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

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.