Dealing with the Fox News PR machine

“We have a solid relationship with the New York Times,” Fox News PR chief Brian Lewis tells me. “I think that surprises people.”

It bothers some journalists, too.

On Tuesday, New York Magazine’s Gabriel Sherman tweeted about the two news organizations (“Fox using NYT to promote its journalism”), and quickly heard back from Times media writer Jeremy Peters. (See the tweets above.)

“Much as I like Gabe Sherman’s work, I disagree with him in this instance,” Times media editor Bruce Headlam told me Tuesday night. “Covering a person or organization doesn’t mean you are carrying water for them. If it did, our homepage right now would be doing PR for Mitt Romney, the recall vote in Wisconsin, the Italian cruise ship captain, Paula Deen and ‘Cougar Town.'”

(Sherman, who is working on a book about Fox News, declined to say more about the matter.)

How did Jeremy Peters get the access?

“This was the case of a reporter being persistent,” says Lewis, whose official title is Fox News corporate communications executive vice president. “He wanted to do Iowa, but we turned him down. He kept at it and at it — everything he’s written has been fair — so we said go ahead, and he got a great story out of it.”

One journalist wonders if Fox News’ embrace of the New York Times is part of the network’s “course correction” that Roger Ailes discussed with Howard Kurtz last fall. Lewis says it’s as simple as this: “We work with journalists who treat us as a news organization. We have no interest in those journalists who don’t.”

He adds: “We have tremendous relations with about 95% of the reporters out there.”

Stay away from the C word
Any journalist who describes Fox News as a “conservative” outfit — or spins a story in a way that’s unacceptable to the network’s PR people — will likely get a call from the “famous” Irena Briganti, who joined Fox in 1996 as Media Relations Coordinator and has risen to Fox News and Fox Business Media Relations Senior Vice President. (Gawker once called her “the most vindictive flack in the media world.”)

Irena Briganti

The 37-year-old PR woman is known for her insulting, condescending emails to reporters — always ‘cc’d to bosses — and for staying out of the limelight. Briganti, who declined to participate in this piece, isn’t on Twitter, Facebook or Google+, and an ex-Fox Newser says that “you’ll never see a photograph of her.”

That’s not correct. When I started working on this post, there was one photo of Briganti on Google Images. A few weeks ago I noticed it was gone. A source claimed Fox News was able to get Google to remove it, which a search-engine rep denies. It didn’t matter, though; I was slipped another photo of her — the one you see on the right.

What reporters say about Briganti
“I think you should charge us all therapist rates to listen to our Irena stories,” one reporter emailed after I tweeted that I was looking for anecdotes about the PR woman.

Another reporter responded to the email address I posted on Twitter: “I will admit that even as I send this, a tiny, tiny part of me wonders if ‘jim@jimromenesko.com’ isn’t some overly obvious front email for her to scoop up a lifetime’s worth of ammunition to destroy all the reporters she always wanted to. I am not ashamed to say I fear her.”

My tweet brought in dozens of stories from Briganti critics and fans.

Glenn Garvin of the Miami Herald tells me: “No question she can — and usually does — use tough language when discussing Fox News’ rivals and critics. But as a reporter, I considered her a huge asset. She responded promptly to questions and was almost always able to provide quick answers. A surprising number of publicists I deal with don’t really have good access to upper-level executives within their own companies. Most importantly, she has never lied to or misled me, not once, not ever. She represents the Fox News worldview, of course, and is anything but shy in offering it up.”

Former Page Six writer Paula Froelich emails:

Paula Froelich


I actually think she’s amazing – and one of the few pr types in that position who do the job with accurate efficiency… and yes, I know, I know, I used to work at News Corp and there will be some people who say that we got along because we were technically in the same company – but not true. There’s no love lost between the Post and Fox. She was (and is) tough as nails. She has a job to do and does it very well/efficiently – she is under no pretention that reporters are her friends, but always returns phone calls from anywhere on the planet, defends the people she is paid to defend, and knows every trick in the trade to try and kill a story.

But then this email came in: “You want info on Irena Briganti? You better be offering COMPLETE and TOTAL anonymity because that is one vengeful lady who is part of a web of top management who deliberately spreads fear throughout the network.”

