After Roger Ailes’ career as chief of Fox News came under siege in a sexual harassment/retaliation suit by former host Gretchen Carlson, the supporters emerged. Bill O’Reilly spoke up for the boss, as did Kimberly Guilfoyle, Sean Hannity, Neil Cavuto, Sandra Smith, Harris Faulkner, among others. They all said various things of little bearing on Carlson’s suit, though they were expressing the core Fox News value of blind loyalty. “I have tremendous admiration for him,” said host Jeanine Pirro in a particularly irrelevant remark.
The one person who’s perhaps most loyal to Ailes, however, didn’t come forth with a testimonial. Irena Briganti is the executive vice president of corporate communications for Fox News and Fox Business Network (FBN). Not only that, Briganti is a Fox News careerist, having started her professional life as a media relations coordinator in the run-up to the network’s October 1996 launch. In other words, she has spent 20 years presenting Roger Ailes’ worldview to the world.
“What her shop does is a direct reflection of Roger Ailes,” says NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik in a chat with the Erik Wemple Blog. “And part of that is that she’s so tied to him personally and loyal to him.”
Writeups on Ailes’ legacy will doubtless focus on his brilliance with packaging television shows, his competitiveness, his phenomenal quotability and his thing for women’s legs. Yet some of the stories produced by his very own PR shop eclipse it all. There was the time in 2008 that the company planted false information with a New York business writer in an attempt to undermine his scribblings on Fox News. There was the time in 2005 that a Fox News publicist forwarded a terribly unflattering photo of a Fox News host to The Washington Post as payback for a workplace slight. Both of those anecdotes are from Folkenflik’s book “Murdoch’s World: The Last of the Old Media Empires.”
The bar-stool-worthy yarns pile on top of the day-in, day-out drudgery of securing the input and cooperation of the Ailes PR operation. The obsessiveness, the pettiness, the two-minute hurry-up offense that doesn’t end after two minutes, the cascading requests for post-publication changes — one or all of these is a near certainty whenever writing about the country’s leading cable news outlet. The late David Carr described the post-publication traumatic syndrome in a 2008 column in the New York Times: “[I]f all that stuff doesn’t slow me down and I actually end up writing something, there might be a large hangover: Phone calls full of rebuke for a dependent clause in the third to the last paragraph, a ritual spanking in the blogs with anonymous quotes that sound very familiar, and — if I really hit the jackpot — the specter of my ungainly headshot appearing on one of Fox News’s shows along with some stern copy about what an idiot I am.”
The nastiest stuff — including an episode in which the network attacked a New York Times reporter, as described by Carr — went down under the leadership of Brian Lewis, who was fired from the network in the summer of 2013. Briganti, his deputy, took over. In recent years, observes Folkenflik, things have “calmed down a bit,” which is to say that there’s less nastiness and fewer sharp elbows coming out of the operation. For instance, the network has scaled back the “wishing him well”-style farewell statements, which Folkenflik describes as saying that a departing host is “a felon, a leper, and a morally reprehensible person.” Then: “We wish him well.”
Nitpicking continues apace, however. Paul Farhi, who covers media for the news side of The Washington Post (the Erik Wemple Blog works the opinion side) says that Briganti’s people attempt to work as “shadow editors,” seeking to dictate spin, content, emphasis, links and whatnot. “They want to write the story,” says Farhi.
Which is precisely why these past few days must have been agonizing for the Fox News PR contingent. The July 6 sexual harassment suit from Carlson has touched off parallel bursts of bad PR as if released from the pipes of the Cizeta V16T. No amount of Fox News counter-PR-ops can plug these holes. Emboldened by Carlson’s determination to put her experience on the public record, other women have come forward with their own tales of creepy encounters with the Fox News boss. 21st Century Fox, the parent company of the cable-news company, has commissioned the New York law firm Paul, Weiss to probe the network. And Ailes is reportedly negotiating his exit. For the first time in forever, the Fox News PR department has little to say about the professional future of Roger Ailes. Those pronouncements are coming from corporate.
To anyone who has covered Fox News, this turn of events is unfathomable on the magnitude of a Donald Trump apology.
A sub-drama unfolding behind the scenes at Fox News is Briganti’s relationship with Ailes and star anchor Megyn Kelly. “My impression is that she is extremely loyal to Roger over many years,” says Lloyd Grove, editor at large at the Daily Beast and a longtime chronicler of TV talent. At the same time, Briganti has worked indefatigably on behalf of Kelly, wiring up favorable profile after favorable profile for the prime-time host in publications like the New York Times Magazine, Variety and Vanity Fair. The imperative behind that work is to position Kelly, a redoubtable talent, as the face of Fox News. Oh well, New York magazine’s Gabriel Sherman this week reported that Kelly told those investigators from Paul, Weiss that Ailes had sexually harassed her about a decde ago. Amid all these stunners, Sherman also cited “sources” as indicating that “Briganti has been criticizing Kelly to reporters, saying she is selfish to not stand up for the man who gave her career opportunities.”
That allegation carried a link to a Daily Beast story quoting a “Fox News insider” who was “not authorized by the network to speak about the subject, on or off the record.” That description doesn’t fit Briganti, who is most certainly authorized to do those things.
Seeking a heart to heart with Briganti about the foregoing, we emailed her a number of questions. She hasn’t responded. That’s uncharacteristic, too. Because despite the complaints among us media reporters, Briganti’s shop is nothing if not lighting-quick responsive.
Folkenflik likens Briganti’s crew to the external arm of a political campaign, not so much a traditional media PR organ. “Whatever any other PR shop does, multiply it by 100,” says Farhi. Grove: “Although I have had the occasional fractious conversation with them, I consider that their operation has been pretty professional and effective. It’s usually the case at least in my experience, when I’ve written a story involving Fox News, they will go through it with fine tooth comb, including the small points of diction and word choice . . . . It’s pretty impressive how detail-oriented and relentless they are.”
To carry the political analogy forward, it’s unclear whether the next Fox News administration will want to stick with the flacks of the Ailes administration. “That’s really hard to say because I can’t at this point really envision a Fox News without Roger Ailes,” says Grove.
Whatever the case, it’s a decision that the next chief shouldn’t take lightly. Goading the PR types to stalk media reporters over every last comma, after all, takes a lot of time, focus and not a slight bit of pettiness.