Asked what most viewers and observers of Fox News would be surprised to learn about the controversial cable channel, a former insider from the world of Rupert Murdoch was quick with a response: "I don't think people would believe it's as concocted as it is; that stuff is just made up."
Indeed, a former Fox News employee who recently agreed to talk with Media Matters confirmed what critics have been saying for years about Murdoch's cable channel. Namely, that Fox News is run as a purely partisan operation, virtually every news story is actively spun by the staff, its primary goal is to prop up Republicans and knock down Democrats, and that staffers at Fox News routinely operate without the slightest regard for fairness or fact checking.
"It is their M.O. to undermine the administration and to undermine Democrats," says the source. "They're a propaganda outfit but they call themselves news."
And that's the word from inside Fox News.
Note the story here isn't that Fox News leans right. Everyone knows the channel pushes a conservative-friendly version of the news. Everyone who's been paying attention has known that since the channel's inception more than a decade ago. The real story, and the real danger posed by the cable outlet, is that over time Fox News stopped simply leaning to the right and instead became an open and active political player, sort of one-part character assassin and one-part propagandist, depending on which party was in power. And that the operation thrives on fabrications and falsehoods.
"They say one thing and do another. They insist on maintaining this charade, this façade, that they're balanced or that they're not right-wing extreme propagandist," says the source. But it's all a well-orchestrated lie, according this former insider. It's a lie that permeates the entire Fox News culture and one that staffers and producers have to learn quickly in order to survive professionally.
"You have to work there for a while to understand the nods and the winks," says the source. "And God help you if you don't because sooner or later you're going to get burned."
The source explains:
"Like any news channel there's lot of room for non-news content. The content that wasn't 'news,' they didn't care what we did with as long as it was amusing or quirky or entertaining; as along as it brought in eyeballs. But anything—anything--that was a news story you had to understand what the spin should be on it. If it was a big enough story it was explained to you in the morning [editorial] meeting. If it wasn't explained, it was up to you to know the conservative take on it. There's a conservative take on every story no matter what it is. So you either get told what it is or you better intuitively know what it is."
What if Fox News staffers aren't instinctively conservative or don't have an intuitive feeling for what the spin on a story should be? "My internal compass was to think like an intolerant meathead," the source explains. "You could never error on the side of not being intolerant enough."
The source recalls how Fox News changed over time:
"When I first got there back in the day, and I don't know how they indoctrinate people now, but back in the day when they were "training" you, as it were, they would say, 'Here's how we're different.' They'd say if there is an execution of a condemned man at midnight and there are all the live truck outside the prison and all the lives shots. CNN would go, 'Yes, tonight John Jackson, 25 of Mississippi, is going to die by lethal injection for the murder of two girls.' MSNBC would say the same thing.
"We would come out and say, 'Tonight, John Jackson who kidnapped an innocent two year old, raped her, sawed her head off and threw it in the school yard, is going to get the punishment that a jury of his peers thought he should get.' And they say that's the way we do it here. And you're going , alright, it's a bit of an extreme example but it's something to think about. It's not unreasonable.
"When you first get in they tell you we're a bit of a counterpart to the screaming left wing lib media. So automatically you have to buy into the idea that the other media is howling left-wing. Don't even start arguing that or you won't even last your first day.
"For the first few years it was let's take the conservative take on things. And then after a few years it evolved into, well it's not just the conservative take on things, we're going to take the Republican take on things which is not necessarily in lock step with the conservative point of view.
"And then two, three, five years into that it was, we're taking the Bush line on things, which was different than the GOP. We were a Stalin-esque mouthpiece. It was just what Bush says goes on our channel. And by that point it was just totally dangerous. Hopefully most people understand how dangerous it is for a media outfit to be a straight, unfiltered mouthpiece for an unchecked president."
It's worth noting that Fox News employees, either current or former, rarely speak to the press, even anonymously. And it's even rarer for Fox News sources to bad mouth Murdoch's channel. That's partly because of strict non-disclosure agreements that most exiting employees sign and which forbid them from discussing their former employer. But it also stems from a pervasive us-vs.-them attitude that permeates Fox News. It's a siege mentality that network boss Roger Ailes encourages, and one that colors the coverage his team produces.
"It was a kick ass mentality too," says the former Fox News insider. "It was relentless and it never went away. If one controversy faded, goddamn it they would find another one. They were in search of these points of friction real or imagined. And most of them were imagined or fabricated. You always have to seem to be under siege. You always have to seem like your values are under attack. The brain trust just knew instinctively which stories to do, like the War on Christmas."
According to the insider, Ailes is obsessed with presenting a unified Fox News front to the outside world; an obsession that may explain Ailes' refusal to publically criticize or even critique his own team regardless of how outlandish their on-air behavior. "There may be internal squabbles. But what [Ailes] continually preaches is never piss outside the tent," says the source. "When he gets really crazy is when stuff leaks out the door. He goes mental on that. He can't stand that. He says in a dynamic enterprise like a network newsroom there's going to be in fighting and ego, but he says keep it in the house."
It's clear that Fox News has become a misleading, partisan outlet. But here's what the source stresses: Fox News is designed to mislead its viewers and designed to engage in a purely political enterprise.
In 2010, all sorts of evidence tumbled out to confirm that fact, like the recently leaked emails from inside Fox News, in which a top editor instructed his newsroom staffers (not just the opinion show hosts) to slant the news when reporting on key stories such as climate change and health care reform.
Meanwhile, Media Matters revealed that during the 2009-2010 election cycle, dozens of Fox News personalities endorsed, raised money, or campaigned for Republican candidates or organizations in more than 600 instances. And in terms of free TV airtime that Fox News handed over to GOP hopefuls, Media Matters calculated the channel essentially donated $55 million worth of airtime to Republican presidential hopefuls last year who also collect Fox News paychecks.
So, Fox News as a legitimate news outlet? The source laughs at the suggestion, and thinks much of the public, along with the Beltway press corps, has been duped by Murdoch's marketing campaign over the years. "People assume you need a license to call yourself a news channel. You don't. So because they call themselves Fox News, people probably give them a pass on a lot of things," says the source.
The source continues: "I don't think people understand that it's an organization that's built and functions by intimidation and bullying, and its goal is to prop up and support Republicans and the GOP and to knock down Democrats. People tend think that stuff that's on TV is real, especially under the guise of news. You'd think that people would wise up, but they don't."
As for the press, the former Fox News employee gives reporters and pundits low grades for refusing, over the years, to call out Fox News for being the propaganda outlet that it so clearly is. The source suggests there are a variety of reasons for the newsroom timidity.
"They don't have enough staff or enough balls or don't have enough money or don't have enough interest to spend the time it takes to expose Fox News. Or it's not worth the trouble. If you take on Fox, they'll kick you in the ass," says the source. "I'm sure most [journalists] know that. It's not worth being Swift Boated for your effort," a reference to how Fox News traditionally attacks journalists who write, or are perceived to have written, anything negative things about the channel.
The former insider admits to being perplexed in late 2009 when the Obama White House called out Murdoch's operation as not being a legitimate new source, only to have major Beltway media players rush to the aid of Fox News and admonish the White House for daring to criticize the cable channel.
"That blew me away," says the source, who stresses the White House's critique of Fox News "happens to be true."