Crazy like a fox

Fox news is out to save its ailing Web site by borrowing -- literally and politically -- from its resurgent news channel. Even if it means rewriting a few stories.

Published May 25, 2000 8:19PM (EDT)

On May 16, Rupert Murdoch's News
sponsored a "new media workshop" in downtown Manhattan.

After a projected image of unofficial corporate mascot Homer Simpson ("Doh!") brought
from the suits in attendance, News Digital president Jon Richmond took the
podium to
tout the company's Web presence in the U.S. and, he said, have become popular
Nobody disagreed.

But when Richmond brought up, and News Corp.'s plans to
complement it
with local Fox TV affiliates, the crowd was silent.

The news channel has a site?

Meanwhile, just a few blocks uptown at News Corp. HQ, there can be heard
sound: The whooshing noise of employees printing out their
risumis. The all-news site has always been a revolving door:
Its dismal
Web ratings (it finished a distant sixth place to industry leader in February and March) and
dysfunctional management style have made it a way station for online
journalists for
years. But an on-high decision to remake the site in the image of the more
successful Fox
News Channel seems to be roiling the waters.

Why are employees jumping ship? This looks to be one heavy-handed makeover.

"The channel has sent people in," said one staff member who chose to remain
anonymous. "There's been a deliberate shift toward a more conservative point
of view.
They've been going around saying they want us to be more 'fair and
balanced' -- which to
them means more of a focus on conservative values."

Anyone familiar with the Fox News Channel knows that its outlook -- and most
of its
commentators -- are unabashedly conservative, and much of its programming is
to talk rather than hard news. But under the guidance of Fox News chairman
Roger Ailes,
that focus on politics and personalities has proven to be a winner. After
years of
struggling, the network now enjoys parity with its competitors, MSNBC and
Murdoch would clearly like to see some of that mojo transplanted to the
moribund news

Ailes, a former media advisor to presidents Nixon, Reagan and Bush, has made
his mark
on other networks as well. It is he we have to thank for programs such as "A
Affair" and "The Maury Povich Show"; while at CNBC and NBC's all-argument
experiment "America's Talking," he brought Chris Matthews to the world and
life into Geraldo Rivera (the John Travolta of prime time news). Now at Fox
News he has
done the same thing, making stars of conservative commentators like Bill
O'Reilly and
ABC-defector Brit Hume. (Between disasters, Ailes has noted, news watchers
something to return to.) And he has provided a safe haven to the
conservatives of our country -- free from what they consider the liberal
mewlings of
CNN, NBC, ABC et al. -- under the banner: "We Report, You Decide."

Some close to say Ailes has now taken an interest in influencing

Laura Durkin, News Digital Media's senior vice president, says the push
toward a
"convergence" between the channel and the site is only logical. "The idea
for the News
Corporation is to have one Fox News effort that joins together all the news
rooms all over
the country here and across the U.S.," she says. "There's no point in us
doing things

She also discounts tales of employee dissatisfaction and downplays the
chalking them up to the peripatetic nature of new media. "The pressures of
the market
here in New York are such that there is turnover," she says. "We've actually
been very

At least one new face can be found preaching the gospel of convergence. The team now reports to new executive editor Scott Norvell, a
veteran of the
Fox News Channel, who was recently on assignment in London. "Laura and Mr.
brought me over here because we're spending a lot of time and money
producing a lot of
content at the news channel that -- because of the nature of television --
disappears into the ether and doesn't get used again," he says.

"I hate to use the word 'convergence,'" he adds. "It's one of those
buzzwords that makes
me insane. My job here is from a procedural point of view to figure out a
way to make it
work. It wasn't happening naturally."

In early meetings with site staff, Norvell spelled out his mission -- and
the direction the
site would need to go. "My first goal was to make sure that a lot of the
stories getting up
on the channel are getting up on the Web site. That basically means taking a
script and repurposing it for the Web."

Repurposing TV scripts is not why some of the journalists at got
into this
business ("That meeting caused a lot of people to start looking for jobs,"
according to one
staffer), but it may be no worse than rewriting wire stories from AP and
Reuters to brand
them as "Fox News." They call the process "foxify," and according to one
former staffer,
it can play hell with a story. "Things would get rewritten so many times the
final piece
would be incoherent."

