A blog post about a newspaper column about a TV network publicity department’s treatment of newspaper reporters: if this post were any more inside baseball, it would be made of solid cork. But for those of you interested in the sausage-making end of the TV-news business—or who just like seeing two media giants throw down—David Carr’s column in today’s New York Times is a must-read.
In a nutshell: Last month, the Times published a rather boilerplate story about cable-news ratings, which noted that CNN has gained on No. 1 Fox News Channel in the ratings this election season—an unremarkable objective fact which has been widely noted for months. But FNC was miffed over the bad publicity, and one morning on Fox and Friends it aired a rant about the story, complete with doctored photos of the reporter of the article, Jacques Steinberg, and his editor. Some of Steinberg’s colleagues were especially upset about the photo, which they said was altered into an anti-Semitic caricature. (About which: my anti-Semitism meter is usually pretty sensitive, but the picture to me doesn’t resemble the classic, hook-nosed racist cartoon so much as it seems simply intended to broaden Steinberg’s figures and make him look simian. I’m also not sure that’s particularly much better.)
If it is possible for an august newspaper of record to bob its head and say Oh NO, you DIH-n’t, that is essentially what the New York Times did today. The subtext of Carr’s column: Fox News, it is on.
What Carr lays out, evenhandedly but relentlessly, is something widely known but little-remarked-on among journalists who cover TV news: FNC has one of the thinnest-skinned, most elbow-throwing publicity departments in the business. Hypersensitive to slights real and imagined, they have an us-vs.-them mentality toward most of the rest of the press—more like, as Carr points out, the way political campaigns deal with the media than the way media organizations deal with the media. (FNC’s Roger Ailes, after all, is a former political operative.) The objective, as with a political campaign, is to so wear down and cow the press covering you that they start censoring themselves—at least on minor matters, simply to avoid the grief.
And, writes Carr, this approach to handling the press includes political-style opposition research:
Earlier this year, a colleague of mine said, he was writing a story about CNN’s gains in the ratings and was told on deadline by a Fox News public relations executive that if he persisted, “they” would go after him. Within a day, “they” did, smearing him around the blogs, he said.
Carr doesn’t name the reporter, but Gawker attempts to piece together the backstory here. Carr, meanwhile, goes so far as to predict how FNC or its surrogates might strike back at him, though his advantage is that his personal skeletons have long been out of the closet and intentionally so. (He’s written about his past history of drug abuse, and is publishing a confessional memoir, so I’m not sure there is such a thing as bad publicity for David Carr right now.)
Read on for much, much more detail, but the upshot is: Fox News and the New York Times are going to dance. It should be an interesting few days for media obsessives, which is to say, people who actually work in the media and obsess about themselves.
For myself, I’ve definitely found FNC’s publicity to be far more suspicious and bristly when I’ve called them with inquiries on stories in the past. But I haven’t had the same sort of run-ins or experienced the same sort of fallout that Carr details. This is an advantage of being a TV critic rather than a media beat reporter: a publicity department’s main avenue of retaliation—denying access to interviews—doesn’t really affect me, since my work would be essentially the same even if no one at FNC (or anywhere else) ever agreed to talk to me again in my life.
And when I suggested in a column this year that Fox News may be becoming a lame duck, not a single doctored photo or embarrassing story about me ran on air, as far as I know. I’m starting to feel offended.