Fox News Lobotomizes Its ‘Brain Room,’ Cuts Fact-Based Journalism
Staffers said the recent layoffs gutting Fox News’ fact-checking team were a victory for the network’s right-wing opinion shows and further cemented its status as “state media.”
The recent mass layoffs at Fox News—an estimated body count of around 70, amounting to a little less than 3 percent of the cable channel’s workforce—signal what current and former employees describe as the purposeful devaluing of fact-based journalism in favor of right-wing opinion, race-baiting, and conspiracy-mongering at the top-rated, Donald Trump-friendly cable outlet.
Fox News’ PR department used anodyne corporate-speak to characterize the job losses, namely “restructuring various divisions in order to position all of our businesses for ongoing success.” But the layoffs, outside of the hair and makeup department, cut most deeply into the channel’s straight-news operations at Fox News Digital and elsewhere, according to insiders, while protecting the ratings-heavy, revenue-generating domains of Fox & Friends in the morning, and of Trump cheerleaders Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, and Laura Ingraham in primetime.
The outlet’s so-called “Brain Room,” which the late Fox News founder Roger Ailes established as the 24-year-old channel’s fact-checking and research unit, has been especially hard-hit, losing around one-fourth of its 30-person staff along with two supervisors—a virtual frontal lobotomy, according to sources familiar with the cutbacks.
In October 1996, when the late Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes launched the channel for Rupert Murdoch, Ailes’s idea was to create a right-leaning outlet that challenged the perceived liberal bias of the mainstream media—CNN was a juicy target—but also presented a robust straight-news operation to counter the opinion shows. “Fair and balanced,” was Ailes’s mantra—and, while Ailes was the supreme leader, he managed news and opinion programming separately under different executives. In recent years, however, especially after Ailes was forced out in July 2016 amid sexual harassment and discrimination allegations, that distinction has steadily eroded.
Along with the painful layoffs, fired employees—worried about getting new jobs amid the COVID-19 pandemic—are being forced to sign severance agreements that include draconian non-disclosure requirements that one current staffer described as shocking, in order to receive their severance packages.
The non-disclosure section of the severance agreement requires laid-off employees to “assign to the Company any and all rights to publicity concerning any matter relating to the issues that resulted in your separation from the Company and/or this Agreement. You agree that you will not publish, contribute to or otherwise facilitate the creation of any story, book or other account relating to the Company or any Released Party. In the event you ever receive any compensation for any publicity, story, book or other disclosure relating in whole or part to those issues, all such compensation shall be immediately given over to the Company.”
Manhattan attorney Michael Willemin, a partner at Wigdor, LLP, which has sued Fox News on behalf of alleged victims of workplace discrimination and sexual abuse, told The Daily Beast: “While it is not terribly uncommon for companies to require individuals to sign releases or NDAs in connection with a severance payment, that does not mean that the practice is morally defensible. These are individuals who have just been terminated in the midst of a global pandemic and one of the worst job markets in history. Many of these individuals need these severance payments simply to make ends meet.”
Prominent labor lawyer Martin Hyman, who represented Gretchen Carlson and other Fox News women in lawsuits against the channel (including former Fox News Digital reporter Diana Falzone, a co-author of this story), told The Daily Beast: “The confidentiality clause is onerous, but I can’t say it’s unusual. It’s a largely boilerplate gag order designed to intimidate and compel women to remain silent about what they have experienced behind closed doors in major companies. It protects and enables predators. And it’s totally inconsistent with any claims by company executives and spokespersons that they are committed to cleaning up their act and protecting female employees from abuse, humiliation or worse.”
Multiple sources said Dianne Brandi, Fox News’ former executive vice president of legal and business affairs, who took a leave of absence in October 2017 amid news reports detailing her intimate involvement in company payments to the female victims of Fox News founder Ailes and star anchor Bill O’Reilly, has quietly returned to the channel as an influential consultant to Lily Fu Claffee, who became Fox News’ general counsel in 2018, and to the network as a whole.
