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People would often ask me about how Fox pushes a message.
And I would always tell them the message isn’t so much pushed as it is pulled. gravitationally, with Roger Ailes as the sun at the center of the solar system; his vice presidents were the forces of gravity that kept the planet-size anchors and executive producers in a tight orbit; then all the lesser producers and PAs were moons and satellites and debris of varying sizes.
An organizational flow chart at Fox would be tough to draw up, as title alone was not the ultimate signifier of status. Sometimes the anchors outranked their executive producers, as was the case with “The O’Reilly Factor.” (In fact, Bill had procured an EP title for himself, but he outranked the two other EPs on the show, both Stan, who oversaw TV, radio, and the website, and Gayle, who focused on television and also served as a fact-checker.) Sometimes the anchors were relatively weak — as was the case with a lot of weekend shows, and maybe some of the newswheel hours — and a strong senior producer or producer outranked, or at least pretended to outrank, the host. (For example, Lizzie from “The Lineup,” who was only a producer but was tough enough that she probably could have bossed around Ailes himself had she been left alone in a room with him for more than five minutes.)
The bottom line is that each show had one person — be they anchor or producer or whoever — who was directly accountable to the Second Floor. That was the brilliance of the company’s power structure. One misconception that outsiders always had about the channel is that we’d sit around all morning planning how to distort the news that day. But there was never any centralized control like that. No “marching orders,” as it were. Instead, it was more a decentralized, entrepreneurial approach. Each show was an autonomous unit. Each showrunner — who had not risen to their position by being stupid — knew exactly what was expected of them, knew what topics and guests would be acceptable.
Theoretically, each show could talk about whatever they wanted to talk about, and take any angle they wanted to take, and book any guest they wanted to have on.
Realistically, there was tremendous pressure to hew closely to the company line. The Second Floor monitored the content of every show very closely. Each show was required to submit a list of all the guests and all the topics well before the fact; the list would be reviewed by one of the relevant vice presidents. Most of the time, this was just a formality — as I said, the showrunners knew their boundaries — but every once in a while, a certain guest or topic would set off alarm bells on the second floor, leading to a series of increasingly urgent and unpleasant e-mails and phone calls for the showrunner.
Even if a segment passed initial muster, the Second Floor reserved the right to pull the plug if it took a turn they didn’t like. They were always watching, and never hesitant to exercise their authority. Roger himself had a phone in his office, a hotline he could pick up and immediately be connected to the control room. Every producer knew that, and dreaded seeing his name on the caller ID. If Roger took the time to personally call the control room, in my experience it was almost never complimentary.
It was a unique, bottom-up management structure that had built-in checks and balances coming from the top down. This approach had its advantages and disadvantages. On the upside, it often led to innovative programming, with adventurous hosts and producers coming up with story ideas and segments that a more buttoned-down, dictatorial management structure might otherwise never have approved. (O’Reilly was one of the beneficiaries of this, successfully experimenting with some of his more outlandish, barely news-related segments like Body Language and the Quiz.)
One of the disadvantages was that the Second Floor often put insane, arbitrary restrictions into place, with networkwide implications.
For example, some unlucky guests were banned for life from every show on the network, a result of a diktat from the Second Floor. Comedian Bill Maher, once a semi-regular guest on “The Factor” and some other Fox shows, made too many cracks about Sarah Palin over the years, raising the ire of a powerful female VP who banned him from our air and demanded that all Fox-affiliated websites refer to him only as “Pig Maher.”
Sometimes entire organizations were given lifetime bans. The website Politico wrote something a few years back that rubbed Roger the wrong way (we were never told what exactly the transgression was) and word went out to all the shows: No more Politico reporters as guests. Also, any anchors who mentioned the site on air had to use the phrase “left-wing Politico” — an absurd designation for a publication that usually played it down the middle.
