5 Of The Most Interesting Stories From David Folkenflik's Upcoming Murdoch Biography

In his forthcoming book on News Corp chairman Rupert Murdoch, veteran NPR media reporter David Folkenflik reports several fascinating stories about the mogul's expansive media empire.

Among the stories highlighted in Murdoch's World: that Fox News' public relations shop used an elaborate series of fake accounts to post pro-Fox comments on websites critical of the network; that the same PR department has resorted to ruthless tactics to take revenge on critical reporters; that News Corp's CEO tried to suppress damaging reporting about the phone hacking scandal from running in the Wall Street Journal; and that a New York Post columnist was merely “chastised” for directing a racial slur at a colleague.

Fox's ruthless PR department: Taking revenge on reporters and using sock puppet accounts on critical websites 

Folkenflik highlights numerous anecdotes about the aggressive tactics of Fox News' PR department, which punished reporters that upset the network.

For example, when New York Times media reporter Timothy Arango was working on a story about CNN's solid ratings in 2008, he was reportedly first asked by Fox to run in full a “vitriolic” statement about CNN that the conservative network had provided him. After he bristled at the suggestion, Arango -- a former News Corp employee that had worked for the New York Post from 2002 to 2006 -- claims he received an ominous threat from Fox suggesting he would be attacked personally for his story.

The morning Arango's story ran on the front page of the Times' business section, he was contacted by a writer for the now-defunct gossip website Jossip. That site later anonymously published a hit piece on him, including revealing that a recent medical leave he had taken “may have been a stint in rehab”:

This time, he said, [Fox News' Irena] Briganti warned him: They're going to go after you personally. On March 5, 2008, Arango's story, headlined “Back in the Game,” ran on the front page of the Times business section, and it was featured prominently on the paper's website. That morning, he received a call from a blogger with Jossip, a now-defunct gossip site. Arango knew what lay in store but did not return the call.

The unbylined story on Jossip said Arango had just returned from a two-month medical leave that “many allege may have been a stint in rehab.” The Jossip posting utilized every element of Arango's past coverage at the Post and Fortune magazine to draw a portrait of a craven reporter in unsuccessful pursuit of on-air reporting jobs at cable channels. It referred to “blowjob pieces about CNBC execs” written, the blog claimed, when Arango was hustling for a job at the network.

Arango braced for the slam about rehab because he had indeed returned a few days earlier from an extended medical leave to address his substance abuse. Arango kept silent, expecting a wave of disgust from his own newsroom. It never materialized. Bill Keller, then the executive editor at the Times, emailed Arango a note of encouragement: We don't take that kind of bullshit seriously. Keep your head up. [Murdoch's World, pp 72-73]

Folkenflik also writes about an incident involving fellow Murdoch biographer Michael Wolff. Wolff reportedly told Folkenflik that he was approached by Murdoch's staff with a request to “change the date when Murdoch met his third wife, Wendi Deng,” whom Murdoch married “just weeks” after he finalized his divorce from his previous wife. After Wolff refused, his book received “scant coverage in any News Corp properties,” though the New York Post eventually published seven pieces in the span of a month invoking an affair Wolff had been having with a colleague:

As Wolff tells the story, Murdoch wanted the timing of his involvement with Deng out of the book, but it stayed in. The Man Who Owns the News, received scant coverage in any News Corp properties. And Wolff also criticized [New York Post editor Col] Allan by name on cable television for the racially charged cartoon. Soon an article appeared on the gossip website City-File, and then another surfaced on the better-known Gawker, alleging that Wolff was having an affair with a younger colleague - a woman just a year older than his daughter. The Post pounced, citing, of course, the reporting of others. Over the course of the month, the Post published seven pieces invoking the affair and publishing another cartoon by Delonas, unfairly depicting the couple, in the words of Wolff's girlfriend Victoria Floethe, as “a thirteen-year-old girl in bed with an eighty-year-old.” By the end of the coverage, Wolff had moved out of the apartment he shared with his wife and the tabloid was running pieces about a legal fight the soon-to-be divorced couple were having with Wolff's mother-in-law. [Murdoch's World, pp 49-50]

Folkenflik explains that after some negative attention in 2008, “Fox pulled back on some of its most aggressive tactics.” 

