By Lee Coppola
NEWS BOOK REVIEWER
Joe Muto was a 22-year-old, pot-smoking, left-leaning graduate of Notre Dame when he was hired by Fox News Channel. Eight years later he was escorted out the door by security guards after he was caught feeding information about Fox to the Gawker website.
In “Atheist,” Muto irreverently takes off the gloves in giving readers his inside view of life in the ideological enemy’s camp. Despite touting fair and balanced news coverage, “the truth was, Fox had been conceived from the very beginning as a venue for TV news with a deliberate slant,” writes Muto.
He supports the claim by noting GOP operative and media consultant Roger Ailes was hired to run the network, he who earned his spurs by tutoring Richard Nixon “to skillfully leverage television to trick the American public into believing he was a halfway reasonable human being instead of the sweat-soaked paranoid head case that he actually was.”
Language such as that leaves no doubt from which side of the political fence the author was swinging. His take on Ailes as Fox’s major domo:
“Give those conservatives a home on cable TV, one that serves up both openly conservative opinion and conservative-slanted reporting that is thinly veiled as ‘straight’ news, and they’ll become habitual watchers.”
So habitual, Muto was told when he started, that Fox attaches a moving logo to the screen so viewers don’t ruin their TVs from having their screens perpetually tuned to Fox.
Muto’s irreverence, nay, literary disgust, surfaces often in describing his former employer and many of its well-known personalities. Some examples:
• Bill O’Reilly, for whom Muto worked for the bulk of his Fox tenure:
“(He) had editorial independence for the first time in his career, and he took the opportunity to develop the persona that eventually became his signature, the populist everyman who is protecting the average people (or “the folks,” as he loved to say) from the forces trying to harm or corrupt them: liberals, college professors, the mainstream media, and Hollywood celebrities.
• Sean Hannity, “a hack.”
• Megyn Kelly, who took the subway instead of a network-furnished limousine and drank after hours with the unseen worker bees of the network, changed her reportorial style when given a two-hour daytime show. “Creating a new persona for herself was somewhat cynical but a brilliant career move. She was smart, talented and beautiful, but that would get you only so far at Fox – Ailes wanted to see a point of view as well. So Megyn started to act a little less smart and a lot more Republican when she was on the air.”
• Glenn Beck, “a kook.”
Ann Coulter, a frequent guest, was two Anns. “There’s Green Room Ann, the polite, warm, chitchatty girl next door who remembers everybody’s name despite meeting them only once, and gossips with the hair and makeup artists while they prep her for the show; and then there’s Camera Ann, an icy, devilish, sneering, barb-dispensing, stone-cold cable news assassin.”
Neil Cavuto, “utterly shameless, and quite possibly a genius.”
Sarah Palin, “a perfect fit for the network – beautiful, feisty, and controversial, inspiring utter devotion from fans, and, hopefully, the theory went, high ratings for the network.” But it didn’t work out. “Her abilities as a pundit left much to be desired. She conversed entirely in shallow, empty platitudes, as if she’d just memorized a list of talking points instead of actually boning up on whatever issue was on her plate. After a year of dealing with her, even the most conservative true believers on the staff who had previously been enamored of Palin had to admit she was every bit as uninformed as her liberal critics had charged.”
The word “beautiful” keeps cropping up when Muto describes Fox’s female on-air talent. So much so that he developed jocular criteria for employment – hotness; ability to string two words together; ability to summon outrage and berate a guest at length; blondness; conservative views (or the ability to convincingly fake them;) journalistic credentials.
Muto manages to spice his work with humor, much of it self-effacing, in both the main body and in footnotes sprinkled throughout “Atheist.” In one, he theorizes Ronald Reagan’s demise was a suicide “because he sensed that Fox was on the verge of hiring a goddamn commie-hippie like me.”
So why did a commie-hippie go to work for a network like Fox? Simply put, he had moved to New York City in a fruitless search of a career in film, but Fox was the only offered job, so he decided to “sell out at the age of twenty-two – and not even for a lot of money.”
His career ended when he was quickly detected as the Fox Mole providing video clips and commentary to Gawker, a website he hoped would employ him once he left Fox. It didn’t.
His reflections on why he bit the hand that fed him drove him to theorize he was trying to “make up for eight years of working for the enemy” or “to self-flagellate for all the wasted years I spent with a company I knew, going into it, I would never be happy within.”
“Atheist” reeks with his unhappiness, a feeling most Fox supporters probably will evince if they even bother to read his words.
On the other, Fox critics might have a completely opposite reaction.
An Atheist in the Foxhole:
A Liberal’s Eight-Year Odyssey Inside the Heart of the Right-Wing Media
By Joe Muto
319 pages, $26.95
Lee Coppola is a well-traveled local print and TV journalist and the retired dean of St. Bonaventure University’s Jandoli Journalism School.