This week’s story about members of the Fox News PR team posting “sockpuppet” comments in threads on various blogs (like our sister site TVNewser) was big, but this one is far worse: NPR reporter David Folkenflik‘s new book “Murdoch’s World” reports that the team schemed to send a journalist a fake tip in order to discredit him.
Here’s the deal: as Folkenflik tells The Washington Post‘s Erik Wemple, the Fox PR team refuses to participate in any story that compares the channel to its competitors in tracking general cable news trends—they don’t even want to acknowledge the existence of CNN or MSNBC.
Crain’s New York Business reporter Matthew Flamm was trying to write a story about how CNN briefly beat Fox in the ratings game in February 2008 when he received this “tip” from an “inside source” at the network:
“FOX PR reps would never confirm this, at least not on the record. But [Bill] O’Reilly, not Brit Hume, will…anchor our texas and ohio primary coverage on Tuesday night. They want to copy the success that MSNBC has had with Olbermann and Matthews anchoring their coverage.”
It sounds like a big deal because, in order to confirm its “fair and balanced” status, Fox maintains a clear wall between “objective” reporters like Hume and opinionators like O’Reilly—and such a move would represent a breach of that wall.
But the story wasn’t true.
Flamm posted the report, and Fox quickly acted to discredit him by contacting TVNewser to let them know that:
“Flamm is so far off the mark it’s embarrassing and his ‘reporting’ lacks any semblance of credibility. The notion that O’Reilly would ANCHOR election coverage of any kind is beyond absurd and wildly inaccurate.”
In short, Fox didn’t want anyone to report on CNN beating them in the ratings, even if it only happened among a certain demographic on a single month. So they fed him a line, he bought it, and they pounced. It was a well-orchestrated hit, and when Flamm got in touch with Fox to try and figure out what had just happened, they pretended that they didn’t even know his name.
Flamm posted a follow-up yesterday, revealing that he attempted to find a second source for a full week and received no response but was able to confirm that the the producer who supposedly sent him the tip was indeed a real-life Fox employee. He writes that he waited to cold call the producer because “she” warned him that she would lose her job if he did.
Flamm admits that he should have found that second source, but he naively thought that no publicist would ever concoct such a blatant scheme. He was wrong—and after the story correction went live, a blog friendly to Fox ran a post complete with a Photoshopped image of Flamm that turned him into a cartoon by blowing up his ears, nose and teeth.
His crime? Daring to try and write an article that wasn’t flattering to the channel.
You may remember that Fox PR made every attempt to discredit New York magazine writer Gabe Sherman‘s tell-all book, too: even after he got fired, top Fox PR man Brian Lewis stayed true to his brand in dismissing Sherman’s stories as “particularly ludicrous” before another, even more loyal insider said that no one should listen to Lewis either, because anything that “comes from the mind of Brian Lewis [will] be fiction.”
We can’t quite call this story a “PR Fail”, because the team achieved their objectives. But we can suggest a new tagline for Fox News PR: “unfair, unbalanced, and unethical.”
If the shoe fits…