“Report the news. Don’t become the news.” Not that Fox News has ever adhered strictly to boilerplate advice from Journalism 101, but the craziness on Sixth Avenue has come to a serious boil lately.
TV news elder statesman Ted Koppel called Sean Hannity “bad for America.” Sean freaked out and attacked Ted. Sean reportedly pulled a gun on fellow Foxer Juan Williams. Fox peeps reported it to management, who did nothing.
Last year Fox boss Roger Ailes was forced out in the aftermath of a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by Gretchen Carlson, who is now at MSNBC. Fox paid her $20 million and apologized. Julie Roginsky recently filed another suit against Ailes.
I’ve never worked at Fox. But I used to spend enough time there to gain insight into a dysfunctional organization.
This was during the years immediately following 9/11. George W. Bush and his wars were popular, especially with Fox viewers. And I went after Bush more aggressively than anyone else. So they were constantly begging me to come on as a liberal punching bag.
It became routine: Fox News popped up on caller ID. Would you like to come on The O’Reilly Factor/Hannity and Colmes/later just Hannity to talk about it? Why yes, I would. 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.
Going on Fox felt like going to war. These were the darkest days of the War on Terror: 2002, 2003 and 2004. Republicans were right-wing Republicans and so were Democrats. Someone had to stand up against wars of choice and legalized torture. Someone had to fight for the Bill of Rights. I was 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: “I’ll bring you back to follow up”). But it was worth it. I’d take any opportunity to represent for the Left.
Lord knows the Democrats weren’t doing it.
Some of their tactics were risible. They were so extreme that, over time, no one to the left of Reagan would agree to appear on the network unless they’d never heard of it.
Ergonomic warfare, for example. My teetering armless guest seat was placed several inches lower so that, at 6’2″, I was forced to gaze up as O’Reilly lorded over his desk (which I couldn’t reach so as to rest my hands) from his comfy Aeron chair. A minute into O’Reilly’s oral arguments-style volley of hostile questions, it took most of my concentration not to roll backwards off the set.
Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but isn’t someone who takes the time to come to your studio, slap on pancake makeup and suck up a barrage of nasty questions and comments entitled to hospitality?
That said, I kind of liked Bill. He was cordial during breaks. 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.
Hannity was a classic Long Island mook.
Unlike O’Reilly, the thick-necked Hannity followed me around the studio, trashtalking me with right-wing talking points while I searched for the restroom. “Save it for the show,” I advised him. What’s wrong with this guy? I thought. Give this to him: he’s for real. Hannity is a rabid culture warrior, a Goebbels for an America in free fall.
One episode turned me off Fox for good. 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 talking about my own stuff. On the air, however, Hannity ambushed me instead with insults over a controversial cartoon I’d done months earlier about Pat Tillman, and which I’d already appeared on his program to defend.
I held up OK and kept my cool. But I was pissed. These appearances are discussed and agreed upon in detail: you’ll show the cover of my book at the beginning, you’ll identify me as “Syndicated Editorial Cartoonist,” you’ll be questioned about this and that. Switching to an entirely different subject violates the rules. At a well-run cable news network, punking a guest could lead to a warning or dismissal. Hannity’s crew just laughed.
Not long afterward, Sean’s producer called to apologize and begged me to return. I said 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. I stayed home.
Two of my Foxiest memories took place in make-up.
A rushed make-up assistant accidently scraped my open eye. Years later, my left eye tears up in windy weather. Riding a bike, it runs full on. Stuff happens.
More startlingly, Sean entered the room while I was in the make-up chair. He didn’t trashtalk me or acknowledge my presence. My make-up artist was an undocumented worker. Sean knew. He told her that Fox was trying to determine how to pay her off the books and reassured her that 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 for a simple reason. I didn’t want to strip an innocent hard-working person of her livelihood or, worse, subject her to possible deportation.
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, 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.
It was also revealing. 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.
I’m still waiting to come back on O’Reilly to talk about Afghanistan.