A journalist who is currently in the doghouse with Fox recalls leaving a voicemail for Brit Hume, but getting the return call from Briganti.

“She said, ‘Did you really think Brit Hume would call you back? Really? YOU?'” The reporter adds: “It was beyond unprofessional; it was pure seventh grade bathroom.”/CONTINUES

Some reporters simply laugh off the PR woman’s antics. John Ourand of Sports Business Journal writes:

As editor of a cable industry trade called CableFAX Daily, Irena got mad at a piece I wrote. I think it was about TV ratings. Anyway, she called to yell at me. I wouldn’t change the story or run a correction, and she continued to yell at me, saying, “…and that’s why you work at CableFAX instead of the Wall Street Journal,” before slamming the phone down. CableFAX’s style was much like a blog, so I wrote about the conversation the next day, which led to a whole new series of insults.

As a result, CableFAX was “blackballed” from Fox News. We were taken off all the network’s press lists. About a year later, one of our reporters went to an industry dinner and sat at the Fox News table. Irena had invited her and had a nametag made up with the reporter’s name and association. Only, instead of
CableFAX, it said Cable Rag. That nametag hung in the reporter’s office until the day she left the company.

You’re blacklisted!
Almost every TV writer mentions the Fox News PR blacklist — names of reporters or news organizations that the network refuses to work with. Brian Lewis tells me there’s no such list but that “some reporters who think they’re being blacklisted, they’re just not that important to deal with.”

Paul Farhi of the Washington Post believes he holds the distinction of having been blacklisted twice.

I forget what the perceived sin was the first time, but it was several years ago. They wouldn’t talk to me for about six months. And then, out of nowhere, I was no longer in timeout. They started calling ME to pitch stories, as if the Cone of Silence had never come down in the first place.

The current blackout stems from a news story I wrote about Juan Williams’ firing by NPR in October 2010 (it’s still in force, apparently, 15 months later). I called Juan at the time to get his comments. He said he’d talk to me but wanted to get Fox News’ approval to do so. Irena called me back later that day and I interviewed Juan. Everything seemed fine.

Next day, Irena called and was quite angry with me. I thought I’d gotten something wrong. Nope. She was unhappy that I didn’t quote Juan MORE in my story. I explained that it was a news story, not a Juan profile, and that I was obligated to be fair to everyone involved (i hesitate to say “fair and balanced” here). She wouldn’t hear it. She thought Juan deserved more of the story because he’d done only a few interviews the day before. No, I didn’t understand the logic then, either.

Bottom line: I was on the blacklist again.

I’m told that the Fox News PR department makes sure blacklisted reporters never appear as talking-heads on the network’s various shows. One person tells me:

There is an internal email distribution list [and] producers email this list to say who their upcoming guests are. The purpose of the list is to allow Brian Lewis and Irena to vet the guests to make sure no journalist on their enemies list gets on the air. I am not aware of any other situation where the PR department tells the news department who it is and isn’t allowed to interview.

Another reporter who’s been “iced” by the PR department but is still close to other Fox News staffers adds:

The list isn’t written down on any piece of paper, but remains rolling in the head of Irena and others in her department. There is no rhyme or reason to the Ice List, but every executive producer at Fox must clear their daily guest lists with Briganti’s office. Many of the producers are startled when suddenly a semi-regular guest is declared on “ice.”

Brian Lewis

What gets a reporter on the Fox News blacklist?

One journalist fell out of favor for covering an election from the CNN control room instead of Fox News’ back when CNN was the leading cable newser.

I’m told that Politico’s relationship with Fox News ended over this post about a Fox News producer rallying a tea party crowd to cheer. Editor John Harris tried to patch things up. He and his star writer, Mike Allen, had lunch with Lewis and Briganti and talked things over. Some progress was made.

“We do not have a do-not-deal-with-Politico policy,” says Lewis. “We deal with Mike Allen.”

But the two news organizations hardly kissed and made up. In November, Fox told Daily Caller that “we try to book guests that make for compelling TV [and] Politico reporters tend not to rate well.”

