Last year, NPR media reporter David Folkenflik revealed in his book on Rupert Murdoch that the Fox News PR department created an elaborate series of fake commenter accounts to write “pro-Fox rants” in the comments sections of articles other outlets published about the network.
According to a new biography of Fox News CEO Roger Ailes, the network's online subterfuge went even further.
In The Loudest Voice in the Room, New York magazine journalist Gabriel Sherman reports that Roger Ailes was behind the creation of a blog called “The Cable Game” (TCG), which was used to attack Fox rivals like CNN and critics like Media Matters founder David Brock. According to Sherman, Ailes tapped Fox News contributor Jim Pinkerton -- who worked with Ailes on the 1988 George H.W. Bush presidential campaign and was later chosen to co-author Ailes' now-abandoned autobiography -- to help write the posts.
A Media Matters review of TCG -- which became defunct more than a year ago but is still partially available through the Internet Archive -- finds laughably over-the-top praise of Ailes and other Fox personalities alongside vicious, often petty attacks on Fox rivals and perceived enemies. The blog's criticism frequently echoed Fox's own public attacks.
TCG regularly featured inside baseball content about the media that went far beyond what the casual media observer would know, much less care about. The blog cited sources inside Fox News, which it used to rebut criticism of the network. TCG was written under the pseudonym “The Cable Gamer,” and posts claimed the author was a woman.
The site was promoted on Fox News in at least four separate instances: three times by Pinkerton and once by Bill O'Reilly. Pinkerton gratuitously promoted the site on Fox News Watch on July 16, 2005 -- a major promotion for an anonymous blog that had launched less than two weeks prior (July 8, 2005, with a post that asked, “is anyone cooler than Brit Hume?” ).
Roger Ailes Set Up Anonymous Blog “The Cable Game”
From Sherman's book:
Shut out of the partisan cage match, CNN flailed, and Ailes pressed his advantage. He set up an anonymous blog called The Cable Game that took shots at his rivals. Ailes assigned Fox News contributor Jim Pinkerton to write the entries. "The Cable Game was Roger's creation," one person close to Ailes said. “Is CNN on the Side of the Killers and Terrorists in Iraq?” one headline read. “David Brock Gets Caught! (Although Secretly, He Probably Loves Being Naughty and Nasty),” blared another. The item's text was accompanied by a photo of Brock posing in a skin-tight tank top with Congressman Barney Frank. “Media Matters, of course, is the notoriously left-wing hit group, founded by that flamboyantly self-hating conservative apostate, David Brock,” it said. “Brock has that rare distinction of being accused of being dishonest by both liberals and conservatives alike. But don't take my word for it: Here's what you get if you type 'David Brock liar' on Google: 168,000 hits.” CNN chief Jon Klein saw Ailes's hand behind the articles. He called Ailes and blamed Fox for posting anonymous online gossip that outed the sexual orientation of CNN's prime-time anchor, Anderson Cooper. Ailes denied any role. (Cooper wouldn't announce he was gay until July 2012.) [The Loudest Voice in the Room, pg 339-340]
Sherman adds in his notes about TCG that he interviewed “a person familiar with the matter” and “Pinkerton did not respond to requests for comment.”
"The Cable Game" Fawned Over Fox News
TCG Featured Photoshops Of Ailes As Superman And Rocky. TCG loved Roger Ailes. In one post, “The Cable Gamer” explained that the site is a “fan” of Ailes because “he revolutionized the cable game and brought so much new energy into cableville.” Another post describes “the real Roger Ailes” as “Boy Scout, patriot, American.”
The blog also regularly featured illustrations on posts praising Fox's ratings by poorly Photoshopping Ailes' face onto muscular fighters. For example, a 2009 post linking to a Politico piece by Michael Calderone about Fox besting CNN in the ratings features Ailes' head replacing Sylvester Stallone's in a still from Rocky IV:
Other examples include:
Fox & Friends Co-Hosts Kilmeade And Doocy Are “Up There” With Dean Martin And Jerry Lewis “In Terms Of Quick Comic Timing.” In a post about Fox News host Brian Kilmeade, TCG claimed that Kilmeade and Fox & Friends co-host Steve Doocy are “up there” with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis in terms of comedic timing:
On the one hand, Brian is 1/3 of the “Fox & Friends” gang. At their best, he and Steve Doocy are up there with Martin & Lewis in terms of quick comic timing. Although, of course, “F&F” always does serious news, depending on the news.
