Former Fox News "mole" Joe Muto talks on his new book about former boss, Bill O'Reilly
At times, we traded stories like two stiffs who had worked for the same, abusive boss.
But between the two of us, only Joe Muto had actually stepped inside the walls of Fox News Channel as an employee, working his way up a succession of jobs to become a producer on the newschannel’s top show, The O’Reilly Factor.
That’s when Muto’s liberal leanings and admitted burnout at Fox led to a questionable decision: To file reports for the website Gawker as a “mole” at the newschannel, hopefully to describe life behind-the-scenes at TV’s top-rated cable news outlet.
Unfortunately for Muto, he was discovered after providing just two posts – one with embarrassing, unaired footage of GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney talking about his show horses and another describing the awful state of bathrooms at the channel.
“I just wanted to be more of a lovable goofball and I think it may have crossed over into criminally negligent,” said Muto, who eventually was identified by Fox, fired and prosecuted, pleading guilty to two misdemeanor charges. “If I had known I was going to end up being led by handcuffs into a courtroom the plead guilty to misdemeanors, I wouldn’t have done it at all.”
So he wrote An Athiest in the Fox Hole, a book aimed at expanding on his backstage accounts. As somebody who tangled with his boss more than once, I found the middle sections a compelling, detailed look at how cable’s top anchor chooses stories and develops his onscreen image.
“The stories he was looking for had to be ones that, first and foremost, would get him viewers,” Muto wrote, later describing an obsession with ratings which would lead O’Reilly to pore over daily viewership figures in 15-minute increments, questioning which topics or guests would bring dips in the totals.
“Beyond that, he was looking for stories that supported his worldview: that American culture and society was under assault by the forces of secular liberalism, and that he, Bill O’Reilly, was the only thing standing between the secularists and the total dissolution of the nation’s moral fiber,” the book continued.
Well-written and structured in surprising ways, the book takes the events of the day in which he was discovered and fired by Fox and sprinkles them throughout the text. Otherwise, it balances the story of his rise as a grunt-level producer at Fox, with tales about working for O’Reilly.
For media nerds, the material on O’Reilly is interesting, as Muto describes a broadcaster brilliant enough to dictate show scripts while riding into the office from home, but petty enough to deliver the same angry rebuke to a producer who provides incorrect information or a secretary who gets a lunch order wrong.
That sense of retribution, Muto suggested, may also be why O’Reilly has crossed swords with so many TV critics – me included – looking into writers’ political donations, party registrations and, in my case, past writing on racial issues.
“My sense is that he has a chip on his shoulder that…the rest of the media world has never really given him his due,” said the former producer, noting that O’Reilly gets daily reports on which media outlets have mentioned him in their stories. “He thinks no one will give him the credit; that media critics love to look at other people like Anderson Cooper or Morning Joe on MSNBC…meanwhile, he’s still Number One and critics are ignoring him.”
Despite describing himself as a liberal who tamped down his political views to work at Fox, Muto had kind words for conservative icon O’Reilly, calling him a “self-made man” and “master of the medium,” even while describing his distaste in participating in an ambush interview of Rosie O’Donnell for the show.
He also revealed that the highly-profitable network had a rickety system of getting videotapes on the air during most of his tenure which often left junior staffers with lots of power over what images aired with stories. In our discussion, he talked of a “reality distortion field” which could permeate Fox programming, in which the spin for conservatives grew so intense that it was easy to misread the actual facts.
And despite the channel’s public posture that Fox News is “fair and balanced” while countering the liberal bias of mainstream media, Muto said most of his colleagues didn’t believe that party line.
“Everyone knew that our job was to sort of stir up viewers and make them angry and, you know, get them to watch more,” he said. “Because angry people keep media on for longer, basically.”
By the book’s end, Muto writes he’d most like the see Fox News Channel “drop the veil” and present its pro-conservative partisanship openly. “I’d want (founder and president) Roger Ailes to come out and say…its harmful to the discourse and harmful to our viewers when we pretend we’re the fair ones and everybody else is biased.”
So why don’t they do that?
“I think the network still craves legitimacy,” he said. “Everyone knew we’re the partisan network. But the want plausible deniability…(they) worry if they went over all the way, then people would just be able to write them off as the crazy, right wing network.”
Muto hops to write another book, admitting his days in TV news are likely over, undone, in part, by his underestimation of how interested the world would be in discovering who the Fox mole really was.
“I thought there would be, maybe, three dozen people in midtown Manhattan who would read the post and would give a crap,” he said. “It blew up a lot bigger and faster than I expected.”