Some anchors and producers had enough juice — proportional to the size of their audience, generally — to push back against the Second Floor’s mandates, with varying levels of success, though even O’Reilly, who had more juice than anyone, could only do so much. When one of his favorite guests, a fiery, young, liberal African American college professor, was banned, agreement with the Second Floor allowing him to continue to use the guy as long as his appearances were limited to once a month. O’Reilly wasn’t happy with it, but it was better than walking away empty-handed.
There was nothing Bill hated more than management impositions on his show. These impositions almost always followed the same pattern — Stan would get a phone call in his office from one of Roger’s underlings, usually a vice president named Bill Shine. I’d hear Manskoff’s end of the conversation. “You’re killing me here, you know that, don’t you,” Stan would say. “You know he’s going to hate this.” Manskoff would hang up, shaking his head in disbelief, and make the fifteen-foot trek to Bill’s office, closing the door behind him. Through the door, we’d hear muffled talking from Stan, then muffled shouting from Bill, followed shortly by the door popping open and Stan bolting from the office like a pinball from a launcher.
“I’ll do it this time, Manskoff,” Bill would call after him, “just this once. But I’m tired of this bullshit!” He’d always slow down for the next part, hammering each phrase so there would be no mistake in the future: “I want the interference! With my show! To stop! Now!”
Relations were rocky enough between O’Reilly and the Second Floor that VP Shine was dispatched on a regular basis to smooth things over, meeting in O’Reilly’s office every Tuesday at four p.m. These meetings would sometimes last upward of forty-five minutes. Though I was never privy to what was said in the meetings, neither man ever looked particularly pleased upon completion.
It was Stan’s job to run interference between O’Reilly and management, keeping the bosses out of Bill’s hair but also insulating the suits from Bill’s fits of rage. Ninety-nine percent of all issues could be solved with Manskoff and Shine collaborating, not having to involve Ailes or O’Reilly. But every once in a while, O’Reilly would refuse to back down, and Ailes would be forced to intervene.
The most memorable instance of this was in late
2008, when Lehman Brothers went tits-up and the whole economy was teetering on the brink. President Bush prepared a massive bailout package for the banks, and conservative talk radio exploded with outrage and opposition. One prominent conservative voice in favor of the bailout? Bill O’Reilly, who believed that the entire financial system would collapse without it. He took to his radio show that day and excoriated the radio hosts who opposed the bailout:
“Let’s get back to this talk radio stuff. These idiots. I mean, they’re misleading you. They’re lying to you. They’re rich, these guys. Big cigars. All of that. ‘Yeah, oh yeah, my private jet!’ And they’re saying, ‘Oh, no! No bailout!’ Walk away from these liars, these right-wing liars. Walk away from them! They’re not looking out for you.”
The cigar and private jet stuff was a thinly veiled swipe at Rush Limbaugh, someone O’Reilly has never liked, but also a figure who had a lot of fans at 1211 Sixth Avenue, including Roger Ailes and Sean Hannity.
When word filtered to the Second Floor that O’Reilly planned on repeating some of his radio rant on the TV show that night, the order came back quickly: Absolutely not. But O’Reilly put his foot down. Neither Stan Manskoff nor Bill Shine could dissuade him, and it took a phone call from Roger himself to put the matter to rest.
Bill took the call in his office, politely but insistently pleading his case to Ailes, but Roger held firm. Bill reluctantly agreed to toe the party line, excused himself from the call, gently hung up the receiver, then loudly yelled a string of expletives that could be heard all over the seventeenth floor. But after he got it out of his system, he spiked the Limbaugh reference from the TV show.
