Joe Muto's memoir about working at Fox News

Joe Muto's memoir chronicles his experiences working at FOX News. (John Cook/Associated Press)

First aired on The Current (05/07/13)

Joe Muto worked nearly a decade at right-wing broadcaster Fox News, even though he's not a conservative. He's recently published a book about his experiences called An Atheist in the Foxhole: A Liberal's Eight-Year Odyssey Inside the Heart of the Right-Wing Media. In an interview on The Current, Muto talked about the network and his experiences as a mole, writing an anonymous column for the website Gawker.

The segment opens with a clip of The O'Reilly Factor host Bill O'Reilly and Geraldo Rivera squaring off on illegal immigration. When asked what it was like to work on O'Reilly's prime time show, Muto told guest host Rick MacInnes-Rae that it's well known that O'Reilly has a temper. "But what's amazing was how much of a hair trigger he was on. Anything could set him off...Anything from a production error with the show to getting his lunch order wrong," Muto said. "There was this sense everyone on the staff was walking on eggshells around him."

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What was it like being a closet liberal in a right-wing environment? Muto indicated that some of the staff were actually more inclined to left wing views but they weren't open about it. "There was a real paranoia amongst the staff there that we had to keep our views to ourselves or else we'd be ousted from the company, basically," he said. There were even rumours that the company president had bugged the newsroom.

Muto revealed that what people might find surprising about the pitch meetings for O'Reilly's show is that "they're not so much ideologically focused as they are ratings focused. He's looking for whatever story will bring him viewers."

Muto believes that Fox News became so successful because "it is a louder, angrier, more forceful broadcast. And I think that appeals to people who were tired of CNN's, you know, wishy-washiness. There's an appeal to people who want their news very opinionated and in your face."

The network was founded by Roger Ailes and Rupert Murdoch, who looked at the success of talk radio and believed that that kind of program had a place in the cable news industry. The business model was also founded on hiring the cheapest labour.

Although conditions at Fox News weren't great, Muto stuck it out for eight years -- in part simply because of the nature of the job. "Broadcasting can be a very exciting, thrilling industry, especially in live news," he said. "I don't want to give the impression that I was miserable there every day of my life."

The network's slogan is "fair and balanced," but staffers "used it as a joke," Muto said. He pointed out that even conservative producers didn't take it seriously. "They knew that our job was not to be fair and balanced. Our job was to serve up 'red meat' to our viewers, and to sort of outrage them and spin the news in a way that they would find palatable and get higher ratings...We called it 'stirring up the crazies' sometimes."

Muto recalled when former Alaska governor Sarah Palin was hired by the network. On her first day there, "it was like a conquering hero returning from war. There were people lining the hallways waiting for her to walk down. There was applause as she was going down the hallway and she was sort of waving like a beauty queen on a parade float," he said.

Muto went on to comment that Palin was very good at working a room, and had charisma. But the "big knock against her" was that she wasn't willing to do any of the background work needed, so "she was completely unprepared every time she was on air."

In 2011, Muto became uncomfortable with how far to the right the network had moved, and he started looking for a new job. He came across Gawker, and inquired about working there. But they wanted him to work for them while still at Fox. "In my mind, the mole thing was never supposed to be a huge thing. It was supposed to be just a series of dumb, jokey blog posts that gave an insider's view of what it's like to work at the network, but nothing that was going to bring down the network from the inside or anything conspiratorial like that," Muto said.

Muto leaked a few videos, including one of former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney talking about how much he loved his pet horses. Word got out that there was a mole at Fox, and "before I knew it, this dumb blog series was being talked about on the Today Show and in the New York Times," he said.

Fox traced the leaks to Muto, and he was fired. The network also tried to have him charged with theft. Muto said he agreed to be a mole without really thinking much about the ramifications, and that he has a different view of it now. "I would not become a mole again," he said. "I did not set out to get myself into legal trouble. I never thought that it would lead to me to being charged with anything."

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