NEW YORK -- Brian Lewis was not Fox News chief Roger Ailes' "right-hand man." That’s the message Fox News began pushing hard Wednesday in response to reports describing Lewis, the network's recently ousted executive vice president of communications, as a close confidant of Ailes.
Lewis followed Ailes from CNBC to help launch Fox News in 1996 and has overseen the television industry’s most-combative public relations operation, one that more closely resembles a political campaign.
"At Fox News, media relations is a kind of rolling opposition research operation intended to keep reporters in line by feeding and sometimes maiming them," New York Times columnist David Carr wrote in 2008. "Shooting the occasional messenger is baked right into the process."
So if anyone knows how to take aim at someone who has fallen out of favor with Fox News, whether by pushing anonymous smears or harnessing on-air talent to amplify a message, it’s Lewis. Now he’s the one on the receiving end.
A company statement on Tuesday ominously said that Lewis was fired over "issues relating to financial irregularities, as well as for multiple, material and significant breaches of his employment contract." The company didn't elaborate, but the implication was hung out that Lewis must have done something, or several things, wrong.
New York magazine's Gabriel Sherman, author of an upcoming unauthorized biography of Ailes and Fox News, wrote that Lewis’ departure was “far more consequential to the long-term direction of the channel” than recent programming moves. Sherman also offered Lewis’ unvarnished criticism of the network’s handling last year of Gawker’s “Fox News mole."
Fox News is known for message discipline, and since Sherman’s piece, several executives and on-air personalities have suggested that Lewis was not that important and may have been leaking to the New York writer.
Amid the stories that Lewis was leaking to Sherman, others suggested that Lewis might not have had much to leak since he wasn't as influential as previously reported.
An unnamed Fox News executive told Mediaite on Wednesday that "few people at Fox have ever seen Lewis at any kind of a strategy meeting, certainly not about programming or talent or news."
Some Fox News stars reinforced that idea. Greta Van Susteren wrote on her blog that Lewis was not Ailes’ number two and that she couldn’t have picked him out of a lineup.
But Lewis was widely viewed in the industry as very close to Ailes, and one source familiar with Fox News’ inner workings told HuffPost that Lewis was “100 percent in the inner circle.” The source placed Lewis alongside Dianne Brandi, executive vice president of legal and business affairs, in terms of influence at the top of the network.
Other Fox News personalities jumped into the fray Wednesday by suggesting that Sherman's premise -- that Ailes is now alone without Lewis -- was wrong. Sean Hannity tweeted that it was “fiction” and more “liberal lies.”
Similarly, the source for Mediaite, a site that is often a platform for anonymous Fox News pushback, said that "if Gabe Sherman's book comes from the mind of Brian Lewis, it'll be fiction."
“His whole book was based on his connectivity to Brian ... [A]s the world figures out that Brian didn’t have the access that some people thought he had -- after all, insiders tend not to be ejected from their own workplace -- Sherman’s going to have to wonder about the quality of his information,” an unnamed Fox source told Breitbart News.
The amount of time unnamed Fox sources have spent dismissing Sherman's book suggests that it's a major concern within the network. Ailes handpicked journalist Zev Chafets to write a biography after Sherman's unauthorized tome was already in the works. Breitbart News has published several stories smearing Sherman, including one with a source close to Fox News likening the journalist to New York Times plagiarist Jayson Blair. (Disclosure: I worked with Sherman at The New York Observer and remain a friend.)
The book, due out in January, is highly anticipated in media circles partly because of Sherman's track record for deeply reporting within Fox News, a rare feat given that the network's PR operation doesn't tolerate unsanctioned leaks or allow talent to speak out of turn. In addition, Fox News PR is renowned for freezing out reporters who publish stories they don't like.
This reporter, for one, has received little response from Fox News' PR department since writing an April 2009 story for Politico that suggested the network's tea party coverage had blurred the line between journalism and advocacy. A few months later, I reported for Politico how a Fox News producer had rallied tea party supporters at an event, which led to a fence-mending meeting among Lewis, Fox News PR executive Irena Briganti, Politico editor-in-chief John Harris and Politico's chief White House correspondent, Mike Allen.
However, Politico's current media reporter, Dylan Byers, acknowledged Tuesday that the PR department hasn't responded to him either since a February 2012 blog post.
Fox News PR has not responded to HuffPost media editor Jack Mirkinson since June 2011.
Even as Fox News does not answer certain reporters' questions, the network will -- often anonymously -- push back against the same reporters' stories after publication.
For example, I reported in 2010 for Yahoo! News that Zev Chafets claimed he was being kept off Fox News because he had published Rush Limbaugh's jab at host Bill O'Reilly. Fox News spokespeople didn't respond to requests before the story ran, but shortly after publication, unnamed "sources at Fox News" disputed the report to Mediaite.
Now it's an unnamed Fox News executive telling Mediaite that Lewis' "ego got out of control and the spin became about himself."
Nevertheless, Lewis seemed like his old combative self on Wednesday, telling TVNewser that there has been "rampant speculation" about his departure and that "some stories are ludicrous, but there is one story that is particularly ludicrous." He was talking about Gabriel Sherman.