Fox News Is “The Only Channel That's Not Slanted One Way Or Another.” TCG regularly touted Fox News as being the only non-partisan outlet in a sea of biased competitors. In one post attacking conservative Cliff Kincaid for an article he wrote critical of Fox host Sean Hannity interviewing Howard Stern, TCG offered that the network is “the only channel that's not slanted one way or another,” and was doing its job of “showing all the sides of every story, without bias.” The post concludes:
There's a reason FNC is the number-one cable news channel: because it epitomizes what journalism is supposed to be, namely unbiased. So fine, Cliff, keep complaining--that's what advocates do. (And you're an advocate for bias, not a news executive--an important point to keep in mind.) The rest of the country's going to keep watching Fox, no matter how much you agitate for the channel to unbalance its journalistic scales.
Another post offered: “But for now, we know that 'fair and balanced' is the new metric. And that''s [sic] the triumph of Roger Ailes. His vision has not only given us Fox, but also has elevated the standard of journalism overall.”
Critics Try To Distract From Fox Host Bill Hemmer's “Depth Of Talent” By Focusing On “His Movie-Star Looks.” In a post titled “Hemmerpalooza!” TCG objected to “FNC detractors” trying to downplay the talent of “extraordinary” Fox host Bill Hemmer by focusing too much on how handsome “his movie-star looks” :
I've always liked Hemmer, and I think he's got a depth of talent that FNC detractors try to divert attention from by putting so much emphasis on his movie-star looks. Dirty pool--when it works. Fortunately, Hemmer fans are hip to the “he's hot so how smart could he be” line.
I have a theory that there is a tremendous amount of talent in the world that gets lost, or overlooked, in the demanding vagaries of everyday existence. Take, for example, the description of some international footage Hemmer shot before his appearance on the national cable news scene. I'm willing to bet it's extraordinary, just as I'm willing to bet that Hemmer will continue to be extraordinary.
“Why Can't All Men” Be Like Fox Anchor Chris Wallace? In a post explaining “why we love Chris Wallace,” TCG wrote that with regard to a controversial question Wallace asked Republican Michele Bachmann, “He 'fesses up fast. Why can't all men be like that? ... End of story, Bachmann-wise. But the lingering impression on Chris is that he thinks, that he is sensitive, and that he is ultimately a very nice guy.”
"The Cable Game" Attacked Fox's Competition And Perceived Enemies
TCG attacked then-Politico CEO and president Fred Ryan when the Reagan Presidential Library Foundation partnered with MSNBC and Politico to host a Republican debate. A September 12, 2011, entry wondered if Ryan, also chairman of the board of the Reagan Library, was using the library “as a bargaining chip to help his corporate interests.” Sherman reports in his book that “Ryan had rescued himself from the selection process, but Ailes was not appeased” and “complained to Fox executives that NBC and Politico cut an inside deal with the library. ... Fox hosts began denouncing Politico as 'far left wing.'”
The Huffington Post Is “Huffington Cult.” TCG repeatedly attacked Huffington Post ("Huffington Cult") and founder Arianna Huffington, both regular targets of Fox News. TCG called Huffington “ever-social-climbing, ever-jealous” and a "limousine-liberal," and complained that Howard Kurtz -- now with Fox News -- “sucks up to Arianna Huffington” in an article at Kurtz's then-platform, The Daily Beast.
One post speculated that media reporter Michael Calderone wrote an unbylined “hit piece” about Fox News for Huffington Post, adding: “Calderone was once at Politico, which is plenty anti-Fox. And from there he jumped to Huffpo, where he can be even more anti-Fox. And so it's perfectly possible to presume that Calderone wrote this Huffpo story, too, and yet for tactical reasons, he doesn't want his name associated with this particular nastygram.”
"Everybody Knows New York Times Reporter Jacques Steinberg Can't Think Or Write." In April 2006, TCG dismissed an article written by Steinberg as “vapid” after it noted that Fox's “prime-time hosts, at least, speak from a decidedly conservative point of view. The blog added: ” Everybody knows New York Times reporter Jacques Steinberg can't think or write."
Two years later, Fox News infamously altered a picture of Steinberg and editor Steven Reddicliffe after the Times ran an article that Fox viewed unfavorably. TCG dismissed the controversy over the alterations, comparing it to “satire” and 19th century cartoon depictions of Boss Tweed. The blog concluded: “The First Amendment protected his right to mock Tweed, and the same First Amendment protects Fox's right to stick it to Steinberg and Reddicliffe.”
