BP. His subsequent suspension and dismissal made him a minor hero among conservatives, who championed his cause on various Web sites.

Fox has played this game periodically in the past, snatching up well-known but polarizing figures. It hired crime analyst Mark Fuhrman, the former Los Angeles police detective who was convicted of perjury in connection with O.J. Simpson's murder trial, and Oliver North, the former Marine officer who was at the heart of the Iran-contra scandal during the 1980s.

In addition, former House majority leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) was a frequent guest on Fox before his conviction last month on money laundering charges. Another guest analyst was Bernard Kerik, a former New York City police commissioner, who was sentenced to four years in prison this year for tax fraud and lying to federal officials.

Tyndall says Fox's strategy is to attract conservative viewers by presenting many different conservative personalities and variations of conservative thought. "If you're a conservative, there's no such thing as a single ideology," he says. "Fox has tried to reflect this in many different ways - by class, region, ideology, even tone of voice." Among its star commentators, he notes, are Sarah Palin and former White House adviser Karl Rove, neither of whom seems to care much for the other.

But Ellen Brodsky, who runs the Fox-watching Web site (slogan: "We watch Fox so you don't have to"), has another adjective for the network's personalities: "They seem to be getting really, really inflammatory these days," she says. "I've always thought Fox is political theater more than news, but now they seem to be getting more grotesque. There's no place too far to go if you're bashing Obama."

The only recently fallen media figure Fox hasn't hired lately is Rick Sanchez, the CNN anchor who lost his job in early October for some intemperate remarks he made in a radio interview.

There's still time, however; at last report, Sanchez was still available.

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