Since a series of sexual harassment accusations led to the ouster of Roger Ailes as chairman and CEO of Fox News Channel last summer, the managerial culture he created at the network has come under increased scrutiny. Ailes' old-fashioned, male-dominated style has been characterized by many former employees as sexist, but another aspect of it has received little attention: the many ways that Fox News was run more like a political operation than a journalistic enterprise.
During the Ailes era, the network’s ferocity in defending itself against inconvenient facts and journalists it deemed unfair became legendary among the small group of people who cover the media business. Under its former head, the network employed a team of “black room” operators who allegedly obtained phone records and credit reports of reporters disliked by Ailes. According to news reports, private investigators working for the company were dispatched to follow journalists, apparently to find out whom they were meeting. According to sources, sometimes Fox News corporate funds were used for such endeavors; other times, Ailes paid for them himself.
That ultra-aggressive approach to promotion during the Ailes era also extended to the online world, where Fox News employees and contractors were dispatched to do battle against not just mainstream media reporters but also against small-time bloggers and even website commenters. Fox News even went so far as to create at least two anonymous websites that attacked the competition.
This strategy of online fakery — a practice known as creating "sock puppet" accounts, in internet parlance — was an outgrowth of the corporate culture established by Ailes when he launched the channel at the behest of media mogul Rupert Murdoch in 1996. With a background in Republican politicking instead of news reporting, Ailes infused his fledgling operation with the ethos of a political campaign. Nearly eight months removed from Ailes’ leadership, executives at Fox News and its parent company 21st Century Fox are still discovering some of the arcane structures and methods he once employed.
Under Ailes, Fox News did not limit its promotion efforts to the realm of media criticism. The network also retained the services of a now-defunct public relations firm called New Media Strategies to create and operate a series of homespun-looking websites designed to market women who worked as hosts or correspondents in a manner that can only be described as overtly sexist.
Creating and operating the websites was part of a larger series of marketing services that New Media Strategies provided Fox News. Bill Shine, the network's current co-president and a former right-hand man to Ailes, was the primary point of contact on the New Media Strategies account, although there is no evidence he knew of the sock puppet sites' existence during the roughly 12 months that they were published.
A Fox News spokeswoman said that New Media Strategies “did work solely for former CEO and chairman Roger Ailes” and that Shine was not aware of the websites until Salon began reporting this story.
New Media Strategies employees created several blogs dedicated to specific women, including former correspondent Laurie Dhue and former "Fox and Friends" co-host Kiran Chetry, all of which were linked into a larger portal website called Girls of Fox News, which described itself this way:
Girls of Fox News is a fan site dedicated to the programming genius and casting abilities of Fox News. We think the unbelievable ladies of Fox News rock! They put the broad in broadcasting. We love watching them and we love when they guide us through the top news and hot issues of the day. Join our mission — start your own fan sites devoted to the girls of Fox News.
While the site occasionally made forays into media criticism — two November 2006 posts attacked the liberal nonprofit group Media Matters — the vast majority of the content on Girls of Fox News consisted of frequently misspelled reactions to unintentionally suggestive screenshots, and videos of Fox News Channel employees crossing their legs or appearing to make kissing gestures.
Megyn Kelly, a former anchor who left the network last year after accusing Roger Ailes of sexually harassing her, was a frequent target of the site's demeaning admiration. A Feb. 20, 2007, post commented on a photo of Kelly:
Whew — hot, single, and just waiting around her New York City apartment for someone to take her out (see above). Gentlemen, start your engines.
The blog entry was filed by its author under the categories “Single,” “party in my pants” and “Girls Gone Wild,” among several others.
Many other women were praised in even more disrespectful terms, including Courtney Friel, a former Fox News reporter who is now an anchor at a Los Angeles-area TV station.
"Who wouldnt want to cop a Friel?" the site asked on Feb. 22, 2007, after posting a picture of the journalist wearing a low-cut shirt.
Alisyn Camerota, now a host at CNN, was also a target of the site's lurid admiration and was once described as a "bimbo" in an August 2006 post. A post the following January congratulated her on giving birth to a son: "Nates future friends will enjoy hanging out at the Camerota household for some milf and cookies." Milf is an offensive slang term often used in pornography, an abbreviation for “mom I’d like to fuck.”
* * *
During its operation, Girls of Fox News featured scores of similarly degrading remarks about female employees of Fox News, along with frequent appeals to watch the latest launch or relaunch of various network programs.
While the site has not functioned in nearly 10 years, the domain girlsoffoxnews.com appears to have been continuously renewed by its owner. That individual or entity has also chosen to use a privacy protection service that anonymizes it from public-record searches.
Web users typing in the domain today are redirected to a Yahoo search for “Fox News” or “Breaking News,” via a domain monetization company called Sedo.
In an April 5 statement, Pete Snyder, the former CEO of New Media Strategies, denied any connection with Girls of Fox News:
I reviewed the 11-year-old, archived content of this site this morning for the first time and find it vile and objectionable. I do not believe that is the work product of anyone affiliated with my former company, NMS. We represented over 150 clients, and this type of content would not have been allowed or approved by anyone at NMS.
According to two sources, it is possible that Snyder may not have known about the fake fan websites, since New Media Strategies employees and third-party contractors were frequently given enormous autonomy on projects. Another source who formerly worked at New Media Strategies, however, expressed doubt that Snyder could have been completely unaware of the sites or their content.
Within New Media Strategies, according to several former employees, the Fox News business was regarded as Snyder’s account. He was even, for several years, described as a “Fox News contributor.”
Although Girls of Fox News was shuttered in 2007, careful readers were able to peruse some of the site's content through the use of the Wayback Machine, a service provided by the Internet Archive that lets users view virtual snapshots of websites as they appeared at various times in the past.
