TV channel or cult?: Fox News’ paranoid P.R. machine

Paranoid culture of secrecy includes a political campaign-style P.R. apparatus that plants smears against critics

Topics: Fox News, Public Relations, CNN, Opening Shot, Roger Ailes, Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly, Benghazi, ,

TV channel or cult?: Fox News' paranoid P.R. machine

Fox News fired its head of P.R. 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’ scorched-earth style of P.R. 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 P.R.!) 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 P.R. 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 mind-set of the post-’60s white backlash, something people born after the 1960s can’t relate to at all.

Part of Ailes’ great success is simply great timing. He got in the game, alongside Richard Nixon, at the start of the great conservative backlash. He is a master at appealing to and manipulating the pissed-off American white man. He began his career selling Nixon to worried white people and now he’s selling older, even more worried white people reverse mortgages and #BENGHAZI. But that generational tantrum is currently in its rampaging hysterical death throes. The next generation is not quite as panicky about the endangered state of white supremacy.

So the Fox problem isn’t just partisanship. It’s in the culture of the company. Fox will continue to have trouble appealing to a wider variety of people as long as its leader, the person who embodies everything Fox News, is a paranoid, angry old man who handles staff issues like a Stalinist, erasing disfavored former deputies from history and ordering all who seek to remain in his good graces to denounce their former comrade as a traitor.

My question, and this question is basically directed at the people above Ailes in the News Corp corporate hierarchy, is this: Does Fox actually need a culture of secrecy, or a political campaign-style P.R. apparatus that regularly plants smears against its critics? Is this a cable television news channel or Scientology? What is even the point of going to great lengths to discredit a forthcoming biography of Ailes by planting stories in the conservative blogosphere? How many Breitbart.com readers were going to read Sherman’s biography? How many of them would’ve turned against Ailes were it not for the constant, ridiculous anti-Sherman smears Ailes is planting?

It’s not just that Fox’s war on enemy journalists is unethical and unprofessional, it’s that it’s frequently embarrassing for Fox. Every time they go to war against someone who wrote something they don’t like, they simply create more stores about unhinged Ailes and his strange and petty retributions. If Roger Ailes wants people to stop claiming he’s paranoid and crazy, he needs to stop acting paranoid and crazy. If Fox wants journalists to stop treating their channel like a cult run by a madman, well, maybe someone should consider convincing the madman to retire.

Alex Pareene

Alex Pareene writes about politics for Salon and is the author of "The Rude Guide to Mitt." Email him at apareene@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @pareene

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