Stories that paint Fox News in unflattering hues sometimes come with a dismissive statement from a network spokesperson. Other times there’ll be no comment at all.
“I had no idea that this would be considered a donation,” Kilmeade told the Hill. He’d bought MAGA Christmas ornaments on the Trump campaign website without, apparently, knowing where the money would wind up. The transaction came after Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential election victory. “I’m looking for something cool and unique for Christmas for adults after this historic election. … I had no idea that would go to a campaign contribution,” the Fox News personality said. From the Hill:
Kilmeade said he purchased the items through the Trump campaign website. When buying souvenirs on the site, users are given the option to make an additional donation and are notified upon checkout they must enter their occupation as required by federal law for political contributions.
Kilmeade told the Hill that he wasn’t about making campaign donations. “Even if I wasn’t in this business, I would never be giving contributions out to people. Especially after an election,” Kilmeade said.
Boneheaded mistakes happen. The Erik Wemple Blog won’t hammer Kilmeade over this matter.
Fox News, however, deserves some condemnation. A campaign contribution raises automatic ethical considerations — which the network dismissed by telling the Hill that it doesn’t “prohibit talent from buying holiday ornaments.”
So much for journalistic standards!
A coda to the story came out of left field a couple of days after it broke, when Jeremy Barr, who writes on media for the Hollywood Reporter, revealed some information about how the story may have arisen:
This thread will ring true to media reporters, but may be interesting to readers who want to know how the sausage is made. Last Friday, I contacted Carly from Fox News PR and asked her about a $601.71 donation made by Brian Kilmeade to the Trump campaign on Jan. 20, 2017. (1/5) pic.twitter.com/JAMbV7JJ4S— Jeremy Barr (@jeremymbarr) October 25, 2018
Fox News took the weekend to investigate the donation, and on Monday I spoke with Carly for 15 minutes off-the-record, during which she explained the genesis of the donation: Kilmeade bought Trump Christmas ornaments, not realizing they'd count as contributions. (2/5)— Jeremy Barr (@jeremymbarr) October 25, 2018
The following day, I emailed her and let her know that we would be covering the story. I asked for an on-the-record statement or background details to use, so that my story on Brian's donation would appear in context and would be fair to him. (3/5) pic.twitter.com/tzPJKndhEb— Jeremy Barr (@jeremymbarr) October 25, 2018
She did not respond. But, less than five hours later, The Hill (a largely sympathetic outlet) published a story about the donation, which had gone unreported for more than a year and half. The story included an exclusive interview with Kilmeade. (4/5) pic.twitter.com/weSChD6kxO— Jeremy Barr (@jeremymbarr) October 25, 2018
Instead of covering the donation, Fox News PR gave me "a tip" and said I should cover "an actual story," which was "the NBC/Megyn stuff" — former employee Megyn Kelly's ill-advised "blackface" comments. (5/5)— Jeremy Barr (@jeremymbarr) October 25, 2018
With those tweets, Barr articulates the often-conspiratorial nightmares of every journalist who has latched on to a scoop about an organization with a PR shop: What happens if it slips away?
To his credit, Barr doesn’t speculate about what happened to his story. Was the Hill working on it alongside his own inquiry? Hard to tell, but: Barr says he told Fox News about the donation on Friday, Oct. 19, and allowed the network to figure things out over the weekend. The Hill’s story indicates that Kilmeade “thought nothing of the purchase until Fox made him aware of the donation over the weekend.”
The Erik Wemple Blog makes a big deal of situations of this sort. A few years back, the Washington Free Beacon lost a scoop to Politico on ABC News star George Stephanopoulos’s donations to the Clinton Foundation after contacting that network for comment. We asked ABC News to assure us that it didn’t steer the exclusive to Politico; we never got that assurance.
There’s nothing illegal about such tactics, but there is everything slimy about them. We asked Irena Briganti and Carly Shanahan of Fox News PR about Barr’s complaint that he was given off-the-record information and then no response to a request for a statement. Did Fox News play any role in tipping off the Hill? Fox News PR responded by asking to go off the record.
Are you kidding? We haven’t gotten anything on the record. Though many of its programs indicate otherwise, Fox News claims to be a news outlet around the clock, as spelled out in the logo that appears on the lower left area of the screen. “Fox News.” Its own reporters every day depend on the good faith of PR officials, gatekeepers, press aides and whatnot in private industry, government, nonprofits, etc.
An email to the reporter of the Hill article didn’t fetch a response.
A couple of humorous lessons emerge from Barr’s Twitter thread. One is that Fox News PR appears to have tried suppressing the story by telling Barr off the record that Kilmeade hadn’t made a direct cash donation, and that it was an unknowing donation-via-Christmas-decoration kind of thing.
And as for Fox News’s attempt to interest Barr in “the NBC/Megyn stuff”: Whenever PR types take to recommending stories about their competitors, rest assured that you are working on something worthwhile.