A Blast From The Past

In your must read of the day, Salon’s Matthew Sheffield pours gasoline on a fire that’s been raging over at FNC for a while now…

That ultra-aggressive approach to promotion during the Ailes era also extended to the online world, where Fox News employees and contractors were dispatched to do battle against not just mainstream media reporters but also against small-time bloggers and even website commenters. Fox News even went so far as to create at least two anonymous websites that attacked the competition.

This strategy of online fakery — a practice known as creating “sockpuppet” accounts, in internet parlance — was an outgrowth of the corporate culture established by Ailes when he launched the channel at the behest of media mogul Rupert Murdoch in 1996. With a background in Republican politicking instead of news reporting, Ailes infused his fledgling operation with the ethos of a political campaign. Nearly eight months removed from Ailes’ leadership, executives at Fox News and its parent company 21st Century Fox are still discovering some of the arcane structures and methods he once employed.

Under Ailes, Fox News did not limit its promotion efforts to the realm of media criticism. The network also retained the services of a now-defunct public relations firm called New Media Strategies (NMS) to create and operate a series of homespun-looking websites designed to market women who worked as hosts or correspondents in a manner that can only be described as overtly sexist.

Creating and operating the websites was part of a larger series of marketing services that NMS provided to Fox News. Bill Shine, the current co-president of the network and former right-hand man to Ailes, was the primary point of contact on the NMS account, although there is no evidence he knew of the sockpuppet sites’ existence during the approximately 12 months that they were published.

A Fox News spokesperson said that New Media Strategies “did work solely for former CEO and chairman Roger Ailes,” and said that Shine was not aware of the websites until Salon began reporting this story.

NMS employees created several blogs dedicated to specific women, including former correspondent Laurie Dhue and former “Fox and Friends” co-host Kiran Chetry, all of which were linked into a larger portal website called Girls of Fox News which described itself this way:

Girls of Fox News is a fan site dedicated to the programming genius and casting abilities of Fox News. We think the unbelievable ladies of Fox News rock! They put the broad in broadcasting. We love watching them and we love when they guide us through the top news and hot issues of the day. Join our mission – start your own fan sites devoted to the girls of Fox News.

Normally this story would only be of major interest to my circle…media writers who like knowing about little details like this. The passing public and the media in general normally wouldn’t spend time on it.

But these are not normal times. With all the sexual harassment allegations against Roger Ailes combined with what’s been circling around Bill O’Reilly’s head for well over a month now, any story that comes out regarding FNC and the objectification of its female employees is going to get played up. This story qualifies.

It’s a little weird for me because I “grew up” in that world. So did Brian Stelter. Johnny Dollar too. Back before ICN, almost before CableNewser, you would find us hanging out on the fan boards like TVHeads.com (shout out to DT!) Wide World of Women and the MSNBC Yahoo Group. Those places were where we would learn and discuss things about the talent and the networks that employed them. There was no place else.

And then there’s this…

As Salon began reporting this story by interviewing Snyder and others familiar with the NMS and FNC relationship, the owner of girlsoffoxnews.com appears to have devised a method to remove the blog from the Wayback Machine. This required the use of a file called “robots.txt” which can be configured to block archiving software like that used by the Internet Archive. Salon did not tell Snyder about the Dhue and Chetry websites and as of this writing they remain publicly accessible. As might be expected, the operator of the domain did not respond to a request for comment.

Shortly after the Girls of Fox News site was removed from the Wayback Machine, this reporter was contacted by Stephanie Cutter, the former deputy campaign manager of Barack Obama’s 2012 presidential campaign. Cutter’s connection to Snyder and NMS is unclear. In an email correspondence, she said she was acting on Snyder’s behalf only as “a long time friend.” She repeatedly asked this reporter to make clear that NMS had not engaged in online trolling operations on behalf of Fox News.

The former Obama staffer also suggested that Fox News itself might well be the current owner of the girlsoffoxnews.com domain. “If NMS registered the URL for aggregation purposes, at most they would have registered it for a year before turning it over to Fox,” Cutter wrote in an email.

A representative for Fox News denied that the network was the current operator or owner of the Chetry, Dhue, or Girls of Fox News blogs.

The one point I would argue over is this non-sequitur…

Fox News staffers also tried other methods to mold the opinions of bloggers and commentators who were popular within the media industry. According to a knowledgeable source, the network’s publicity staff regularly provided proprietary ratings data to Brian Stelter, now a host for CNN, when he was operating an anonymous, independent blog called Cable Newser in the early 2000s. (Stelter did not respond to a request for comment.)