As Salon began reporting this story by interviewing Snyder and others familiar with the New Media Strategies and Fox News relationship, the owner of girlsoffoxnews.com appears to have devised a method to remove the blog from the Wayback Machine. This required the use of a file called robots.txt, which can be configured to block archiving software like that used by the Internet Archive. Salon did not tell Snyder about the Dhue and Chetry websites and as of this writing they remain publicly accessible. As might be expected, the operator of the domain did not respond to a request for comment.
Shortly after the Girls of Fox News site was removed from the Wayback Machine, this reporter was contacted by Stephanie Cutter, the former deputy campaign manager of Barack Obama’s 2012 presidential campaign. Cutter's connection to Snyder and New Media Strategies is unclear. In an email correspondence, she said she was acting on Snyder’s behalf only as “a long time friend.” She repeatedly asked this reporter to make clear that New Media Strategies had not engaged in online trolling operations on behalf of Fox News.
Cutter also suggested that Fox News might well be the current owner of the girlsoffoxnews.com domain. “If NMS registered the URL for aggregation purposes, at most they would have registered it for a year before turning it over to Fox,” she wrote in an email.
A representative for Fox News denied that the network was the current operator or owner of the Chetry, Dhue or Girls of Fox News blogs.
* * *
While the fake fan sites have remained virtually unknown, the Ailes response machine has received some coverage over the years. NPR media reporter David Folkenflik wrote extensively about Fox News's obsession with dominating the online conversation in his 2013 biography of Murdoch.
"There was the expectation that the PR people would have read 100, 200, 300 comments deep on some relatively obscure blog post critical of one of their on-air talents," he told Salon in an interview.
"If that comment had not been mocked, addressed, or flamed online, some of the PR staffers would get calls as early as 2 in the morning asking, 'Why haven't you dealt with this?'" Folkenflik said.
As part of the network's efforts to sway public opinion, Folkenflik reported, Fox News employees were required to purchase USB portable hot spots and secondhand laptops for the sole purpose of creating sock puppet accounts to attack journalists who were deemed enemies of Ailes.
Fox News staffers also tried other methods to mold the opinions of bloggers and commentators who were popular within the media industry. According to a knowledgeable source, the network's publicity staff regularly provided proprietary ratings data to Brian Stelter, now a host for CNN, when he was operating an anonymous, independent blog called Cable Newser in the early 2000s. (Stelter did not respond to a request for comment.)
Over time, Ailes and his inner circle came to the opinion that Stelter was an unfair liberal and decided to take matters into their own hands through the creation of an anonymous TV news blog of their own called The Cable Game. It was launched in July 2005, as a separate project run by the black room operatives rather than the Fox News PR department.
The sock puppet site, whose true origins were first disclosed by New York magazine reporter Gabriel Sherman in his extensive 2014 biography of Ailes, was supposedly written by an anonymous woman. It was actually the work of a team headed by former Fox News contributor Jim Pinkerton, according to two sources familiar with its operations.
Pinkerton did not respond to attempts to contact him for this story. A Fox News representative declined to comment on The Cable Game except to say, “Jim Pinkerton is no longer with the network.”
A GOP campaign veteran, Pinkerton was an ideal choice for the job. He had worked for Ailes since the 1980s and even served as the ghostwriter for an autobiography that the Fox News founder ultimately declined to publish. Pinkerton was also a regular panelist on the network's former media discussion show "Fox News Watch," a perch he used several times to promote his pseudonymous blog during its six-year run, which ended in 2011. (An unauthorized archive created by a spammer is still available online as of this writing.)
Beyond frequently promoting Pinkerton himself, The Cable Game was shameless in its shilling for Ailes' network. The sock puppet blog also took a number of digs at competitors, particularly Paula Zahn, a news anchor who had left Fox News in 2001 for CNN, in a move that enraged Ailes.
On the first day the site was in operation, The Cable Game attacked Zahn's appearance in a post commenting about a photo of her:
I really don't want to tune in to a show that sounds like my mother yelling at me when I was six. "Pick. Up. Your. Toys. NOW."
Actually, Paula kind of has that "Mommy needs a drink" look in this picture, doesn't she?
A year later, the sock puppet blog referred to Zahn's hairstyle as "the equivalent of a dead cat" in a post that described her and several other female television journalists as "the bearded ladies of national news." In a 2007 post claiming that Zahn had "always epitomized what was wrong with TV news," the site fondly recalled Ailes' parting shot about Zahn, when he claimed he could get better ratings in her time slot with a "dead raccoon."
In addition to operating The Cable Game, the Fox News black ops team also began subsidizing the work of a Michigan lawyer turned blogger named Mark Koldys, known online as Johnny Dollar, according to a source.
Koldys, who did not respond to an interview request, has defended Fox News and attacked its left-leaning critics online for many years. He began in July of 2004 with a blog called Johnny Dollar's Place: Cable News Truth, whose first posts were dedicated to attacking an anti-Fox News documentary called "Outfoxed." The site was frequently promoted on The Cable Game.
Besides writing for his own site (which still publishes material but apparently is no longer subsidized by Fox News), Koldys also frequently wrote for a now-defunct blog called OlbermannWatch, a site set up in late 2004 to criticize and parody former MSNBC host Keith Olbermann. The creator of that site, Robert Cox, said in an interview that Koldys denied being paid by Fox News at the time. Cox further added that he had not been paid by Fox News.
The Fox News spokeswoman said that Koldys had not been paid by the network to the best of her knowledge. A legal representative for Ailes did not respond when contacted for this story.
Updated at 11:21 a.m. ET: This story has been updated to clarify Fox News Channel's position on its relationship to Mark Koldys.