Election Section : Our TakesFox News Plays Hardball With Press
by Alex Ben Block
"Outfoxed: The Inside Story of America's Fourth Television Network" is the title of a book I wrote about 14 years ago that told the story of the birth of the Fox TV Network.
These days the name "Outfoxed" is being associated with a documentary by filmmaker Robert Greenwald, which has the subtitle "Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism." The documentary stands on its own, but what struck me was the way Fox's PR department reacted to the controversy-in a typically aggressive style.
Until Fox came along, the ideal of American journalism was to present both sides of any story in a way that a reasonable, independent observer would say showed a good faith effort to include all points of view. Fox, on the other hand, has imported the British tradition of media that has a strong political underpinning, which colors how it reports, whom it puts on the air and how it presents itself. This has struck a chord with many Americans and made Fox News a success.
This attitude, combined with ratings success, has infused the public relations department at FNC with an approach not unlike that of the channel.
All PR people pitch stories to reporters, but Fox is unusually forceful in its presentation, and active in letting reporters know when it is unhappy. Among the hundreds of reporters with whom the FNC publicists regularly deal, some have written things that are deemed so offensive that Fox just stops talking to them. TelevisionWeek has a senior journalist in New York who wrote an article that mentioned Fox News in a way that Fox didn't like. The Fox PR people haven't spoken to her in the nearly two years since that article appeared.
Consider the case of David Bauder, a TV reporter in New York for the Associated Press. He had reported on FNC regularly, and received cooperation, until he published an article about Paula Zahn, who had quit Fox to join CNN. The article so angered FNC that the PR staff stopped talking to Mr. Bauder.
Mr. Bauder's boss, AP Entertainment Editor Jesse Washington, described Fox's boycott of his reporter as "very unusual." He arrived after the boycott started and then went to FNC and tried to broker a truce. They couldn't reach agreement. "It's a little annoying to have this continue despite my best efforts to be conciliatory," Mr. Washington said.
FNC publicists Robert Zimmerman and Irena Briganti said their objection was that Mr. Bauder quoted one of their PR colleagues in his story and took things out of context. "Why we're not dealing with him is that he treated us completely unfairly," said Ms. Briganti . "He took a story, when we were just doing our job, being a resource, and made [the Fox publicist] a part of the story."
"You know the way this works," Mr. Zimmerman told me. "We know the way the relationship is. You call us. We give you ratings, information. You usually don't write about `the game.' If you look at Bauder's lead paragraph, he's writing about the game. ... There is a kind of trust, a mutual understanding between what we do and what you do. And we honor that. Now if the journalist violates that, then yes, we have a problem with them."
Mike James, who operates the Web site News Blues, charges that FNC keeps a "rolling blacklist" of out-of-favor reporters. "People go on and off the list according to things they have written," said Mr. James, who is very much on the list these days. Ms. Briganti said that Mr. James, who lives in Florida, sent an e-mail asking for a tour of the Fox studios when he was in New York. Ms. Briganti refused because "He called [FNC anchor] Shepard Smith a bonehead on his Web site and [he] trashes us on a daily basis. ... He has no [respect] for this channel or for me, so why do I have to grant him a tour? I'm sorry, but that is totally out of line. That's what this is about. And that is where this story is emanating from."
Howard Kurtz, media reporter for the Washington Post, said, "All networks call and pitch stories to reporters. But Fox does it with more edge and more verve."
David Folkenflik, a media reporter for The Baltimore Sun, incurred the wrath of FNC when he wrote a story in late 2001, during the invasion of Afghanistan, that noted that Fox correspondent Geraldo Rivera was not actually at the scene of a battle, as he had described on-air. The story was widely picked up.
Fox stopped returning his calls for months, only recently relenting. "Fox News operates differently than any other news organization I've covered," Mr. Folkenflik said. "They are a much more combative organization. They behave more like a political campaign than a press organization."
Mr. Folkenflik believes that attitude reflects the leadership of Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes, who comes from a political background.
"We do have contentious relationships with a few reporters," said Mr. Zimmerman. "We're not going to deny that."
Mr. Zimmerman said his organization expects reporters to show respect to FNC. "Media relations people are not servants to the media," he said, adding: "You know, everyone tries to hold us accountable. The reporters should be held accountable for what they do. A lot of media relations people won't do that. Well, we do."
The selective boycotting of reporters is very personal with Fox. While they don't return Mr. Bauder's calls, they do work with his colleagues at the AP in New York and elsewhere. Some see it as an attempt to manipulate who covers them.
At TelevisionWeek and at the AP, the boycotted journalists remain on the FNC beat, even if they don't get cooperation.
"Our issue is with unfair stories," Mr. Zimmerman said. "If you take a shot at us, we don't have a problem with that, as long as you give us a chance to respond. ... But don't call us three seconds before deadline. That's not fair."
FNC is flying high right now and its tough PR stance has not seemed to hurt it. "There's an arrogance on the part of the media that we can't survive without dealing with them," said Ms. Briganti. "That's not the case."
Even before this column was published, FNC publicists contacted TVWeek's publisher complaining that there might be bias and that my mind was made up before I started writing. In reality, the only bias here is for balanced journalism and fair-minded public relations.