AP writer’s sin: Using a Fox News PR woman’s name
Associated Press entertainment reporter David Bauder was blacklisted for this decade-old story, headlined “Spurned Fox News takes after Paula Zahn,” after putting Briganti’s name (then Steffen) in his story. (Fox News PR people insist on staying anonymous.)

Bauder tells me in an email:

I can confirm this story put me in the deep freeze with them for a long time. It was a tough story, but I also believe they felt it violated a trust — as you know, TV people will often call up to dish trash about their competitors, but don’t want their fingerprints on it. In this case, I felt the story they were spreading fit perfectly into the point of the whole story — that the network was going out of its way to trash a former employee in a way that I saw as very unusual.

Fox News PR has a file on you!
A longtime media reporter whose employer won’t let her go on the record says that working with Briganti “is a little bit like dealing with Oz.”

At first you don’t realize she exists as her notoriously nasty gaggle of spokeswomen carry out her orders. When I finally spoke with Irena, after being hounded by a particular spokeswoman for months ending in a major falling out and being blacklisted by the PR department, she told me I was ungrateful. For 30 minutes she laid into me about how much Fox News had done for me and wondered why was I so ungrateful?

She told me she had a file on me and was perusing through it as we spoke, reciting how many times I supposedly didn’t respond to or return a particular spokeshag’s phone calls. They called me day in and day out, sometimes eight times in a day from their secret no number lines, squabbling over a word choice or telling me how I was not to call the person or network they wanted me to lambaste. When I tried to explain that journalism involves calling the other side for comment, they’d try to snatch the story back, telling me they were taking their ‘scoops” elsewhere.“

This same media writer tells me that when a Fox News reporter jumped to C-SPAN, she wrote that the journalist was going to work “for a more neutral minded network.”

I never even characterized Fox News’ right-wing slant. Nonetheless Irena snapped, “So we’re now being referred to as something less than a neutral-minded network?” This is quintessential Irena — she reads stories as she wants to read them and not as they are. She and her underlings would get absolutely unhinged if you referred to the network as right wing or even leaning to the right. Completely maddening. Made a person feel like they were losing their mind dealing with Irena and her team.”

NPR’s Folkenflik “cracked the Irena code”
One media writer suggested I should get in touch with NPR’s David Folkenflik and ask how he “cracked the Irena code” — how he’s been able to get along with her.

David Folkenflik

Folkenflik says he’s had his problems with the network too, and was blacklisted for about 15 months in 2002 and 2003, while working for the Baltimore Sun.

“They were very upset by a couple of things, most notably the Geraldo Rivera stuff.” (Some accounts say Folkenflik’s reporting resulted in Rivera being forced out of Iraq by U.S. military officials.)

“They enforced the blacklisting for about 15 months,” until he got a call from a PR person who no longer works for Fox who said that “we’re turning the page” and talking again.

Folkenflik, who was encouraged by Fox News to talk to me, says of Briganti: “She is a forceful and periodically contentious advocate for Fox News’ positions on things. She is often, I think, either assigned to or perceived to hold the role of ‘bad cop’ in that shop, and she plays it well.”

As for his coverage of the TV network: “We cover Fox fully and, at times, aggressively.”

“I’ve always kind of loved their snarky statements”
Brian Lowry, a Variety reporter who formerly worked for the Los Angeles Times, says: “They function sort of like a political campaign, where you do oppo research on the other guy. It can be very helpful from a reporting standpoint, until you write something they don’t like.”

That happened to Lowry.

Brian Lowry

“I’ve seen it go from, ‘You’re really good, you’re really fair,’ to ‘You’re a hack and we don’t want to talk to you anymore.” (Briganti didn’t like a 2010 Variety piece by Lowry that said Bill O’Reilly’s “ego and thin skin make it difficult for him to overlook any criticism.”)

“The best email I got from her was, ‘You used to be a lot better than this.’ It cracked me up. No, honest I haven’t changed.”

Lowry adds:

“I think she’s very good at doing what she’s obviously told to do, so I don’t blame her for being combative. The attitude clearly starts from the top.”

The Variety writer says he’s “always kind of loved the snarky statements” that Fox News puts out about its rivals and former employees — traitors! — who jump to other news shops. “They’re so impolitic and unlike the massaged stuff you get from PR departments.”

Actually, those snarky statements are massaged too.

