But as Fox was helping to inflate the tea partys balloon, some of the network’s journalistic ballast was disappearing. Starting in July 2008, a series of high-level departures began when Brit Hume, Ailes’s longtime Washington anchor, announced his retirement inside Fox. Then, three weeks after the election, David Rhodes, Fox’s vice-president for news, quit to work for Bloomberg. Rhodes had started at Fox as a 22-year-old production assistant and risen through the ranks to become No. 2 in charge of news. His brother was a senior foreign-policy aide to Obama, and Rhodes told staffers that Ailes had expressed concern about this closeness to the White House. Rhodes privately told people he was uncomfortable with where Fox was going in the Obama era.
A few months after Rhodes’s departure, John Moody, Ailes’s longtime news chief, left. Moody, a former Time correspondent, had been with Ailes from the beginning and wanted to run his own division. Murdoch put him in charge of News Corp.’s wire service. “The thing about that place is there is Roger, and there is everyone else,” a former Fox executive said.
Meanwhile, Hume’s replacement, Bill Sammon, a former Washington Times correspondent, angered Fox’s political reporters, who saw him pushing coverage further to the right than they were comfortable with. Days after Obama’s inauguration, an ice storm caused major damage throughout the Midwest. At an editorial meeting in the D.C. bureau, Sammon told producers that Fox should compare Obama’s response to Bush’s handling of Katrina. “Bush got grief for Katrina,” Sammon said.
“It’s too early; give him some time to respond,” a producer shot back. “This ice storm isn’t Katrina.”
Later, Sammon caused problems internally when the Fox watchdog website Media Matters obtained a series of controversial e-mails about Fox’s coverage of climate change and health care. In one December 2009 e-mail, Sammon said Fox should question the science of climate change. “We should refrain from asserting that the planet has warmed (or cooled) in any given period without immediately pointing out that such theories are based upon data that critics have called into question,” he wrote.
Inside the Obama White House, there was a debate unfolding over how to deal with Fox. Michelle Obama was said to particularly loathe the network and was most turned off by Hannity. Obama’s advisers began to talk about ways to fight back.
There was bad blood left over from the campaign. In the bitter primary fight for the Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton’s advisers, led by Howard Wolfson, courted Fox and fed them negative research about Obama and John Edwards. “She made some kind of compact with Murdoch,” Obama’s former media adviser Anita Dunn told me.
There had been back-channel efforts to broker a détente between Ailes and Obama. In the run-up to the election, Russell Simmons, who has built an unlikely relationship with Ailes, placed private calls to both Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett and John Moody to do shuttle diplomacy. “They couldn’t get Obama on the phone; I suggested they have a dialogue,” Simmons told me.
But from the moment of Obama’s inauguration, Fox went on the offensive. Its pundits pushed stories including tales of voter intimidation by the New Black Panther Party, ACORN fraud, Obama’s czars, and Obama’s rumored $200 million–per–day trip to India. As the summer of 2009 unfolded, with tea-party anger over the stimulus and health care ratcheting up, Fox and the White House went to war. In June 2009, Obama gave an interview to CNBC’s John Harwood and lashed out. “I’ve got one television station that is entirely devoted to attacking my administration,” he said. “That’s a pretty big megaphone. You’d be hard-pressed, if you watched the entire day, to find a positive story about me on that front.”
But it wasn’t until a month later that a succession of media controversies convinced the White House that Fox was a dangerous opponent that needed to be taken on. On July 28, Beck went on Fox and Friends, called Obama a “racist,” and declared that his response to the dustup between Henry Louis Gates Jr. and the Cambridge Police Department exposed the president’s “deep-seated hatred for white people.” Beck’s next target was Obama’s green-jobs “czar,” Van Jones, who had been blasted for signing a 9/11 “Truth Statement” in 2004. Jones resigned on September 6. Four days later, Fox broke the undercover video of conservative prankster James O’Keefe’s ACORN sting. “I had never heard of Glenn Beck before,” Dunn told me. “Obviously, August of 2009 was a disaster.”
All of a sudden, the rest of the media took notice. In an interview posted on the Times’ website after Van Jones’s resignation, Times managing editor Jill Abramson acknowledged that the paper would need to follow Fox’s reporting in the future. “We should have been paying closer attention,” she said.