I Spent Eight Years As a Liberal Working for Fox News
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Joe Muto was just a young liberal guy who haphazardly fell into a career at Fox News. Eight years later, he departed in dramatic fashion after becoming, for a brief moment, Gawker.com's anonymous “Liberal Fox Mole.”
A couple of misdemeanor charges later, Muto wrote a book about his experiences working for Bill O'Reilly. An Atheist in the FOXhole: A Liberal's Eight-Year Odyssey Inside the Heart of the Right-Wing Media is an entertaining insider's account of what it's like behind the scenes at a Republican advocacy organization that also happens to be the top-rated cable news station in the United States. We caught up with Muto by phone last week.
Joshua Holland: Joe, you didn't end up at Fox as part of some ideological crusade. How did a liberal end up working in the heart of darkness?
Joe Muto: That would have been an even more amazing story if I had started there and stayed there for eight years with the intent of doing this the whole time.
It was weird. I finished college and I was aimless as, I’m guessing, many exiting college seniors are. I just knew I wanted to be in New York. I wanted to do something in media and I sent out a flurry of resumes. My undistinguished GPA in an undistinguished major got me zero responses except for Fox News.
I was nervous about taking a job with them. I didn’t know if I would show up and they’d make me swear allegiance to a photo of Ronald Reagan in an occult ceremony or something like that. I had no idea what to expect but I actually had a buddy who had done an internship for them. He’s like, “Yes, it’s normal, whatever. Who cares?”
I thought, I’ll give it a few months and see what happens. If I can’t stand the place, I’ll bug out and get a job somewhere else, but it seems it’s a good way to start a career and to start in New York City—to get a foothold.
JH: After eight years, you figured you’d be happier working at Gawker, which many of us would be … so you became the Fox mole.
I wouldn’t say you were like James Bond in covering up your tracks. How did Fox figure out it was you after about 10 minutes?
JM: (Laughs) Ten minutes is being a little generous. It was about three minutes. It was not the stuff I was writing. The stuff I was writing, I was covering my tracks enough that it didn’t lead straight to me, but it was the video clips. Those stupid, inconsequential video clips. I had one clip of Newt Gingrich getting his hair done by his wife. I had another clip of Mitt Romney talking about his love for his dressage horses.
With those two clips, they were able to trace to me. They didn’t know—they didn’t have me completely there. They were like, We don’t know that you took these clips, but we can tell that you’re one of the only people in the company who looked at both of them.
JH: You faced a couple of charges for this. John Cook over at Gawker says that prosecuting you was an outrageous abuse of power. Your view?
JM: An outrageous abuse of power... I'm of a mixed mind about it. I had to plead to a couple of misdemeanor charges and I’m doing community service. They gave me 10 days of community service and 200 additional hours. The other people are all in there for drug charges, DUIs. One guy smashed a bottle in another guy’s face. I have a major inferiority complex because they were talking about all these amazing stuff they’ve done and I’m like, Yes, I leaked a video of Newt Gingrich getting trimmed by his wife.
In the end I just made stuff up and told people I was in a bar fight.
I do feel I maybe got a bit of a harsher penalty than would normally be warranted for someone like me who’s a first-time offender. At the same time, I did it. It’s not like I’m innocent. Maybe karmically, this is what I deserve.
JH: You got a book deal out of it. There’s always that.
JM: I did. Maybe I’m doing OK on balance. Not too shabby.
JH: Let’s talk about what it’s like working at Fox News. First, I was surprised that everyone in the building isn’t a true believer. I figured that many really believe that they’re fair and balanced and an antidote to the so-called liberal media, but it seems that a lot of your co-workers knew they were in a propaganda business?
JM: In my experience, nobody believed the spin—even the people who were conservative, like the producers who were totally conservative, hated the liberal media, all that stuff. Even they knew that our job was not to be, “fair and balanced.” They knew it. They knew why we were there.
We used to call it "stirring up the crazies." That’s what we said with our broadcasts, is that we wanted to stir up as much as outrage as possible because angry people watch more TV. We knew that was our job and we never pretended otherwise. No one ever bought into the official company line that we were really the only fair and balanced one because everyone else was so liberal. Nobody actually believed that.
JH: What’s it like from the perspective of being a worker at a right-wing company like that? I remember one of the Gawker posts you wrote, which was hilarious ... it was about their low-rent newsroom and the bathrooms being in this constant state of disrepair. What is that like, on a daily basis?
JM: Fox is known within the industry for being very stingy. They’re cheap. They don’t pay their employees that much. They pay their anchors pretty well. O’Reilly is making eight figures. Their lower-level employees get paid nothing. My starting salary was $12 an hour and I got a raise to $12.74 an hour after six months.
