Fox's Poison Pill PR, And How It Boomerangs Back

The big news today is thetakedown of Fox News PR. Considering the subject matter and impetus, I mean "takedown" in the nicest possible way.

The big news today after a slow long weekend is David Carr's takedown of the Fox News PR department in the New York Times. I mean "takedown" in the nicest possible way, because considering the subject matter and impetus, it's the nicest possible piece.

Consider the backstory. Last weekend, Jacques Steinberg wrote a story about how FNC's cable news competitors were gaining ground. Fox retaliated via its morning show, "Fox & Friends," which struck back at the "hit piece" by claiming Steinberg was the "attack dog" of TV editor Steven Redicliffe, whom they alleged was a disgruntled former employee. They illustrated this with photos of Redicliffe and Steinberg — doctored to make them look as awful as possible. In Steinberg's case, the modifications carried the faint whiff of anti-Semitism; per Carr: "In a technique familiar to students of vintage German propaganda, his ears were pulled out, his teeth splayed apart, his forehead lowered and his nose was widened and enlarged in a way that made him look more like Fagin than the guy I work with."

Pretty nasty stuff, whether or not the anti-Semitic element was intentional (and Fox head of PR Brian Lewis said it was not, calling the claim "vile and untrue"). Considering all that — not to mention all the evidence Carr had at his disposal for the column — the article really could have been a hit piece. But instead it was more like a think piece, not only tracing the "scorched earth between Fox News and those who cover it" but also extrapolating that bridge-burning strategy into what Fox has potentially lost out on:

Fox is so busy playing defense -- mentioning it in the same story as CNN can be a high crime -- that its business and journalism accomplishments don't get traction and the cable station never seems to attain the legitimacy it so clearly craves.

There have been few stories about Bill O'Reilly's softer side (I'm sure he has one), and while Shepard Smith's amazing reporting in New Orleans got some play, he was not cast as one of the journalistic heroes of the disaster. The fact that Roger Ailes has won both Obie awards and Emmys does not come up a lot, nor does the fact that he donated a significant chunk of money to upgrade the student newsroom at Ohio University, his alma mater.

That's an interesting point, especially when you consider all the great press someone like Keith Olbermann has received over the past few years, or Anderson Cooper. Not that O'Reilly suffers from lack of coverage, but there isn't a "hero" of Fox in the same way — a promotional "face" of the network to inspire fans and bloggers and Google hits (if Google hits were ratings, Fox would be in trouble: "Anderson Cooper" leads with 2.28 million, followed closely by "Keith Olbermann" with 2.2 million, while a combined "Shep Smith" and "Shepard Smith" gets 821,000). As a handsome, affable and hard-working straight-up news guy — logging plenty of TV hours and with a big-leagues paycheck — Shep has been relatively under-covered.

(Yes, it's true he is not captured dreamily in a bulletproof vest that matches his eyes and has not told the president to shut the hell up — that does tend to make a difference. But still.)

Nonetheless, considering how dominant Fox News is in the #1 spot — with 9 out of the top 10 Q2 cable shows — their controversies get covered far more than their stars. As buzz goes, we hear more about Mika Brzezinski than Martha McCallum, more about Chris Matthews than Neil Cavuto, more about Wolf Blitzer than Brit Hume, more about "Reliable Sources" than "Fox News Watch." There are apples-to-oranges arguments about all of them, to be sure, but the ratings differential is significant enough to be counted among them.

(Actually, upon reflection, the closest Fox has gotten to general-interest who-is-this-guy-you've-gotta-know profiles is Greg Gutfeld. That's an apple falling far from any tree, but you get the picture.)

Back to Carr. Make the connection between his opening thought ("[W]henever I type seven letters - Fox News -a series of alarms begins to whoop in my head") and the relative lack of ink for the "good" stuff. To the extent that news stories grow out of PR pitches, that's an interesting indicator of just how likely a Fox pitch is to land. Which no doubt exacerbates their belligerent attitude for all other, less friendly stories. Ergo, Steinberg-as-Fagin.

Two more observations about the article:

(1) I was surprised not to see a mention of Irena Briganti, whose acid evaluations of competitors are legendary (and so effective her dismissal of Anderson Cooper as "the Paris Hilton of cable news" was re-used in Fox ad copy; never mind her blistering poison pill "wish-well" to Olbermann). How many cable PR people make the news themselves?

(2) The Jossip offshoot: Carr refers a colleague who was threatened by "a Fox News public relations executive" that they'd slime him if he ran with his story about CNN ratings gains; within a day, the smear showed up "around the blogs." Jossip owns up to owning that smear, pointing to an item they did about Tim Arango, who wrote the story in question. No one says either way whether the rumor about Arango was grounded in fact, but that appears to be beside the point for Jossip, which articulates its editorial standards thusly: "If it's an interesting story, we're going to run with it. It's kind of that simple...If there's dirt, we've got a shovel." Alrighty then.

As a counterpoint, note that Carr declines to name the Fox News PR executive who made (and apparently made good on) the Arango threat. See above re: nice. "For the record, everyone I dealt with at Fox News in connection with this column was polite, highly responsive, and got right to the point," said Carr. "A guy could get used to that." You never know, maybe now he will.

p.s. For the record, ETP loves potatoes.

Photo of David Carr courtesy of McMullen; photos of Steinberg/Redicliffe courtesy of Media Matters by way of Fox News.

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