A current Fox News employee—who, like others who spoke to The Daily Beast, asked not to be further identified for fear of retaliation—placed blame on Porter Berry, a former longtime Hannity producer who is Fox News Digital’s editor-in-chief, and Berry’s second-in-command Stefanie Wheeler Choi, a former communications director for hard-right Tennessee politician Marsha Blackburn, for much of the carnage that has concentrated on straight-news reporters and photojournalists. Berry and Choi had a large hand in recommending who would be laid off, this current Fox News staffer said.
Separately, Brain Room staffers were let go, this person said, “because they help fuel journalism and fact-based reporting and Porter and Stefanie are not interested in facts. They are obsessed with pitching ‘on-brand’ stories that include Blue Lives Matter, anything antifa-related, anyone who has suffered during BLM protests that can put the protestors in a negative light, anything that threatens Christianity, and anyone who is a Trump supporter who has somehow been wronged.”
The Daily Beast sent Fox News a detailed list of questions raised in this story and the company declined to provide an on-the-record comment.
A second Fox News employee said it’s widely known among staffers at the channel that top executives have “long been unsupportive of real, unbiased reporting. They do not see themselves as a real news operation in the sense that people are doing original work, trying to break stories and get to the bottom of things, wherever the chips fall. They are first and foremost a collector of other outlets’ reports and rewriting, and writing stories about what guests say on their most highly rated shows.”
Fox News, the profitable cash cow of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, reported $12.3 billion in revenue for the year ending June 30 and is widely perceived as allowing Murdoch to prop up his massively money-losing newspaper holdings in the United States, Great Britain, and Australia.
According to multiple Fox News insiders, the most recent cuts were ordered by Joe Dorrego, a former Fox Corp. executive who is both Fox News’s new chief financial officer and chief operating officer. In what is bound to be a bitter irony for laid-off Fox News employees, Dorrego claimed in a staff meeting this past Thursday, according to an insider, that the channel has so far experienced record revenue and profits in 2020.
Meanwhile, multiple sources said the channel’s nominal CEO, Suzanne Scott—promoted by Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch as the first woman to hold the job, two years after they forced Ailes out amid anchor Gretchen Carlson’s July 2016 sexual discrimination and harassment lawsuit, along with other sexual abuse allegations—is little more than a figurehead. (In Scott’s defense, the company recently issued a press release in which she announced that Fox News Media had received the “honor” of being designated a “a 2020 Great Place to Work-Certified™ Company,” based on the opinions, according to the release, of “nearly eight out of 10 employees.”)
Likewise, Fox News President Jay Wallace also has suffered a reduction in power since his 2018 promotion, sources said, because, among other reasons, Fox News has increasingly become an operation in which Carlson, Hannity, and Ingraham—the star anchors— run their own fiefdoms, unaccountable to anyone except the Murdochs.
It’s a situation the obsessively hands-on Ailes, who died of a brain hemorrhage in May 2017 after a fall in his Palm Beach mansion, would never have permitted.
“For all the complications surrounding Roger, he truly did want the channel to project a legitimate news side as well as a robust opinion lineup,” said a well-placed Fox News veteran. “As time passed and the strong hand of Ailes has faded, the opinion team appears to have won the internal battle.”
Indeed, the virtual lobotomy of the Brain Room, a current employee said, came about largely because “the Brain Room, in their research, came up with facts that were not used in Fox reports or were in contradiction to what Fox aired. I have to imagine that kind of tension has always existed there, between the fact-checkers and what is often reported.”
A third Fox News employee said the Brain Room layoffs send the message “that Fox doesn’t care for a unit who truly holds truth to power. The Brain Room is an essential part of the company. They help employees with some of the most important elements of our jobs and are always there for last minute, difficult requests. They hold a lot of knowledge. Fox has acted like state media for a long time. This is just one small element to it.”