They’re cheap there. They don’t pay to upgrade the facilities. There’s bed bugs all over the newsroom. All the equipment is 10 years old which, when you’re in a high-tech, fast-paced field like cable news and your computer is crashing every five minutes, that‘s a problem, that's a huge problem. That’s one of the reasons actually why I was so confident that they wouldn’t be able to catch me with the video clips, because the online video clip system would crash on a weekly basis. It turns out they’re much better tracking me than they are at their day jobs.
JH: It’s a right-wing company. You figure security is a competent part of the organization.
As a liberal, were any of your co-workers ever on to you? I assume you had to cover up your views. Did anybody suspect?
JM: I kept my mouth shut about where my personal beliefs lay because everyone was paranoid there. There was a lot of paranoia in the newsrooms. People honestly believe, and I still half-believe it to this day, that the newsroom is bugged, that there were audio listening devices in the ceilings so that Ailes could figure out if there were any liberals in his newsroom, if anyone was talking bad about him in the newsroom, that kind of thing.
There was this sense of paranoia, especially amongst the scant number of liberals, but as my career went on, and I got more comfortable there, I let it slip, I guess, probably during the 2008 elections, I guess people have caught on to where my sympathies lay.
The other people on the O’Reilly staff didn’t really seem to have a problem with it. I don’t know if O’Reilly himself knew. I don’t know if he would have cared if he knew. He probably would have just rolled his eyes and said I was an idiot and then continued on his day, because he doesn’t really care about what his staffers think because our views never made it on the air. Only his did.
JH: When I think of Fox, I think of the ubiquitous, perfectly coiffed women who make up a lot of the on-air talent. Do they grow them in some kind of high-tech hydroponic farm? Are they all ideologically in tune or do you sense that, for some of them, it’s just a gig?
JM: I don’t know where they find these ladies. It’s like a MILF parade, constantly, in the hallways of the 17th floor. The women, I think, some of them are true believers. Some of them are just faking it. With the male hosts, it’s different. The male hosts, for whatever reason, are … that does seem to be where their beliefs are, but the female hosts, I think, are just good-looking women who had a choice of either going into acting or going into news, and they went for news. All the best-looking ones got snatched up by Ailes, who does believe that the better-looking people you have on your air, the more people are going to watch.
JH: They're the ratings leader, so he may be onto something, I would say. Now, you talk about how Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly hate each other. What’s their beef about?
JM: It’s the normal penis-measuring that goes on between two alpha males. Ratings has the most to do with it. O’Reilly is number one. Hannity is number two. What’s funny is that they’re each convinced that the other one is trying to sabotage their show. They’re always squabbling over who gets which guests, who gets them when, and I want this guest before you get him.
There’s a rule in place. Ailes had to come in and impose some rules. He was like, If one of you has Karl Rove on Monday, the other one can’t have him on Tuesday. You got to have the one-day gap. You got to wait for Wednesday.
There’s all these arcane rules about when you can have guest on. It’s a pathetic sight to see these two grown men fighting over who gets Bernie Goldberg, Karl Rove and … I was going to say Dick Morris. Not him anymore. One of my favorite fights was when they hired Sarah Palin, and there was just this free-for-all scrum between all the top anchors over who would get her first as a Fox News contributor. (O’Reilly actually won that one.)
JH: Now, you have a bit of respect for O’Reilly. You say he’s a misunderstood media figure. He also sounds like an anal compulsive guy in a big way. In the book, you note that if anything is thrown off in his schedule in the slightest way, he can go into a fit of rage. You say that it was often easier to let him believe something that was wrong than to explain it. Tell us about O’Reilly and your views of him.
JM: In the book, I make him sound like Rain Man in that you can’t throw off his schedule. He’ll get mad. He’ll go, "It’s chaos. It’s chaos right there. Hold on."
It is a pretty well-oiled machine and he gets all these people (I was one of them) scrambling to make his day easy. He does need everything handed to him in very easily digestible snippets. If you give him a piece of paper, you can’t just hand him a piece of paper. You have to put it in a manila folder and write on the outside what’s in the folder or else he gets … I actually forgot to put that in the book. That’s actually a funny detail. I’ll save that for the paperback. If you give him a piece of paper and it’s not in a labeled folder, he’ll never find it. He’ll say, "I never got that piece of paper. What happened?"
He’ll get really agitated about that. He does need a lot of hand-holding, but he is the head of a rather large operation, I guess. He does have a lot of stuff crossing his desk from time to time.
JH: Folks, that was an exclusive about Bill O’Reilly and his manila folders.
