An Atheist in the Foxhole by Joe Muto: A lot of fun at Fox News, but somewhat light on revelation

Joe Muto, a self-described liberal and Obama supporter, joined Fox News in 2004. Nicky Woolf finds his insider exposé insightful, if a little underwhelming.

An Atheist in the Foxhole
Joe Muto
Dutton Books, 336pp, $26.95

Fox News, launched by the former Nixon strategist Roger Ailes in 1996, now boasts a larger audience than its two closest competitors – MSNBC and CNN – combined. It is also astonishingly partisan. Switch on during prime time and you see commentators raging on issues straight out of the Tea Party playbook: mainly, the evils of big government and the Obama administration.

A self-described liberal and an Obama supporter, Joe Muto joined Fox in 2004 as a production assistant, responsible for minor tasks such as running scripts and organising footage for broadcast. By the time he was outed as an insider for Gawker last year, he was an associate producer on The O’Reilly Factor, the prime-time vehicle for Fox’s biggest alpha dog and the highest-rated show in US cable news.

Muto writes with an engagingly light touch and the book is an amusing account of a kid from Ohio with dreams of New York, making his way to the big city, determined to get a job in media any way he can. He neatly avoids the lure of relentless smugness that Toby Young falls victim to in How to Lose Friends & Alienate People and often wrestles with the morality of the company and his place within it.

Foxhole is a lot of fun but the whimsy doesn’t hide that the book is somewhat light on revelation. When Muto points out the rank hypocrisy of Fox’s “fair and balanced” slogan, he isn’t surprising anybody. Jon Stewart, on The Daily Show, skewers its contradictions on a regular basis. It isn’t shocking to learn that network personalities such as Megyn Kelly adopt “a highly aggressive arch-conservative persona” to advance their careers or that producers don’t allow many jokes at George W Bush’s expense to air. One anecdote, hyped by Muto as “both the apex and the nadir of my post-crime show drinking career”, ends anticlimactically with two unnamed producers getting caught smoking a joint.

Muto’s insider perspective only becomes useful halfway through, when he arrives at The O’Reilly Factor. Anecdotes follow (he describes O’Reilly asking his staff what “teabagging” is, for example). Nonetheless, in May, Muto pleaded guilty in a Manhattan court to misdemeanor charges and agreed to pay a $6,000 fine and serve 200 hours of community service.

In a year when the Guardian’s NSA leaks are destabilising the US security establishment, Muto’s theft of a couple of behind-thescenes videos seems pretty mild. He spends almost as much time praising his former colleagues as he does condemning them: the most resounding revelation is that he admires and even likes O’Reilly.

“What separates Bill from the hacks like Hannity,” he writes, “is that he’s not an ideologue. Sure, he’s ideological . . . but Bill, I would argue, is more intellectually honest. He’ll admit he’s wrong . . . It’s more than a lot of other people at Fox would do.”

Where Muto shines is in his vivid descriptions of day-to-day life at Fox; exhilaration at being the first to break a news story, even by 30 seconds; going to football games with the teetotal O’Reilly; or how it feels to stage an on-camera “gotcha” moment.

As his brief and undistinguished 36-hour career as a whistleblower shows, Muto isn’t in the revelation game. His book gives an insight not into the dark and sinister conspiracy that may or may not be at work behind the scenes at Fox News but into the lives of its people: some hard-working, some lazy, some ideological, some pragmatic, some sinister – but most endearingly human.

Bill O'Reilly opposite Jon Stewart. Muto's insider status becomes useful when discussing his time working on The O'Reilly Factor. Photograph: Getty Images.

Nicky Woolf is a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The world takes sides

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Leader: Trump and an age of disorder

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions.

The US presidency has not always been held by men of distinction and honour, but Donald Trump is by some distance its least qualified occupant. The leader of the world’s sole superpower has no record of political or military service and is ignorant of foreign affairs. Throughout his campaign, he repeatedly showed himself to be a racist, a misogynist, a braggart and a narcissist.

The naive hope that Mr Trump’s victory would herald a great moderation was dispelled by his conduct during the transition. He compared his country’s intelligence services to those of Nazi Germany and repeatedly denied Russian interference in the election. He derided Nato as “obsolete” and predicted the demise of the European Union. He reaffirmed his commitment to dismantling Obamacare and to overturning Roe v Wade. He doled out jobs to white nationalists, protectionists and family members. He denounced US citizens for demonstrating against him. Asked whether he regretted any part of his vulgar campaign, he replied: “No, I won.”

Of all his predilections, Mr Trump’s affection for Vladimir Putin is perhaps the most troubling. When the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, warned that Russia was the “number one geopolitical foe” of the US, he was mocked by Barack Obama. Yet his remark proved prescient. Rather than regarding Mr Putin as a foe, however, Mr Trump fetes him as a friend. The Russian president aims to use the US president’s goodwill to secure the removal of American sanctions, recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and respect for the murderous reign of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. He has a worryingly high chance of success.

Whether or not Mr Trump has personal motives for his fealty (as a lurid security dossier alleges), he and Mr Putin share a political outlook. Both men desire a world in which “strongmen” are free to abuse their citizens’ human rights without fear of external rebuke. Mr Trump’s refusal to commit to Nato’s principle of collective defence provides Mr Putin with every incentive to pursue his expansionist desires. The historic achievement of peace and stability in eastern Europe is in danger.

As he seeks reconciliation with Russia, Mr Trump is simultaneously pursuing conflict with China. He broke with precedent by speaking on the telephone with the Taiwanese president, Tsai Ing-wen, and used Twitter to berate the Chinese government. Rex Tillerson, Mr Trump’s secretary of state nominee, has threatened an American blockade of the South China Sea islands.

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions. The US constitution, with its separation of powers, was designed to restrain autocrats such as the new president. Yet, in addition to the White House, the Republicans also control Congress and two-thirds of governorships and state houses. Mr Trump’s first Supreme Court appointment will ensure a conservative judicial majority. The decline of established print titles and the growth of “fake news” weaken another source of accountability.

In these circumstances, there is a heightened responsibility on the US’s allies to challenge, rather than to indulge, Mr Trump. Angela Merkel’s warning that co-operation was conditional on his respect for liberal and democratic values was a model of the former. Michael Gove’s obsequious interview with Mr Trump was a dismal example of the latter.

Theresa May has rightly rebuked the president for his treatment of women and has toughened Britain’s stance against Russian revanchism. Yet, although the UK must maintain working relations with the US, she should not allow the prospect of a future trade deal to skew her attitude towards Mr Trump. Any agreement is years away and the president’s protectionist proclivities could yet thwart British hopes of a beneficial outcome.

The diplomatic and political conventions embodied by the “special relationship” have endured for more than seven decades. However, Mr Trump’s election may necessitate their demise. It was the belief that the UK must stand “shoulder to shoulder” with the US that led Tony Blair into the ruinous Iraq War. In this new age of disorder, Western leaders must avoid being willing accomplices to Mr Trump’s agenda. Intense scepticism, rather than sycophancy, should define their response.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era