NEW YORK (AP) — Where can public praise for your work make you unemployable elsewhere? Welcome to the world of cable television news.
Media critics jumped on Fox News Channel last week for airing a nearly four-minute video critical of President Barack Obama’s record that resembled a campaign attack ad. The episode was most interesting, however, for revealing a game of personnel hardball that even Johan Santana might admire.
The video shown Wednesday on “Fox & Friends” took Obama’s words about “hope and change” as a starting point. It mixed statistics on such things as employment, gas prices and personal savings, coupled them with ominous music and newscaster sound bites, and argued that things had not changed for the better.
When it concluded, “Fox & Friends” anchors took the unusual step — not unprecedented, but unusual in TV news — of crediting offscreen producer Chris White.
“Great job putting that together,” said Brian Kilmeade.
“Took a tremendous amount of research,” added Gretchen Carlson. “Good job, Chris.”
It didn’t take long for the criticism to roll in, led by Fox’s most persistent watchdog, the liberal advocacy group Media Matters for America. They wondered what such a blatantly opinionated segment was doing on a news program. Baltimore Sun television writer David Zurawik blogged that “any news organization that puts up this kind of video is rotten to the core.”
Even the conservative blog Hot Air, while not disagreeing with the substance of the video, said its airing gives too much ammunition to people who believe Fox can’t cover the campaign fairly.
By Wednesday afternoon, Fox Executive Vice President of Programming Bill Shine issued a statement disavowing the video. He said it slipped by senior managers, who would never have aired it. An associate producer was responsible, and he was getting a talking to. Left unsaid was how Fox’s normally very attentive senior managers let the segment air twice and remain available on the “Fox & Friends” website as late as 4 p.m. ET.
Shortly after Shine’s statement was issued, some news blogs reported — without visible sourcing — that White was leaving Fox News for a job at CNN.
In cable news, CNN vs. Fox is Hatfield vs. McCoy, or Obama vs. Romney. One has little use for the other. CNN looks down upon Fox’s opinionated approach even as Fox clobbers CNN in the ratings. CNN takes great pride in a reputation as an unbiased news source, believing it both a higher calling and better business model.
Now imagine CNN executives waking up to the headline: “CNN hires Fox producer responsible for controversial Obama video.”
Not a chance. White was tainted goods.
Within 24 hours, CNN announced that White would not be working there. It’s unclear whether White had been formally offered a job but an executive at CNN, not authorized to speak about personnel issues and granted anonymity for that reason, conceded there were extensive discussions with White about employment.
The good news for White is he lost only one job last week. On Friday afternoon, Shine said White would remain employed at Fox News.
“We’ve addressed the video with the producers and are not going to discuss the internal workings of our programming any further,” Shine said.
White did not return an email request for comment.
Could the video have been an elaborate set-up, an entertaining one for a viewership that, for the most part, doesn’t think much of Obama to begin with?
There’s some history of Fox executives not taking it well when an employee moves to CNN.
Fox fired prime-time anchor Paula Zahn in 2001 simply upon learning she had received an offer to host a morning show at CNN, an offer she eventually accepted. In a New York Times article about her firing, Fox News chief Roger Ailes minimized how Zahn had improved ratings while at Fox with a quote that quickly became legendary.
“I could have put a dead raccoon on the air this year and got a better rating than last year,” he said. “That’s all just the growth of our network.”
Eric Burns, former host of the weekly “Fox News Watch” show on the media, said that Ailes’ enmity toward CNN was obvious around Fox offices. When Fox started, CNN was the brand name for cable news, the biggest target. Ailes was itching to win, and has left CNN behind in the ratings over the past decade. Burns recalled regular newsroom meetings when CNN ratings were discussed.
“He was a heavy user of adjectives,” Burns said.
The issue of whether Fox should have aired the video in the first place isn’t likely to be much more than a one-day story. Media critics may have been offended, but chances are much of Fox’s audience wasn’t.
“Attacking Fox News as a Republican talking-points channel only tends to deepen loyalty among Fox viewers,” said Tim Graham of the conservative Media Research Center.
One person is likely to never forget the story, though. That would be Chris White.
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