Over the past week, Joe Muto has gone on TV with Joy Behar (“Hey! She tweeted at me!” he exclaimed the moment the tweet popped up on his phone), sat for a Reddit AMA, and done at least 20 back-to-back radio hits, in addition to interviews with the Associated Press, Time, The Washington Post, and others.
“It’s like a junket, kind of,” he said over an iced coffee near his Brooklyn home. “Like Hollywood would do for a movie.”
Then, over the weekend, Muto put on blue jeans and work boots, and spent two mornings cleaning up trash from public parks in New York’s Lower East Side.
The reason for the junkets and the court-mandated community service is the same: last year, Muto, an eight-year employee with Fox News—the last five as an associate producer for Bill O’Reilly—began a column for the website Gawker about life inside the News Corp. mothership. The posts, under the headline “The Fox News Mole” (“I would have picked something less weaselly,” Muto says now. “‘Fox News Stallion,’ something like that”) were fairly innocuous, with pictures detailing how, well, shitty the Fox News bathrooms were. As a bonus, Muto threw in some footage that would otherwise have stayed on the Fox News cutting-room floor, including a clip of Mitt Romney talking about the horses he and wife Ann preferred to ride, and another of Callista Gingrich creepily combing Newt’s hair.
Muto says he thought the posts would be of interest only to a few denizens of Manhattan’s media circles. Instead, within hours, they were rocketing around the web. Even august institutions such as The New York Times and The Washington Post wrote about the guy who seemed to threaten to bring down Fox News from the inside.
After little more than a day, the jig was up, with Muto running through the streets of Manhattan looking for a place to ditch an iPad with incriminating evidence. He was afraid, he says, “that a couple of corporate goons were going to throw a hood over my head and take me to a dungeon into the basement.” Ultimately, he was deposited on Sixth Avenue by two News Corp. security guards. Eventually, investigators from the Manhattan district attorney’s office showed up, which explains the community service. Muto’s iPad was only returned to him last week.
It is all detailed in his new book, An Atheist in the FOXhole, in which Muto rather hilariously details the inner workings of the cable news network that has become perhaps the most consistent target of liberal ire since it launched nearly two decades ago. Among his more startling revelations is how the network, part of a media conglomerate that brought in more than $30 billion in revenue last year, is run mostly on the cheap. He talks about starting out as a $12-an-hour grunt, the same wage low-level employees made when the network was founded 10 years earlier. Equipment is old and out of date, he writes, and female production assistants have to flirt with video editors to get the proper tape cued up at the proper time, as no staffers are assigned to the task.
“That’s what you get with a network run by Republicans,” he says in an interview. “Why share the wealth with your employees, except for the people at the top, who get a big chunk of it?”
Don’t like it? According to Muto, Roger Ailes, the network CEO, “is fond of saying, ‘If you don’t like it, there is the door. We have a stack of résumés this high.’”
Ailes, a former Republican political operative, is the subject of juicy tidbits in the book. Twice a year, Muto writes, Ailes would give “State of the Business” speeches in the middle of the newsroom, displacing people trying to do their part to keep a 24-hour news network up and running:
“Roger would speak for about half an hour, revving up the troops with stats about ratings victories, how many households and cable systems we were available on, how well the network had covered various events, and so on. At the end he’d open the floor to questions from the crowd, which tended to be either extremely technical (‘What’s the timeline on our conversion to a digital tapeless system?’) or sycophantic (‘To what factors do you attribute our continued ratings dominance?’).”
Then there is the question of Fox News’s endlessly perky, perfectly coiffed, overwhelmingly blonde female talent, at least one of whom, Muto writes (without disclosing a name), was “functionally illiterate.”
“I think they are growing them in a lab somewhere,” says Muto with a laugh. “If you are good-looking and you can string two words together, you have a bright future at Fox News. And if you are conservative, all the better.”
Producers, he says, like to pan out from the glass-topped anchor desks to get a shot of the leggy correspondents. Pantsuits aren’t so much discouraged as they are forbidden.
Among Muto’s other tidbits: that O’Reilly and Sean Hannity loathe each other; that Shep Smith, Geraldo Rivera, and Megyn Kelly are looked up to, if not held in some kind of awe; and that O’Reilly, whom Muto genuinely respects, dictates almost his entire show to his staff while being chauffeured into the Fox News studios from his home on Long Island, interrupting himself every so often to bark commands at and threaten to fire his driver.
Unsurprisingly, Muto writes that staffers at the network are under pressure to “Foxify” the news. That can mean rewriting wire copy to put the part most embarrassing to Democrats in the lede. It also can mean not contradicting O’Reilly when he says something blatantly false. When Muto first started going through the late-night clips in search of some jokes to run on the air the next day, he learned pretty quickly that anything that disparaged George W. Bush would be not be worth his time to pull, as it wouldn’t make it on the air.
In the book, Muto goes to great pains to describe how he was never really in the Fox camp. He slacked off in college as a film major, “spending my senior year heroically attempting to rid South Bend, Indiana, of drugs by doing them all myself,” and wanted to move to New York. Fox News was the only place that would hire him, and Muto, who cops to donating money to John Kerry and Barack Obama, thought he could bring down the place, or at least alter it slightly, from the inside.
In the end, however, Muto’s motivations for risking his job and dishing to Gawker were not ideological so much as they were practical. He wanted a job. Specifically, he wanted a job at Gawker. When he approached the editors there about quitting Fox and going to work for them, they came back with their own proposition: how about you not quit and still work for us by sending us dispatches from the inside.
Which he did. For all of two days.
“It wasn’t the most thought-through plan,” he says now. “I had never been involved in something like that before. I am generally not a rule-breaker. I had a pretty spotless record on the job. That is what you want to do with Bill O’Reilly. You do not rebel against his authority.”
Muto says he knows now that his career in cable news is over. He got an advance for the book, and once the junket is done and the court-mandated community service completed, he plans to look for another job. Maybe as producer for a reality show. He has had some feelers, he says, from a tech start-up—one that he wisely declined to name.
“I think I am going to go with discretion,” he says, “for once in my life.”