This sounds way more ominous than it really was and I have to defend Brian here. While there is no doubt in my mind that FNC did try to spin Stelter and me at various times in those early days…that’s PR’s job. They aren’t doing their job if they aren’t trying to influence you.

And the leaking of ratings data? Ok…maybe from Nielsen’s standpoint that’s technically a no-no but it happened all the time back then and it would happen from all the networks. As far as I know it still does.

Though, as an opinion molder leaking ratings data is damn weak sauce. Sure it helped to create the daily horse race ratings phenomenon but the utility of that is limited as long term trends started manifesting themselves. At that point who really cares if some show had a really great day or a really bad day if they stayed consistent to their long term trendline?

But the Salon article makes the mistake of trying to pad the account. Salon makes a pretty wild claim …that Johnny Dollar’s Place was being subsidized by FNC at one time…

In addition to operating the Cable Game, the Fox News black ops team also began subsidizing the work of a Michigan lawyer-turned-blogger named Mark Koldys, known online as Johnny Dollar, according to a source.

Koldys, who did not respond to an interview request, has defended Fox and attacked its left-leaning critics online for many years. He began in July of 2004 with a blog called “Johnny Dollar’s Place: Cable News Truth,” whose first posts were dedicated to attacking an anti-Fox News documentary called “Outfoxed.” The site was frequently promoted on The Cable Game.

Besides writing for his own site (which still exists but is apparently no longer subsidized by Fox), Koldys also frequently wrote for a now-defunct blog called OlbermannWatch, a site set up in late 2004 to criticize and parody former MSNBC host Keith Olbermann. The creator of that site, Robert Cox, told Salon in an interview that Koldys denied being paid by Fox News at the time. Cox further added that he had not been paid by Fox.

First of all OlbermannWatch and Robert Cox were never on the FNC payroll. Cox just disliked Olbermann. So did Dollar. Not everything that existed on the internet back then which could be considered FNC friendly or “in alignment with FNC thinking” was an FNC backed operation.

As to the anonymous and unsupported claim that Dollar’s site was subsidized by FNC…how you answer that question depends on what you mean by “subsidized”? If we’re talking about subsidizing financially…then I don’t believe it. I know Dollar. I’ve talked with him on the phone. Can I prove he never got paid off? Of course not. But there’s nothing about him (and what I know of him goes back at least thirteen years) to suggest he would take money for this.

Plus if you’ve followed Dollar’s site at all for any significant period of time you’d realize his site isn’t one you would pay off because of the poor return on investment you’d get. He rarely blogs on his site (even rarer than me these days)…his daily updates consist primarily of aggregated links. That’s not a site you need to send money to or invest in financially. It wouldn’t make sense.

On the other hand if by “subsidized” this anonymous accuser meant that FNC was providing information to Dollar via back channels in the form of exclusives or little details he’d get before others…I could see that as plausible.

But more than plausible, it was run of the mill back then. That’s the way things were done in those days and still are done today. Exclusives get doled out like candy to friendly or perceived to not be hostile sites. It doesn’t happen to the degree it did 11 years ago but it still happens.

Salon needs to come out and define what it means by subsidized. I’m just not buying that there was some kind of financial thing going on between FNC and Dollar. It doesn’t pass the smell test.

It’s the sockpuppet angle in this story that’s the problem. It existed. I have a nice big 11 year old 35 page PDF I’ve never released publicly that meticulously documented some of that activity. It’s more historical relic than anything else now; a window into a period when cable news media writing was more like the Wild West and the game was played by different rules than exist today.


5 Responses to “A Blast From The Past”

  1. […] ICN: Salon‘s ‘pretty wild claim’ about J$P just ‘doesn’t pass the smell test‘. […]

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  3. Good to see you are able to both criticize and defend Johnny Dollar and Brian Stelter.

    I’ll remain curious how sites like yours, Dollars, NewsHounds and TCG monetize all their tireless work/monitoring.

    But in reality it’s just really none of my business.

  4. I don’t monetize. I doubt Dollar does. NewsHounds is subsidized I believe. TCG too if you believe the “stories”

  5. progblacksmith Says:

    I know this is a little off-topic, but I just realized that the Matthew Sheffield who wrote this article is the same one who worked for, and basically co-founded, NewsBusters.

    He was a long time protege of Brent Bozell, so I’m surprised to see him writing articles critical of conservatives, let alone writing for Salon. That’s an interesting development.

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