I said earlier that O’Reilly had more juice than anyone. That wasn’t entirely true. He had higher ratings than anyone, to be sure, but it could be argued that Hannity actually had more juice, owing to his closer affiliation and friendship with Ailes. The two of them are fellow travelers, both devoted to Republican causes. Bill is not on that train with them — he’s truly devoted only to O’Reilly-related causes. (Which just so happen to dovetail with Republican causes most of the time, but still …)
This has led to no small amount of tension between the parties. O’Reilly and Hannity, the two biggest stars at Fox News Channel, have basically no working relationship. Their shows are back-to-back, yet they’re barely on speaking terms. O’Reilly is convinced that Hannity is trying to sabatoge his show, and vice versa. The two of them fight constantly, almost entirely through intermediaries and over the pettiest of issues — mostly over guests. Both shows like to use Fox News analysts — specifically Karl Rove, Dick Morris, and Bernie Goldberg — and 90 percent of the squabbling is over which show gets which guest on which night. Roger did the situation no favors in 2011, when he spoke to Howard Kurtz of The Daily Beast and engaged in a bit of provocative muckraking:
“O’Reilly hates Sean [Hannity] and he hates Rush [Limbaugh] because they did better in radio than he did,” Ailes said. Bill was furious for weeks. Because it turns out there is one thing he hated even more than management meddling: someone insulting his ratings.
* * *
Bill was, if nothing else, a man of habit — to the point where he got incredibly angry if anything went awry with his schedule. For someone as pugilistic as he, he’s shockingly unable to roll with the punches. He’s like a taller, Irish version of Dustin Hoffman in “Rain Man.” Even a slight delay or deviation from the plan could set off a lecture or, on occasion, a screaming match. As a result, he was tightly scheduled down to the minute.
Bill’s daily routine was really a marvel of efficiency. It wasn’t quite “The 4-Hour Workweek,” but it came pretty damn close to being the four-hour workday. Now, he would tell you he’s up early, reading the paper, communicating with his staff, etc. And this is all true. He’s a hardworking guy. I don’t want to give the impression that he isn’t. But as far as actual time spent in the building? We’re talking four and a half hours a day, tops.
Here’s how it went:
We’d compile and send to Bill the “Newsfax,” a ten-page document with excerpts from what we thought were the day’s most important stories, op-eds, sound bites, and so on. We called it the Newsfax because it was easier to tell Bill we were faxing it to him than it was to explain that we were remotely printing it to his home printer.
This is actually a familiar pattern with Bill. It’s often simpler to let him believe something erroneously than it is to correct him.
Case in point: In summer 2011, a story surfaced on the right-wing blogs that an auditor for the Justice Department had found out some DOJ employees attending a meeting at the Capital Hilton in Washington, DC, had been served refreshments, including muffins for which the hotel charged sixteen dollars apiece.
It’s no surprise that the story spread like wildfire on the blogs and was soon picked up by cable news. It was a great story for the right, reinforcing preexisting notions of government excess and willingness to waste taxpayer money, the incompetence of the Obama Justice Department, etc.
One problem: It wasn’t true.
A few days after the story broke, a representative from Hilton Hotels came out and said that the auditor had misread the bill, that the sixteen dollars referred to a full breakfast—coffee, tea, fruit, muffins, plus tax and gratuity. Not a bargain by any means, but also not too bad for a hotel continental breakfast.
A producer named Steiner Rudolf was line producing — assembling the stories in the rundown and making sure they all timed out correctly — on the day that Bill wanted to include the muffin anecdote in a Talking Points Memo. “Actually, Bill, the muffin thing got debunked,” Steiner started to tell him. “A guy from the hotel came out and said —”
“I don’t give a shit what the guy said,” Bill interrupted, suddenly angry. “It’s the same old thing. They come out and deny it, but the story is there. We know it’s true. We have the proof.”
Steiner tried gamely one more time to convince Bill to drop the story, explaining that he didn’t have the proof, but O’Reilly was adamant. He’d latched on to the story, and pesky things like “facts” weren’t going to convince him otherwise. The muffins went into the Talking Points. Over the next few weeks, he repeated the story several times on his own show, on Jon Stewart’s show, on David Letterman’s show, and on Good Morning America.
Unfortunately for the embarrassed Hilton Hotels and some nameless DOJ bureaucrats, the muffin story, false though it may be, perfectly coincided with Bill’s book tour.
The morning conference was when the real work of building the day’s show began. The senior staff connected on a four-way call. From my vantage point outside Stan’s office, I could hear them on speakerphone gearing up for it like troops going into battle. “Are you ready for this?” “Yeah, are you?” “Here goes nothing.”