aNewDomain — Report the news. Don’t become the news.
To put it another way, as one award-winning journalist did recently, you can’t report the story if you’re part of the story.
The bosses at Fox News have never adhered strictly to that or any of the other boilerplate advice that generations of journalists have been taught to follow.
But what’s been going down lately on Sixth Avenue is crazy — crazy even for them.
Have the powers at be at Fox lost their minds?
First, former Nightline exec producer and host Ted Koppel showed up on Sean Hannity’s show on Fox, and immediately told Hannity he and his brand of bad journalism were “bad for America.” Sean freaked out and attacked Ted in return, of course. (Watch that video below the fold.)
And Hannity reportedly pulled a gun on fellow Foxer Juan Williams. Fox peeps reported it to management, but nothing happened.
Then, just a few days ago, a New York Times investigation revealed that Fox host Bill O’Reilly and his bosses have paid some $13 million over the years to settle sexual harassment complaints filed by five different women. Again, management knew. But it stood by Bill. Now advertisers are pulling out.
And now, months after Fox boss Roger Ailes was forced out in the aftermath of Gretchen Carlsons sexual harassment lawsuit and its $20 million settlement with her, it’s started again. Julie Roginsky now has filed another suit against Ailes.
I’ve never officially worked at Fox News. But I’ve spent enough time on the inside to give you an idea of what’s going on there.
I first began spending a lot of time over at Fox during the years immediately following 9/11. Then Pres. George W. Bush and his wars were popular at the time — especially with Fox viewers, who as usual were just getting misled with the slanted, Fox-style confirmation bias treatment we now all know so well.
Anyway, I became a staple over there simply because I was bashing Bush for the Iraq War and other issues more aggressively than anyone else at the time.
Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly and other hosts there needed a liberal punching bag, and I was happy to fill in — if only for an opportunity to get a logical word in edgewise.
The network bookers were constantly begging me to come on back then.
The phone wouldn’t stop ringing. Fox News lived on my caller ID.
Would I like to come on The O’Reilly Factor/Hannity and Colmes/later just Hannity to talk about it?
Why yes, thank you, I would.
And when the time came, I’d show up, cameras would roll, and then Bill or Sean would yell at me (as Alan silently cowered).
I’d shoot back a volley of snark in hope that some of it would get through my deliberately tamped-down mic.
So you know, guest commentators like me aren’t paid for our trouble — nor should we be — and as I said, I thought the opportunity to get some reasonable perspective in among all the fear mongering and misinformation was a good one.
But going on Fox was like suiting up and going to war.
These were the darkest days of the War on Terror when I was on, back in 2002, 2003 and 2004. Republicans were right-wing Republicans and so were Democrats.
showed up, simply, because I had no choice.
I showed up to get mercilessly interrupted, attacked and have my words twisted and ridiculed because someone had to.
Someone had to stand up against wars of choice and legalized torture. Someone had to fight for the Bill of Rights.
God knows the gutless Democrats at the time weren’t doing it.
I signed up to be insulted (Hannity: “You have no soul!”) and lied to (O’Reilly, in response to my argument that the U.S. couldn’t win in Afghanistan, yelled: “I’ll bring you back to follow up!” Bring it on, I said. It never happened.
Some of Fox tactics were risible. Truly. (They were so extreme that, over time, no one to the left of Ronald Reagan would agree to appear on the network — unless they’d never heard of it.)
There was ergonomic warfare, for example.
I kid you not.
Some assistant was always setting up a teetering, rolling armless guest seat for me, and adjusting it several inches lower than it ought to be me. The net effect was a TV appearance where I, at 6’2″, was forced to gaze up as O’Reilly lorded over his desk, which I couldn’t reach so as to rest my hands.
Meanwhile there’s O’Reilly looking down on me like some kind of Aeron throne emperor, all cush and cozy and dictatorial. But the main thing is that he was stable. Seat-wise, I mean. The way they positioned me on the wobbly, too-low stool, it would take most of my concentration not to roll backwards off the set altogether during O’Reilly’s hostile, oral arguements-style question firing.
But I dealt with it. It was fine.
And as it turned out, I kind of ended up liking Bill O’Reilly. When we were live, he could be vicious. But he was cordial during breaks. Human, even.
Once, while one of my cartoons was provoking death threats (granted, mostly from Fox fans), he expressed genuine concern for my personal safety. Off-camera, he didn’t come off as an ideologue. I got the impression that he was in it for the money.
At the very least it was a performance, an act. I don’t like it, but I get it. All in all, O’Reilly off-camera is not a bad guy.
But Hannity? He is just a classic Long Island mook.
