Throwback Thursday: “When Things Get Tough, Roger Gets Tougher”

58431_320_240_fn10thI hope that you got a chance to see Fox News’ 10th anniversary special earlier tonight Here were some highlights for me:

First off, it was ably co-hosted by Chris Wallace and Martha MacCallum, with some illuminating assists from Ken Auletta, media writer for The New Yorker, and Erik Sorenson, the former head of MSNBC, who will surely get in trouble from his ex-colleagues for conceding, as noted earlier, that MSNBC and the rest of the MSM “misunderestimated” Fox, Roger Ailes, and Rupert Murdoch.

Second, it was a trip down memory lane, as veteran FNC-ers recalled their early incredulity about the new channel and its prospects. Jon Scott, for example, remembered back to those days in 1996: “When Roger Ailes said that he had a five year plan for overtaking CNN, I thought he was crazy.”

Third, there was some vivid commentary on what it’s like to work at Fox. As the tenacious and dogged Eric Shawn–a hero of “oil for food” scandal digging–told us, “It’s like being shot out of a cannon every morning; that’s the definition of news.” And Bill O’Reilly said of his own sharp personality: “Even if you don’t like me, you’re not going to be bored.”

Fourth, Ailes himself recalled the genesis of the phrase “fair and balanced.” He added, “Other people hate those words”—referring, first and foremost to other network execs. Wallace asked him where he got the idea for the network. Ailes responded, thinking back to those pre-Fox years, more than a decade ago, “I was in meetings, and I would read about it the next day, and I would say to myself, ‘That’s not what happened.’” That is, the MSM just got it wrong–and worse, didn’t much care about getting it wrong. Continuing, the FNC chief added about rival news operations and their product, “Not only was it biased, but it was boring—everybody had the same take on the story.”

Fifth, that visible difference, of course, is FNC’s signature. Brit Hume recalled how he came to want to leave ABC News, even though he had a great job as chief White House correspondent; Fox offered him the chance, he remembered wistfully, to do things in a different way. And so he grabbed the opportunity, as Washington Managing Editor of FNC: He chose different stories, different angles, different perspectives, brought more voices to the debate. As Hume summed it up: “We were different from the other media.” So Hume was asked, have you changed Washington? “To some extent, yes,” Hume answered. “There’s no chance now that there’s a whole side that won’t be covered.” That’s the point–that’s what Americans had been waiting for, for half a century, before FNC.

Sixth, at the same time, Fox is assuredly in nobody’s partisan pocket. Hume recalled, for example, that back in 2000, it was FNC’s Carl Cameron who broke the story of George W. Bush’s long-prior drunk-driving arrest—and FNC went to the six-year-old tape of Cameron breaking the story on air. Indeed, FNC showed something I had never seen before: Just before that fateful 2000 broadcast, Cameron is seen telling Hume—on camera but off air—that the Bush campaign had just asked him to delay the report by 20 minutes so that they, the Bushies, could put together a response. Hume is seen, six years ago, saying, “We can’t do that.” And of course, Cameron went ahead with his powerful scoop, which nearly cost Bush the election, and surely cost W. his plurality of the popular vote. But later that same year, Hume said, Fox “made its bones,” at least in terms of political coverage, thanks to its many all-nighters and all-day-ers on the Florida recount coverage. That was the “critical turning point,” in Hume’s view.

Seventh, some of the most interesting commentary came from vets of the other networks, broadcast as well as cable. Wallace, of course, is from ABC, and Martha MacCallum, from CNBC. And Hume, as noted, is from ABC. Others with prominent roles on the special included Greta Van Susteren and Bill Hemmer (both CNN), John Gibson (MSNBC), and Neil Cavuto (CNBC). As Hemmer said of his former and current employer, “Fox is faster, we are more nimble.” And Greta Van Susteren, recalling her exit from CNN, said, “I left a dysfunctional corporation” in the wake of the Time-Warner merger with AOL. For his part, Ailes recalled Van Susteren telling him, right after she started, “I’ve had more laughs here in the last 10 days than I have had in the last 10 years.”

Eighth, Wallace, always a newsman, attempted to squeeze some news out of his boss; he asked Ailes, toward the end about a possible business channel. Ailes answered, “We’ll be prepared to go in ’07, if we get the subs.”

So no big news there, that’s been reported in the past—but give Wallace credit. He always asks the questions that need to be asked. If only Bill Clinton had been on the stage with Wallace…

Reposted from The Cable Game, 8 October 2006

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