America knows Fox News as the country’s highest-rated cable news network. As Roger Ailes told the Associated Press last year:

“I think we do better television than the other guys, and no matter how we do it, they don’t seem to catch up. We seem to out-invent them and think ahead of them, and have better story ideas, better graphics, better on-air talent. We just are better television producers.”

TV talents notwithstanding, what Fox News really excels at is clampdowns. Defined as a “severe or concerted attempt to suppress something,” “clampdown” describes just how Fox News treats the sharing of information about its operations with the outside world.

Doesn’t happen, can’t happen, shall not happen.

That’s why the debut of a new Gawker column yesterday, titled The Fox Mole, was so astonishing. The gossip Web site had wrangled a Fox News employee to spill state secrets from within the tent, including, in the Mole’s first installment, some insiderish footage taken during a break in an interview featuring Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. A second posting hit the site this morning, about bathroom conditions at Fox News.

The Fox Mole column debuted at 3:11 yesterday afternoon. At 12:38 this afternoon, Mediaite reported that Fox News had identified the Fox Mole. Which means that the Fox clampdown leaders were free for lunch today. Here’s the statement that Mediaite ran from Fox:

“We found the person and we’re exploring legal options at this time.”

That, right there, beats any Bill O’Reilly interview, any Sean Hannity rant, any madness on “The Five”: If Fox is tough on its enemies in the public realm, it is ruthless against in-house detractors. Whatever the cable ratings say, Fox New works best as an intelligence agency, preventing leaks and snuffing them out once they sprout. If only the Nixon administration had been this effective.

Time for the federal government to contract with Fox News; there are terrorists out there.

UPDATE: Gawker just posted an item from the Mole saying:

So Fox’s PR team has been telling people that they have “found” me and are presently “exploring legal options.” If Fox has smoked me out, it’s news to me. I’m still here. Back to work.

These two accounts yield a few possibilities, all of them very compelling:

1) Fox News is not telling the truth about finding the Mole;

2) Fox News has found a mole, but not The Mole;

3) Fox News has found the Mole but wants to let the individual’s palms sweat for a spell before summoning the individual for a chat about the law;

4) Some other craziness.

UPDATE No. 2: In light of Gawker’s all-clear post from The Mole, Mediaite checked back with Fox News PR and received this confirmation: “We know who it is.”

That’s my Fox!


That is my Fox.

Let the speculation end. Fox was doing exactly what it had told Mediaite: Weighing its legal options, that is.

At 8:42, Gawker posted this note from The Mole. Or, that is, the Former Mole. The gist? Busted.

Joe Muto, an associate producer with “The O’Reilly Factor,” outed himself as The Mole after a session with Fox News legal eagle Dianne Brandi. Muto wrote:

They nailed me.

In the end, it was the digital trail that gave me away. They knew that someone, using my computer login, had accessed the sources for two videos that ended up on Gawker over the past few weeks. They couldn’t prove it entirely, but I was pretty much the only suspect.

Muto reports that he was suspended indefinitely, with pay; he denied working as The Mole. He included this self-assessment:

I am a weasel, a traitor, a sell-out and every bad word you can throw at me... but as of today, I am free, and I am ready to tell my story, which I wasn’t able to fully do for the previous 36 hours.

He promises “much, much more” tomorrow. That’s good, because the stuff he’s delivered thus far, while well phrased, hasn’t quite shifted the received wisdom about Fox News. Thus far, the appeal of the story radiates from the fact that there was a mole at Fox---not about the secrets he’s been spilling.

Get ready for a fun debate over whether this guy is just the weasel he calls himself, or some noble truth-teller. That discussion, however, almost misses the point of The Mole, which is that he’s a symptom of a heavily controlled work environment. The natural consequence of Ailes’s tight lid on inside-the-tent information is that secrets pile up---secrets about how the operation runs, secrets about how certain people think, secrets about who said what in the canteen. Those secrets won’t lie low forever, regardless of whether they escape via Muto or some other hatch in the coming years.

So maybe Muto will add to our understanding of how the Fox product gestates; maybe he won’t. Whatever the case, insider accounts are not pivotal to our understanding of Fox News. The end product is. And there are plenty of discerning eyes glued to it every day.

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