Unlike O’Reilly, though, the thick-necked Hannity wasn’t human when the cameras went off. He followed me around the studio, trash-talking me with right-wing talking points before I ever went on, dogging me even as I tried to duck out to the restroom.
“Save it for the show,” I told him.
I mean, come on. What’s wrong with this guy? I wondered.
But I will give him this: When you watch O’Reilly, you’re getting something that is meaner, more cartoonish, than what is real. With Hannity, you’re really seeing him in all his nastiness– for worse and for worse.
Hannity appears to be and actually is a rabid culture warrior, a Goebbels for an America in freefall.
Despite the maltreatment, though, I kept showing up on Fox News shows over the years. They kept calling. I kept saying yes.
Then Hannity’s producer invited me on to discuss a controversial “Doonesbury” cartoon.
I was going to deliver my opinion and analysis as a political cartoonist, not even talk about my own stuff. On the air, though, Hannity ambushed me instead with insults over a controversial cartoon I’d done months earlier about Pat Tillman, a cartoon I’d already appeared on his program to defend.
I held up okay and kept my cool. But I was pissed.
This is something that never happens.
Guest spots on Fox or any other show, then and now, might look like they’re spontaneous, but they never are.
You discuss the content and agree upon everything that is said before you ever go on with bookers, associate producers, executive producers and, often, the hosts, in detail before you ever go on the air.
Like a reality show that is anything but, free-form news shows are planned almost to the second.
Before I ever go in, for instance, we all know that they’ll super me with my name and the title, “syndicated political cartoonist,” about 20 seconds in, and show the cover of my latest book or whatever else it is I gave them as a graphic to use when they cut away from me for the first time. It’s formula.
Switching to an entirely different subject never happens on network-quality news shows. Anywhere. Even Fox.
And when it does, heads roll. Really. Producers and hosts all know that punking a guest could lead to a warning or dismissal.
With Hannity, I rolled with it. But afterward, I was still pissed. When I said something, Hannity’s crew just laughed.
Not long afterward, Hannity’s producer called to apologize and begged me to return.
I’d expected that call, and I told him I would if Sean would apologize on the air, the same medium where he’d tried to humiliate me.
“He’s not likely to agree to that,” the producer said. Here was a case where the producers were too weak to control their talent. Not good.
But anyway, I stayed home.
It was easy to remember to stay home and keep turning down the Fox invites, thanks to the scrape-ups in make-up. A rushed assistant in make-up once accidentally scraped my open eye. Years later, my left eye still tears up in windy weather. Riding a bike, it runs full on. Stuff happens. It’s a Fox injury. I can deal.
Another time I was in the make-up chair and Hannity came in. He didn’t trash-talk me or acknowledge my presence at all. But he started talking, pointing out to make-up artist that he knew she was an undocumented worker — illegal, he’d call her now.
He told her that Fox was trying to determine how to pay her off the books and reassured her that she didn’t need to worry, they would figure it out.
As tempting as it would have been to expose the hypocrisy of a network and a personality who have raked in millions by spreading nativism and xenophobia, I didn’t go public on our live shot later with what I saw and heard, and I wouldn’t have even if Hannity had started to bash undocumented workers or people who employ them.
I did that not to protect Hannity, but because I didn’t want to strip an innocent hard-working person of her livelihood or, worse, subject her to possible deportation.
But it was a confusing episode.
Here was Sean Hannity, mega-mook, taking a risk by breaking the law to help an illegal immigrant. He almost seemed human. On the other hand, I knew Fox News could easily afford to hire a U.S. citizen at a reasonable salary.
There was more nuance in that minute-long conversation than in a year of Fox News broadcasts.
The whole episode with Hannity and the undocumented make-up person was revealing, though.
Why would the top-rated channel in cable news break federal immigration law? The answer, it seems, is that Fox management didn’t think rules applied to them.
By the way, I’ve begun to accept invites again to Fox, but I don’t accept them all the time, like I once did.
And I am still waiting for another invitation from O’Reilly to come back talk about Afghanistan.
In case you’ve never seen it, here’s a copy of the Society of Professional Journalists’ ethical guidelines, to which most reputable journalists and journalistic outlets, including aNewDomain, adhere.
For aNewDomain, I’m Ted Rall.
Note: Here is a clip of Ted Rall with Sean Hannity 10 years ago. Scroll below that to watch former ABC Nightline host Ted Koppel take on Sean Hannity, and conservative columnist and former ABC News’ This Week voice George Will, do the same.
Disclosure: This story’s editor, Gina Smith, is a former on-air correspondent at ABC News’ Nightline with Ted Koppel. Her first TV job was as a guest host on Fox’ F/X breakfast, with Tom Bergeron. Neither she nor Ted Rall is on salary or otherwise paid by any national TV or cable news operation.