What about the people around who seem like real journalists. The name Shep Smith comes to mind. Possibly Chris Wallace, although I think he’s a pretty ideological guy. How do you think they see their work at Fox News?
JM: We deal with some serious journalists. A lot of them are working in the DC bureau. I think I put this in the book—they hold themselves at arms' length from the New York people. They’re chasing down leads through the halls of Congress and we’re digging into the garbage of murdered white ladies. That’s the way they see it and that’s fairly accurate, but there was a sense that they are embarrassed by us sometimes. But we’re the ones bringing in the money that makes what they do possible.
As far as specific people, I think Shep is really talented and does play it pretty down the middle. I like Chris Wallace, too. He is conservative, it seems to me at times, but he’s pretty fair, at least his on-air presentation. He’s not afraid to criticize the other side—he’ll criticize conservatives from time to time, if need be.
JH: People on the right often say that MSNBC is doing the exact same thing as Fox. How do you see that? Do you see them as fundamentally different in the way they operate?
JM: Yes. I think the difference is MSNBC does not pander down to its audience. Fox dumbs things down and over-explains things to the audience, whereas MSNBC treats its audience like they're smart, they know what’s going on, and they don’t need things spoon-fed to them. That’s one difference. Another difference—and this is a huge difference that never gets mentioned —is that MSNBC handed over three or four hours every morning to a former Republican congressman, Joe Scarborough. You would never see that on Fox. Fox would never have Anthony Weiner or someone hosting a three-hour block in the morning. That would just never happen.
That’s the big difference is that Fox is a lot more ideologically rigid than MSNBC. MSNBC is courting liberal viewers with their primetime shows, especially, but I don’t think the network, as a whole, is as devoted to one ideological point of view as Fox is.
JH: Dennis Kucinich is the former representative that I’d like to see have a three-hour morning show on Fox. That would be entertaining.
JM: He works for Fox now, doesn’t he? Didn’t they hire him to be a contributor?
JH: You wrote that at Fox—and this is key to the whole thing—you wrote and I quote, “The message isn’t so much pushed as it is pulled gravitationally, with Roger Ailes as the sun at the center of the solar system; his vice-presidents were the forces of gravity that kept the planet-sized anchors and executive producers in a tight orbit.”
Tell us a bit more about this.
JM: I apologize for that tortured metaphor, but....basically, that was me trying to demonstrate that there is a degree of autonomy. There’s no proverbial morning meeting where everyone gets together and decides, This is how we’re going to spin the news today. That doesn’t happen. But that’s not to say that there’s not a degree of control.
Everyone who’s in the position of authority knows what is expected of them. If they somehow forget themselves and go off the reservation too far, they get a little bit of leeway, depending on what show it is. But if they go too far off the reservation, they’re getting a phone call from the executive floor. Usually from one of the vice-presidents, but sometimes from Ailes himself. He’s the final arbiter of disputes.
Every show is required to, before they tape, submit a list of topics and a list of guests to a vice-president, who will then review it and sign off on it. If anything raises any red flags, you’re going to hear about it.
Even if it’s just, "I see you’re doing this topic and this guest. What angle are you going to take? You can take that angle. That’s fine." That kind of checkup is common.
JH: You also write about how not only individual guests can be banned for life from all Fox shows, but also entire organizations. Tell us about that.
JM: It made my job as a producer harder because sometimes we just get this edict from the second floor that, You can no longer book this person, or, You can no longer book anyone who writes for Politico.com, for example, which was annoying because Politico is a good organization, in that they make their reporters readily available to go on TV. That was our lazy fallback if we needed someone to comment on a story.
That was annoying when they banned them. The weird thing is, they never told us why. It was a mystery.
JH: Sounds like the USSR where people just disappeared and nobody knew why.
JM: The paranoia level was probably on par with that. There are certain other people like Bill Maher, the comedian, he's just banned for… he made one too many Sarah Palin jokes and he can’t come on the network. He used to come on O’Reilly's show, but he can’t come onto the network anymore.
JH: You said that there’s no morning meetings where they get their spin right. What about the revelations in Outfoxed, the film by Robert Greenwald, that there was this daily memo keeping everyone up to speed on how the day’s news should be interpreted. Have you never seen those?
JM: I did see those. Those were still going everyday when I started in 2004 and they stopped going out, I think, pretty shortly after Outfoxed came out. They were always there as guidance and some people maybe took them to heart, but most of us just ignored them. They were a smoking gun for that documentary. It looked bad and there’s a lot of out-of-context things you could pull and say, That looks pretty terrible.
But as far as guiding the overall coverage, it was really more of the system I described earlier. It was not those memos specifically that were really guiding people.