U.S. News

01.10.14

Fox’s War Against Ailes Biographer

Fox News has been uncharacteristically quiet about the upcoming tell-all Roger Ailes biography, but the media empire seems to have been doing secret investigative work on writer Gabriel Sherman.

The book is nearly out. Now comes the battle.

Over the past week, news outlets like The New York Times and New York Magazine have published excerpts and revelations from The Loudest Voice In The Room, a new 560-page biography of Fox News chief Roger Ailes by New York writer Gabriel Sherman. Among the most explosive allegations that The Times aired include that Ailes—who built Fox from the ground into the most popular cable news network—tried to engineer the network’s coverage to help Mitt Romney beat Barack Obama; that he offered an employee an extra salary for sex-on-demand when he was an executive at NBC; that he called a rival an anti-Semitic slur; and that he took a dim view of some of Fox News’ high-priced on-air talent, calling Bill O’Reilly , for example “a book salesman with a TV show.”

But Fox News and Ailes, who advised Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush in their political campaigns, are known for going nuclear in public-relations knifefights. And so Sherman’s soon-to-be-released biography has the potential of turning an otherwise ordinary book tour into a media blitzkrieg.

“We were around the clock monitoring cable for mentions of Gabe Sherman. You could have breaking news going on, a school shooting or something, and they would still want to know if people were talking about the latest Gabriel Sherman story.”

So far, the response from Fox has been fairly muted, mostly involving dismissing the book as either factually untrue or old news (in a statement yesterday the network said, “Gabe was not provided any direct access to Roger Ailes and the book was never fact-checked with Fox News,”) and by apparently drowning it with their own, more favorable coverage. For example, although Ailes did not meet with Sherman, he did participate in a biography about him by Zev Chafets, called Roger Ailes: Off Camera. The book came out in March, and because it was favorable to the newsman, was widely seen as attempt to deflect attention from Sherman’s book. On Wednesday, the same day that the Times story was published, The Hollywood Reporter published its own Q & A with the normally press-shy Ailes, in which only one question about Sherman’s book was published. (Ailes disparaged it by saying that it was part of “the cottage industry” dedicated to attacking him and Fox.)

It may get worse.  

Fox News has been waiting for Sherman’s book to come out. According to interviews with a half-dozen former employees of what is known as the Fox News “Brain Room,” the brain trust at the network has been following Sherman’s work for years. Although the so-called “Brain Room,” located in the basement of Fox News studios, was supposed to be dedicated to research for the networks programming, two former news librarians describe an environment where they were frequently called to do opposition research about media reporters who were writing about Fox News or Ailes. Former employees described being tasked to investigate reporters from a variety of beats, including hunting down personal information such as voter registration that was used to determine how “Fox-friendly” the reporter was. Another said that any time a reporter wanted to write about Fox, the Brain Room would be assigned to do background research on the reporter.

Both of the librarians described being tasked with keeping close watch on Sherman, including compiling a dossier of every story he had ever written, and providing transcripts every time he was on television.

“They are terrified of him,” said one former librarian. “We were around the clock monitoring cable for mentions of Gabe Sherman. You could have breaking news going on, a school shooting or something, and they would still want to know if people were talking about the latest Gabriel Sherman story.”

For the librarians, the task was, at minimum, disheartening, since, from their perspective, they were there to assist the newsroom, not be an arm of the public relations department. But they learned, they said, that it was best to keep quiet about such requests. As one put it, “there was an understanding that all of the requests from the media department were coming from Roger. When media relations called, you jumped.”

Although others who worked at the Fox News Brain Room said they were not asked to carry out tasks for the media relations department, one former newscaster who spent five years at the network said, “It was never clear to me what the Brain Room did. They had their own army of investigators. Certainly they were never helpful to me.”

According to Dan Cooper, a producer who was one of the architects of Fox News, “Anybody who thinks Roger, after so many years doing what he did in politics, would abandon the practice of opposition research and the uses of opposition research is a babe in the woods. The Brain Room had, as a central function, when I was there, opposition research. Who used it and how I can only imagine.”

In his own book about the Fox News Empire, called Murdoch’s World, David Folkenflik, a media reporter for National Public Radio, described a campaign by the Fox media department that would make a mafia don blush. At one point, he writes, the network tricked a reporter into falsely reporting a personnel move as fact; afterwards, they used the incident to diminish the reporter’s credibility; an unflattering, doctored picture of the reporter also somehow made its way onto conservative news sites. In the book, Folkenflik also writes about a reporter for The New York Times who penned what appeared to be an ordinary story about a Fox ratings slump , and who found out that his time in rehab had become public.

“They are on a wartime footing,” Folkenflik told The Daily Beast. “They approach this stuff in a very different way, in the way that a PR shop in a political campaign would. It is hard to imagine any other serious news outlet—The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, CNN—handling negative news stories in this way.”

Already, Fox personalities have been questioning Sherman’s fairness online. In one tweet, Andrea Tantaros called Sherman “a harasser” who is a “Soros puppet”—an apparent reference to the fact that the writer is a fellow at the George Soros-funded New America Foundation. A story on Breitbart.com quotes an unnamed Fox News official calling Sherman, “Jayson Blair on steroids,” a reference to the disgraced Times reporter who was discovered to have fabricated several stories. Sherman’s Conservapoedia page now says that “Some have even called him self-absorbed and a snob.” 

There is a chance that Fox continues to stick to their current relatively quiet response. Over the summer, Brian Lewis,  a network executive who was largely seen as leading the campaign against negative media coverage, was fired, in part—according to reporting by the gossip website Gawker—due to  disagreements over how to handle Sherman’s book. In any case, in their defense Sherman and Random House have pointed out that the book contains over 100 pages of source notes, and that Sherman interviewed over 600 people, and seem to let the book stand on its own. However, a website and an tumblr page have been set up to rebut any specific charges, and Random House has contracted with Josh Isay and Audrey Gelman, two top political operatives in the  New York office of the consulting firm SKD Knickerbocker, who are preparing a political-style rapid response operation should one be deemed necessary.

A spokesperson for Fox News declined to comment for this story.