As Media Matters has previously highlighted, lashing out at critical reporters isn't the only way Fox's PR shop seeks to shape public opinion. Folkenflik reports in the book that the network's staffers set up a series of fake accounts to post comments to articles that were critical of Fox:

On the blogs, the fight was particularly fierce. Fox PR staffers were expected to counter not just negative and even neutral blog postings but the anti-Fox comments beneath them. One former staffer recalled using twenty different aliases to post pro-Fox rants. Another had one hundred. Several employees had to acquire a cell phone thumb drive to provide a wireless broadband connection that could not be traced back to a Fox News or News Corp account. Another used an AOL dial-up connection, even in the age of widespread broadband access, on the rationale it would be harder to pinpoint its origins. Old laptops were distributed for these cyber operations. Even blogs with minor followings were reviewed to ensure no claim went unchecked.  [Murdoch's World, pg. 67] 

Fox quickly abandoned its more rigid video review policy following the Shirley Sherrod incident

In October 2010, Fox News ran with a story that originated on one of Andrew Breitbart's websites accusing Obama administration agricultural official Shirley Sherrod of being a racist. The network was burned when it turned out the video had been deceptively edited.  

Following the incident, Folkenflik writes that Fox executives “issued a new policy instructing staffers to verify every video used from an outside source, especially those with an ideological cast. One Fox News producer told me the policy was observed for little more than a week before falling into disuse.”  

News Corp's CEO tried to suppress Wall Street Journal's reporting on the phone hacking scandal.

In a revelation that was widely covered last week, Folkenflik reports that current News Corp. CEO Robert Thomson allegedly used his old position at the Wall Street Journal to try to curb that paper's reporting on the embarrassing phone hacking scandal that engulfed the News Corp empire in 2011. 

According to Folkenflik, Thomson tried “several times” to kill a story that revealed that the number of reporters that had used illicitly obtained voicemails from 13 year-old murder victim Millie Dowler was much higher than previously reported. 

Post columnist Steve Dunleavy was merely “chastised” after calling colleague Robert George “a token nigger.” 

In a section focusing on the “frat house aura” that has flourished at the New York Post under editor Col Allan, Folkenflik reports that former Post columnist Steve Dunleavy once called fellow columnist Robert George a “token nigger.” According to Folkenflik, the sum total of Dunleavy's punishment for having directed a slur at his black colleague was that he was “chastised”:

Under Allan, the Australian culture of mateship allowed a frat house aura to flourish at the New York Post. Sandra Guzman, a Latina journalist who had been fired as editor of a Post magazine section, accused Allan of sidling up to her and several other female employees to show them pictures of a man displaying his penis on his cell phone; she also alleged he rubbed himself lewdly against a female colleague, and that she herself was serenaded with “I Want to Be in America”--an allusion to the Puerto Rican character who sang the musical number of that name in the musical West Side Story.

The paper contested her charges. Yet under oath, Post editors admitted that Dunleavy had called conservative black columnist Robert George “a token nigger,” saying he would never have his job at the paper if not for his race. The city editor, James Murdoch's closest childhood friend Jesse Angelo, chastised Dunleavy. No other punishment was meted out. [Murdoch's World, pg. 45] 

Murdoch imported two top executives who sought to push the Journal to the right.

Soon after Murdoch purchased the Journal in 2007, Robert Thomson (the Australian-born editor of the Murdoch-owned Times of London) was installed as the paper's top editor and named British conservative columnist Gerard Baker as his deputy. New publisher Les Hinton, who had worked for Murdoch for more than 40 years, “publicly defanged” the Special Committee assembled to prevent editorial interference with the paper. According to Folkenflik, with President Obama's election “Thomson and Baker believed newspapers should serve as an oppositional force to the nation's chief executive and wanted to cast the Journal more in that image.”

What followed was a series of what Folkenflik terms “editorial nudges,” including:

  • Baker repeatedly “told editors that an article could not cite public opinion polls showing that the  views of American Catholics on abortion largely mirrored those of the general U.S. population,” suggesting that such polls didn't really indicate what Catholics believe because those who support abortion rights can't receive Communion. 
  • Thomson attempted to kill a story “built around a study questioning the viability of the Colorado River because the research had been commissioned by an environmental group.” The story only ran because his complaint came too late to find another story to fill the hole in the print edition. 
  • “Republicans had to be quoted at least as often as Democrats, even if officials in both parties were making the same points. But the reverse was never enforced.”