Google Advertising On TalkingPointsMemo: “The Left Is Not Your Friend.” TCG attacked Google for advertising on TPM. The blog wrote that the site features an “anti-Fox News link, the anti-Karl Rove article, and even the hit piece on Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno” and asked: “Is this really the company that Google wants to keep? ... TPM might be your friend, because you have put the site on your payroll, but the Left is not your friend.” [4/23/08]
“Backstabbing” Kiran Chetry Left Fox In “An Un-Ladylike Way” And “Is Not To Be Trusted.” TCG wrote posts in 2007 attacking the former Fox host after she left the network for CNN. The blog's attacks came after Fox News publicly attacked Chetry as negotiations for her to remain at Fox fell apart.
Paula Zahn Has A “Mommy Needs A Drink” Look. One of TCG's first posts in 2005 attacked Paula Zahn:
I really don't want to tune in to a show that sounds like my mother yelling at me when I was six. “Pick. Up. Your. Toys. NOW.”
Actually, Paula kind of has that “Mommy needs a drink” look in this picture, doesn't she? [7/8/05]
Fox News engaged in a bitter spat against Zahn, a former Fox News host, after she received an offer from CNN in 2001. The New York Times noted that “Ailes said she was no more valuable to Fox than a 'dead raccoon.'”
Fox News Promoted “The Cable Game” On-Air
Fox News promoted “The Cable Game” blog in at least four separate instances. Top-rated host Bill O'Reilly named the blog his “Patriot” of the day while Fox News promoted the blog's URL on-screen, and Pinkerton cited the blog in at least three instances dating back to 2005.
Bill O'Reilly, September 18, 2007. During his “Pinheads and Patriots” segment, O'Reilly said:
O'REILLY: Time now for “Pinheads and Patriots” , as we told you in the “Talking Points Memo” , the American press is not to be trusted any more. And one of the biggest media con games is misreporting television ratings. That is, trying to prop up certain programs for ideological reasons.
But if you go to the Web site, TheCableGame.blogspot.com , there it is [up on the screen]. That's a long web site address, TheCableGame.blogspot.com. It will give you accurate information about how many people are watching “The Factor,” as opposed to other news programs. So you might want to check that out.
And for that, the people running that Web site are patriots. [Fox News, The O'Reilly Factor, 9/18/07]
James Pinkerton, July 16, 2005. Less than two weeks after “The Cable Game” launched, Pinkerton went out of his way to promote the blog on Fox News Watch during a discussion about the news media:
PINKERTON: We're getting that much closer to the Andy Warhol, everybody famous for 15 minutes. Everybody is a journalist for 15 minutes. There is an interesting - I mean, this London tragedy, I don't mean to make light of it, did lead to a lot of new things. I had never heard of Flickr before, the place where you can post your own pictures of this. I was clicking around and I found a Web site called thecablegame.com where I think learned about wikinews, which is an online, interactive free service where everybody in London, seemingly, put their own impressions and thoughts about this. [Fox News, Fox News Watch, 7/16/05]
Pinkerton, August 27, 2005. Pinkerton cited the blog when discussing Bob Costas' refusal to cover the Natalee Holloway case:
ERIC BURNS (HOST): Why wasn't he just being true to his own views?
PINKERTON: Well, he might -- he might have been. It's also true that the critics were looking for somebody who would trash the Natalee Holloway coverage. But, in fact, he's getting more ink this way, as a Web site called The Cable Game said, criticizing the coverage of Natalee Holloway is the same thing as covering the Natalee Holloway case. [Fox News, Fox News Watch, 8/27/05]
Pinkerton, April 26, 2008. Pinkerton cited the blog when linking Obama and Rev. Jeremiah Wright:
PINKERTON: There's another story, of course, which for all of us in the news world are going to have to look forward to. I saw it on a blog called The Cable Game where it made the point that Reverend Wright, Jeremiah Wright, has an enormous stake in Obama losing. He has been saying for half a century white people are terrible.
And now if Obama wins the election, then obviously America is not so bad. If Obama loses he says, see, I told you. And now, of course, with cable news and the rest of the media, stalking Reverend Wright every chance they get, Bill Moyers and all the rest of us saying, “hey come on, say something outrageous, say something provocative. Do something.” It'll be good for Wright, good for Wright's world view and bad for Obama. [Fox News, Fox News Watch, 4/26/08]
TCG thanked Pinkerton in a post the following day.
Pinkerton also promoted the blog on his Twitter account on February 5, 2009. He tweeted: “A smart blogger asks: Is MSNBC talent subject to Obama's $500 k salary cap if GE gets another bailout? http://thecablegame.blogspot.com/."