Fox's fair and balanced act

Being on Fox News can require humility.

Being on Fox News can require humility.

David Corn, one of the network’s leading liberal contributors who writes for The Nation, has been called a “sewer dweller” by conservative host Bill O’Reilly. Corn laughs and says he hasn’t gone on the “Factor” in two years.

Brit Hume, managing editor of Fox’s Washington Bureau, also has unflattering nicknames, one of which is “scum-sucking pig,” written in to him by a viewer.

Still, say staff, Fox is a good place to be. From its swooshes and flashy graphics to its female newscasters who are reckoned the best-looking women on TV, Fox News seems to have it all. For five years it has been the top-rated cable news network.

This week it celebrates a decade on the air with an upscale luncheon at Charlie Palmer Steak on Capitol Hill hosted by Fox News’s Chairman and CEO Roger Ailes, Senior V.P of Advertising Sales Paul Rittenberg and Hume.

Fred Barnes, editor of The Weekly Standard and one of Fox’s “Beltway Boys,” recalls the morning when he and fellow boy Mort Kondracke were knocked off their time slot because a dog in New Jersey was stuck on a slab of ice.

It’s not just being taken off air that can be mortifying. There are embarrassing on-air moments, too. Barnes’s cell phone went off during a broadcast, and once he knocked over a glass of water.

Kondracke remembers mortifying interviews. Years ago during a Beltway Boys segment, he and Barnes would grill a lawmaker for five to seven minutes. “Invariably what came out was total pap, straight spin,” Kondracke recalls — the pair even devised a rating system based on one Democratic congressman (whom he won’t name) who was notorious for snowing them — eventually they took the segment off the air.

“It was a total waste,” says Kondracke. “We could never get anything. We decided we were bad interviewers.” 

But “Fox News is an enormous success,” he said. “I never dreamed when I first started there with a half-empty studio that it would be the top-rated news channel in the country and I feel very fortunate to have been there for the ride.”

Hume says, “The amazing thing is I thought it would take us this long to be competitive.”

The former ABC newscaster often receives insulting mail, some of which he reads aloud to friends and colleagues. One question he is often asked: “How much does Bush pay you?”

Hume takes the insults in stride and marvels over how closely viewers pay attention to what he says.

He recalls the Anthrax scare when “members of Congress were fleeing in all directions because of something that happened at the post office. They were cowering. [Sen.] Mark Dayton [D-Minn.] went home and didn’t come back. They went into panic mode.”

In response, Hume came up with new twist on Fox’s tag line, “Fair and Balanced,” and made it “Fair, Balanced and Unafraid.” When he stopped saying it a short while later, viewers  wrote in insisting that he keep saying it. So he reinstituted the phrase.

Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), who thinks highly of Fox News and believes in its fairness and balance says, “If traditional media wasn’t so liberal, Fox wouldn’t be so popular. I’m kind of desperate for publicity. I go wherever the media is. I don’t get asked to go on the Clinton News Network [CNN] much.”

Another perk on Fox News? “There’s no question that Fox has better-looking hostesses,” Kingston says. (Of course, he means female newscasters, not people who seat patrons in restaurants.) He adds, “I like ‘Hannity & Colmes.’ I find them most interested in showing both sides of the story. Anything that annoys the standard liberal media is worth watching.”

The Georgia Republican admits he keeps C-Span, not Fox News, on in his Washington office, but says news is not his whole life. “If I was going to watch the news I’d watch Fox, but my idea of enjoyment is not watching the news.”

Fox News has its fans, and also its enemies. Democrats by and large detest it and regard it as a source of right-wing spin. Nevertheless, many of Fox’s detractors still feel a gravitational pull to watch.

Andrew Sullivan, a gay conservative blogger, has no regular appearances on Fox News. He’s more of an MSNBC kind of guy. At Indebleu’s bar over the weekend, he has only negative, vulgar remarks about Fox News, one of which compared the network’s content to his own flatulence. The only printable thing Sullivan said is he watches Fox News, but finds it “disgusting.”

Like Sullivan, there are lawmakers who are both drawn to and repelled by Fox News. Senators like Dick Durbin (D-Ill.)  claim they won’t watch it but appear regularly on the network to reach an audience whose minds they wish to change.

“Appearances on Fox are calculated,” remarked one Senate Democratic press secretary speaking on the condition of anonymity. “Politics is cheap. It’s always a means to an end.”

Chris Matthews, host of MSNBC’s “Hardball,” won’t badmouth Fox. “Roger [Ailes] was smart enough to see the opening,” he says, “It’s very well produced; it’s got a sharp buzz to it.”

Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.) enjoys appearing on “Fox News Sunday” and is pleased by the addition of Fox News to the media mix. “Now you have a 24-hour news station that isn’t slanted to the left, that really isn’t part of the Hollywood or liberal New York effeminate elite,” he says.

“The bottom line is a lot of the old networks and CNN go over great with people in France or people who think like the French. But for people who live in Oviedo, Florida or who live on farms or in small towns, Fox News is the overwhelming choice.

Feeney says Fox viewers are the sort of people who vote for him.

Greta Van Susteren, who came to Fox from CNN nearly five years ago, raves about the network. “The first six months were fabulous, but I assumed it was just the honeymoon of a new job, but it hasn’t changed,” she says, “I love my colleagues. I’m reluctant to say too many good things because I’m afraid they’ll cut my pay, or even worse, charge me.”

Barnes adds, “There’s not a lot of tension,” he says, citing his “exceptional” friendship with NPR’s Juan Williams, a liberal commentator with whom he often disagrees on the network. “People get along well.”

Van Susteren, who came to work at the Network to analyze the William Kennedy Smith rape trial, distinguishes Fox News from other networks and takes shots at CNN.

“We all do the same news and news can be tough to take because it’s depressing,” she says. “We have war, people dying. The one big difference at Fox is it’s fun. You have management behind you. CNN was just a lousy place to work. The management was just wicked when AOL came in. What I objected to is they were just cruel.”

These days, Corn isn’t bothered that O’Reilly won’t invite him on his show. He doesn’t miss him much. “He started accusing me of not wanting to protect my family because I didn’t support the war,” Corn recalls. “It’s a pretty dumb point because there’s no denying that I care about the safety of my family or anyone else.”

Corn sometimes feels like he’s a member of the “visiting team,” but he doesn’t mind; “On the air I can say anything. Regardless of what anyone may say about Fox, when I go on, I say what I think needs to be said.”

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