On Oct. 29, 2010, Media Matters for America reporter Joe Strupp rounded up a couple of unnamed sources for a story about the D.C. bureau of Fox News. “Sources: Fox Management Slanting D.C. Bureau’s News Coverage,” read the headline of a story that probed the origins of “discontent” in that newsroom about a directive to slant the network’s news coverage. Bill Sammon had recently taken over as the top official at the D.C. bureau, assuming a post that had been occupied by Brit Hume.
Sources for the story clearly hadn’t synched their message: “According to one source,” wrote Strupp, “the pressure to slant Fox’s reporting is coming from Sammon himself. Another source says that directives are coming from Fox management in New York and that Sammon — unlike Hume — doesn’t have enough sway to push back.”
Journalistic gray beards will tell you that anonymous sources are worthless: Get on-the-record sources! Folks who have reported on Fox News, however, will tell the standard-bearers to remain confined to their Ivory Tower. Under now-former chief Roger Ailes, Fox News was a fear farm that penalized employees who spoke out of turn or who otherwise abetted in any way outside journalists reporting on Fox News.
Corroboration comes from another scoop by Gabriel Sherman of New York magazine documenting the fallout from the Ailes sexual harassment scandal of this past summer. Not only did Ailes serially harass his female colleagues, Sherman writes, but he also ran a surveillance state. One small part of it fell on Media Matters:
According to two sources with direct knowledge of the incident, [Dianne] Brandi, Fox’s general counsel, hired a private investigator in late 2010 to obtain the personal home- and cell-phone records of Joe Strupp, a reporter for the liberal watchdog group Media Matters. (Through a spokesperson, Brandi denied this.) In the fall of that year, Strupp had written several articles quoting anonymous Fox sources, and the network wanted to determine who was talking to him. “This was the culture. Getting phone records doesn’t make anybody blink,” one Fox executive told me.
So Ailes & Co. wanted to know who were those sources speculating with Strupp about the management of the Washington bureau. In a followup story, Strupp quoted a source criticizing some of the more insane offerings on the Fox News schedule: “There are people who are concerned that the opinion side bleeds over the news side. More of our programs are turning into opinion programs. It is frustrating.” That’s from a Nov. 8, 2010, story. In a Sept. 22, 2010, post, Strupp cited an anonymous Fox News source speculating about a decision by Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell to bag a scheduled appearance on “Fox News Sunday” and appear on “Hannity.” “[S]he made a choice about interviews where she felt she would get a certain kind of treatment,” this particular anonymous source told Strupp.
And there you have it — the ultimate measuring stick for the paranoia and control-freakishness of Roger Ailes. These stories were examples of good beat reporting, though they were by no means crippling scoops, as in, say, revelations about the incorrigible sexual harassment by Fox News’s top executive. They were stories that media reporters do all the time.
Yet Ailes just had to track down the traitors within Fox News. What’s being alleged in Sherman’s article is nothing short of a private-sector leak investigation. Now, just what was Ailes’s official position on leak investigations? A look back into the archives of the Erik Wemple Blog turns up this internal memo from Ailes to Fox News staffers in the scandalous spring of 2013, when the Obama administration was under fire for sweeping up phone records of the Associated Press and for naming Fox News reporter James Rosen as a possible criminal co-conspirator in an affidavit for a leak investigation:
The recent news about the FBI’s seizure of the phone and email records of Fox News employees, including James Rosen, calls into question whether the federal government is meeting its constitutional obligation to preserve and protect a free press in the United States. We reject the government’s efforts to criminalize the pursuit of investigative journalism and falsely characterize a Fox News reporter to a Federal judge as a “co-conspirator” in a crime. I know how concerned you are because so many of you have asked me: why should the government make me afraid to use a work phone or email account to gather news or even call a friend or family member? Well, they shouldn’t have done it. The administration’s attempt to intimidate Fox News and its employees will not succeed and their excuses will stand neither the test of law, the test of decency, nor the test of time. We will not allow a climate of press intimidation, unseen since the McCarthy era, to frighten any of us away from the truth.
I am proud of your tireless effort to report the news over the last 17 years. I stand with you, I support you and I thank you for your reporting with courageous optimism. Too many Americans fought and died to protect our unique American right of press freedom. We can’t and we won’t forget that. To be an American journalist is not only a great responsibility, but also a great honor. To be a Fox journalist is a high honor, not a high crime. Even this memo of support will cause some to demonize us and try to find irrelevant things to cause us to waver. We will not waver.
As Fox News employees, we sometimes are forced to stand alone, but even then when we know we are reporting what is true and what is right, we stand proud and fearless. Thank you for your hard work and all your efforts.
When it comes to Ailes, there’s always a hypocrisy angle.
Following the publication of the Sherman story, a statement came flying onto the Media Matters website, from president Bradley Beychok:
From what we witnessed with Rupert Murdoch and News Corp’s prior phone hacking scandal, it’s critical for an immediate investigation of Roger Ailes and any other current or former Fox News employees who may have been involved in this illegal practice.
Roger Ailes and Fox News broke the law by hacking into the phone records of Media Matters employees. Anyone involved in the illegal hacking should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law and we are considering all legal options.
In a chat with the Erik Wemple Blog, Beychok said he believes Sherman’s reporting, which is based on two unnamed sources. “Based on their history and some of the data points that we’re trying to piece together, I believe that there is reason to take this really seriously,” Beychok said. The organization is preparing a number of questions for Strupp’s telecom providers and otherwise plowing into the legal implications of the allegations. Illegally obtaining phone records carries a punishment of up to 10 years in prison, according to the Guardian. In the infamous British phone-hacking scandal, newspapers under the control of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. — part of Fox News’s corporate family — invaded the voicemail messages of various celebrities and, more scandalously, non-celebrities.
These tactics mesh with previous reporting from Sherman about a Fox News “Black Room” that, starting in 2011, handled critic-targeting and various surveillance operations with Fox News funds. Other targets included staffers from Gawker, according to Sherman. “I’m honored to be among Roger Ailes’s enemies,” Gawker Media’s John Cook told Sherman.
So should Media Matters. Judging from how viciously the not-for-profit organization has been attacked by Fox News personalities, it has made a significant impact on the network. Sure, Fox News has ruled the ratings for the past decade-and-a-half, but Media Matters has sought to cripple its power to compel news aggregation. “Their credibility has been so deeply undermined that by [their] touching a story, it limits the ability of other media to pick it up,” Media Matters’ Angelo Carusone once told this blog. The idea, he said, was to “quarantine” Fox News’ reporting.
Whatever Media Matters’ objectives, it’s clear from Sherman’s reporting that the group nudged Ailes into a paranoid fit. Or, better said, yet another paranoid fit. “I think it’s a validation,” Beychok said. “It’s no secret that we’ve been a harsh critic of both Ailes and Fox and we obviously have made some impact at various points and if people have taken illegal actions or tactics for retribution, then we want to get to the bottom of it.”
Asked about Sherman’s allegations, Fox News directed the Erik Wemple Blog to Brandi’s denial in the New York magazine story.