TV Channel or Cult?: Fox News’ Paranoid PR Machine
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
Fox News fired its head of PR recently, an act that would’ve been a dry bit of news of interest only to cable news junkies and media reporters were it not for Fox News’s scorched-earth style of PR. Thanks to Fox’s own efforts, the story of the firing of a guy you’ve never heard of became proper news, discussed and analyzed by people who’d never notice if CNN fired some random suit. At Fox News, the conspiratorial paranoia on the screen often seems like a reflection of the conspiratorial paranoia in the offices.
Brian Lewis had been with Fox News for 17 years, with his final title being executive vice president of corporate communications. On July 25, he was “terminated for cause,” according to Fox News corporate communications, and escorted from the building. Fox cited “financial issues” and did not elaborate. New York Magazine’s Gabriel Sherman, whose forthcoming biography of Roger Ailes has caused the already nutty Ailes to act nuttier than usual, said the firing would further isolate Ailes from dissenting viewpoints. Sherman referred to Lewis as a “moderating influence” on Ailes, and one of his most trusted advisers since Fox News was first launched.
Sherman’s short piece led to the sort of coordinated “push-back” effort that Lewis pioneered in his years at Fox, with multiple Fox personalities insisting that Lewis had never been important to anyone, least of all Ailes. “Lewis and Gabriel Sherman are the only two who believe that Lewis was actually the right-hand man to Roger Ailes,” someone told Mediaite. (In fact, “right-hand man” was how the Hollywood Reporter referred to Lewis, before Sherman’s piece even was published. Similar language was used by the L.A. Times, the New York Times, and… a bunch of other places. Good zing, though, Fox PR!) Ailes even asked Donald Trump to trash Sherman’s piece on Twitter, and Trump complied.
The story of Lewis’ firing seems to have something to do with Sherman’s forthcoming book, and Ailes’ suspicion that Lewis was one of Sherman’s sources. “Brian was operating outside the culture of the company, and thus violated his contract, so Roger let him go,” an executive told Mike Allen, who has published Fox News executive rebuttals (and prebuttals) to other journalists’ reporting on Fox in the past. “The culture of the company,” at Fox News, is basically paranoia, omerta, and vicious retribution.
The person now solely in charge of public relations for Fox News is Irena Briganti, a person whose relationship with journalists has been described as “vindictive” and“ruthless.” Most reporters who’ve had to deal with her have horror stories of threats, accusations, and blacklisting. Briganti and the Fox PR shop have been known to perform campaign-style “opposition research” on journalists they perceive as unfriendly.
We all know that Fox is deeply worried about the demographics of its viewers — they’re really old — and that Roger Ailes is “shaking up” the network in order to appeal to a newer, more diverse generation of Americans. (His moves so far: Putting Megyn “The New Black Panther Party are coming to get you” Kelly in prime time and putting Elisabeth “Great AmerMcCain Hero” Hasselbeck on in the mornings.)
The problem isn’t Sean Hannity, though. Or Bill O’Reilly. The problem is Ailes. As long as he’s running the network — and he’ll be running the network as long as Rupert Murdoch is alive — the network will fail to appeal to most people under 40. As Jordan Chariton wrote at Salon earlier this month, Fox’s demographics problem is simple: Ailes is committed to creating conservative content, and young people are getting more and more liberal. But it’s not just that the content is conservative, it’s that it reflects the mindset of the post-sixties white backlash, something people born after the 1960s can’t relate to at all.