“They have sessions where they sit around and think about what insult or what cutting remark to issue,” says Folkenflik. “They literally sit around and come up with them. It’s kind of like they’re in a fraternity house.”

Brian Lewis confirms that. His favorite insult? “Anything about Keith Olbermann,” he says with a laugh. “No, I think the one that stands out the most is the one about Ted Turner.”

In 2005, Turner said at a TV programming execs’convention that Fox News was a propaganda tool of the Bush administration, then made a Fox News-Hitler comparison. Broadcasting & Cable got this retort from Fox: “Ted is understandably bitter having lost his ratings, his network, and now his mind. We wish him well.”

“That was a team effort” that even included input from Roger Ailes, says Lewis.

“The communications equivalent of a hockey goon”
In 2008, David Carr described the Fox News PR machine “as a kind of rolling opposition research operation intended to keep reporters in line by feeding and sometimes maiming them.” He added that “shooting the occasional messenger is baked right into the process.”

Brian Lewis told me that Carr’s piece was “fair,” while a former Fox News employee told me “they loved that story …they like looking like they’re feared.”

Carr tells me in email:

After I wrote that column and now, I have had nothing but sane interactions with Fox News, especially Brian Lewis who runs the operation. He’s been professional, courteous and fair-minded. But I have seen the black ops side of their PR machine, with Irena sending corrosive and silly emails to attempt to intimidate reporters, or trying to get ahead of a story with nonsense counterspin, or in the instance of one of my colleagues, directly attacking them in the press on private, personal matters. Irena is not dumb, far from it, but sometimes she is the communications equivalent of a hockey goon, skating on to the ice to throw some haymakers and then just skating away to fight another day.

The sad fact of the matters is that this stuff works and the tactics don’t begin and end with Fox. There are people and institutions — Nikki Finke, Keith Olbermann, Fox News and The Weinstein Company (back when they were having business problems) — that make it so difficult during the reporting process and so unpleasant once the story is out that you can’t help but think twice about writing about them. Sometimes its the leadership or talent ignoring the advice of PR people and sometimes it’s the PR people trying to impress their bosses with how aggressive they are.

You have to wonder how many stories go unwritten because busy working reporters just don’t want to deal with the drama. I’d like to think that I do stories regardless of the consequence of my daily quality of life, but over time, I’m sure they wear down reporters and probably me.

A few weeks before Carr wrote that, a blogger who is on the outs with Fox said as much: “Frankly, I’m relieved to be blacklisted. Working with them is such a drain.”


Comments

comments

9 comments
  1. Fox News only talking to reporters that treat them as a news organization is like Paris Hilton only talking to reporters that treat her as an actress.

  2. Well, there’s no shortage of dirt, is there? Practically everyone fell over themselves trying to get a good dig in at that woman.

  3. giantslor said:

    The NYTimes isn’t sure whether it should call out liars and propagandists, so it’s so surprise that they would treat Fox News hacks like actual journalists.

  4. Jeff Bercovici said:

    I realize Brian Lewis denies the existence of an Ice List, but did you ask him specifically whether producers require the PR department’s sign-off for their interview bookings? That, to me, is just extraordinary. I’d be very, very interested to know if a producer has ever pushed back, and, if so, which side won.

  5. Don Whitmore said:

    blacklisting? seriously? interesting story, but you either have the wrong photo or it’s severely out of date. I met her last year…she does not look like that.

  6. michael said:

    very good!

  7. Eric H. said:

    The reason Fox News has to do this is because they know that they won’t be treated seriously unless they attack. Being feared is the closest Fox News often comes to being respected.

    Knowing that all of this comes from a position of insecurity takes the bite out of Fox’s insults. Irena Briganti forbids being named or photographed because pulling back the curtain would reveal that she’s just a middle-aged lady paid to be a high-school mean girl — not so much an intimidating figure as a pathetic one.

  8. Jay said:

    If you want to understand NewsCorp operations you need to study up on U.S. Army psychological warfare doctrine. Rule 1 is discredit existing media platforms and Rule 2 is always use a grain of truth to spin a believable web of lies. Repeat as necessary.

  9. Just when I thought my opinion of FOX news couldn’t get lower…