Worse, some reporters say they have been encouraged to rewrite controversial
stories --
especially those dealing with gun control, abortion and homosexuality -- to
better reflect
the prevailing opinions found on the channel. Both Durkin and Norvell deny a conservative mandate.

"The news that we put up is not going to change," insists Norvell. "The
personality sites
[pages devoted to Fox News TV talent] will reflect the personalities of the
people on the
air. The personalities of the O'Reillys of the world are self-evident."

A casual visitor to the site might be more frustrated by the technology than
any alarmist
politics presented. Searches don't work, pop-up windows don't scroll, the
Java script on
the front page seems to seep through every application (at least on my
laptop). "There are
sirens going off all over the place here about trying to fix some back-end
problems we've
had for a long time," says Norvell.

While political bias often seems evident -- Rep. Rick Lazio, R-N.Y., was
touted as
"Hillary's Nightmare" and the story of the Arkansas supreme court's
recommendation that
President Clinton be disbarred featured a photo of Bill grinning like a
jackal from behind
the presidential podium. Still, it's no more (or less) overt than a Murdoch
publication like
the New York Post. Which, says editor of rival Merrill Brown, is
the point.

"There's no question about the fact that they have a different take on
stories; there's no
question that they book guests and hire hosts [on the channel] with a
different kind of
balance than I believe, as a journalist, is appropriate for objective
journalism," says
Brown. "I don't have a problem with that. I do have a problem with their
unwillingness to
admit what they're doing."

Some of the friction over at the news site may be the result of typical New
journalists -- moderate to liberal in their politics, a mix of races and
genders, gay and
straight -- accepting what they perceive as a conservative influx. Some of
it may be
old-fashioned employee burnout at a company known for its occasionally
managerial style. Either way, the exodus shows no sign of slackening. There
were so
many people leaving for a while that departing employees were asked not to
co-workers they were going: They simply disappeared. One ex-staffer asked me
if I'd
heard of the "cake budget."

"There were so many people leaving for a while that people who were favored
got a big
cake," she says. "And the people they didn't like would either get no cake
or a little cake,
and you could only have a couple of people come and say goodbye. The
question became,
'What kind of cake am I gonna get?'"

And in the end, isn't that what we all want to know? The problems of a few
small people
don't amount to a hill of beans in the making of global multimedia empire.
(To borrow
another line from "Casablanca," at least one old Fox hand I spoke to said
she was
"shocked, shocked" to learn there was any conservative opinion mongering

In a larger context, the changes at might simply be seen as good
sense -- and another attempt by Murdoch to get his hands around the Web. I
worked for
Murdoch in 1995, on an aborted joint venture between News Corp. and MCI
called the
iGuide. That experiment was too chaotic to be conservative; no one knew what
to do with
this thing, let alone what ideology it should have.

But the boss's prejudices were made manifest. I assembled a bulletin board
of sorts during
the United Nation's Women's Congress in Beijing that year, a collection of
opinions from
feminists and politicians. On the top of the page was one written by Sen.
Kennedy (or someone on his staff) -- and I arrived one morning to find it
was gone.
Murdoch was on the premises, I was told, and he hated Kennedy. Rather than
offending him, the pesky Ted was removed. (And Rupert probably wishes it
were that
easy in real life.)

Though some think Murdoch blew it with the iGuide (the project was scrapped
MCI pulled out), News Corp. may be in an even better position to tackle the
Internet now.
According to Norvell, Murdoch has invested 250 million pounds to building
television's Internet efforts in the U.K., and Wall Street loves him.
he has never been one to let ideology slow him down; the Village Voice
remained largely
unchanged under his ownership, and lord knows, Matt Groening is no

If a conservative tilt has worked on cable, maybe it will make it on the
Web. "Caveat
emptor," says Columbia Journalism Review editor at large Neil Hickey. "The
more the
merrier. The antidote to controversial speech is more controversial speech,
not less."

By Sean Elder

Sean Elder is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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