Another network staffer expressed a similar sentiment: “As an employee, I have had concerns about how close Fox has become with the White House and the administration. I don’t think I’m the only person there who has these concerns. With these layoffs in multiple news departments coming just a few weeks before the election, it looks like Fox is more like an extension of this administration, instead of a news network.”
During the Trump presidency, the Brain Room has been frequently at odds with Fox News’ on-air content. As The Daily Beast reported this past February, senior Fox News political affairs specialist Bryan S. Murphy produced a 162-page document entitled “Ukraine, Disinformation, & the Trump Administration” that warned colleagues against the falsehoods being dispensed by Fox News contributor John Solomon—a favorite Hannity guest—and other Fox News purveyors of Ukraine-focused disinformation such as Rudy Giuliani, Victoria Toensing, and her husband Joe diGenova.
Murphy, however, was not among those laid off.
Among other straight-news victims of the cuts were the former head of the Fox News assignment desk, John Stack, a 21-year veteran, and Martin Hinton, the executive producer of the Fox News investigative unit, who happens to be the son of longtime Murdoch confidant Les Hinton, Rupert’s top newspaper division exec who was forced to resign in 2011 during the British phone-hacking scandal.
The Fox News severance agreement, parts of which were obtained by The Daily Beast, is breathtakingly comprehensive, releasing the cable channel from “any and all claims (e.g., for discrimination, harassment, or retaliation) related to actual or perceived race, religious creed, color, national origin, ancestry, citizenship, age, physical disability, mental disability, medical condition, genetic information, marital status, family status, caregiver status, sex (including pregnancy status, childbirth, breastfeeding, and related medical conditions), gender, gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation, sexual and reproductive health choices, hair texture or hairstyles, military or veteran status, political affiliation, arrest or conviction record, union membership, unemployment status, credit history, status as a victim of domestic violence, stalking, or sexual offenses, or any other legally protected characteristic, or for having engaged in any protected activity under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Equal Pay Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Family Medical Leave Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Equal Pay Act, the New York State Human Rights Law, the New York State Fair Pay Act, the New York City Human Rights Law, the New York City Administrative Code, the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act and any applicable state mini-WARN Act, or any other law, regulation or ordinance that may have arisen before the effective date of this Agreement, including but not limited to those arising from your employment and separation from the Company.”
A current staffer told The Daily Beast: “The items that the employees will not be able to sue for sound like a tip o’ the hat of who has called Fox out in the past. For example it lists ‘hair or hair texture’ as a reason that you cannot sue the company. I believe a Black makeup artist sued Fox in the past on this.”
The staffer added that laid-off employees who take severance are prohibited from suing for “reproductive-related reasons,” and then pretty much any other reason listed in the New York human rights law.
“Then,” the staffer continued, “if you sign this form you are required to speak to a lawyer or be a witness without a subpoena. So let’s say an employee is suing the company for being discriminatory against gay people and one of those employees who signed this agreement heard firsthand that employee who was suing being discriminated against by a boss at Fox. The employee who signed this NDA would be able to speak to Fox’s lawyers without a subpoena, meaning Fox’s lawyers would not have to alert the person’s lawyers who is suing for discrimination about the questioning. Then, let’s say the person who signed the NDA was questioned and corroborated the discrimination. Fox’s lawyers could bury the evidence."
A longtime Fox News staffer who was let go earlier this month said terminated employees feel forced to sign the agreement “to get their severance, and for me, I have to take care of my family. I just want my money and leave... We all served a purpose but it seems they don’t want to do any original content anymore, just TV straight to the web. Like state TV in North Korea.”
Two decades after Ailes launched Fox News in 1996, he coined the slogan “We Report, You Decide.” A dozen years later, several current and former employees suggested, the cable channel’s new mantra might as well be “We’ve Decided, You Agree.”
Diana Falzone was an on-camera reporter for Fox News from 2012 to 2018. In May 2017, she filed a gender discrimination and disability lawsuit against the network and settled, and left the company in March 2018.