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

GARY WATERS
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In defence of expertise: it’s time to take the heart out of “passionate” politics

What we need is cool logic.

We are living through a bonfire of the experts. During the EU referendum campaign, Michael Gove explained that people had had enough of them. A few weeks later, his fellow Tory MPs took him at his word and chose a relative ingénue to run against Theresa May.

After declaring for Andrea Leadsom in the Tory leadership race, Michael Howard was asked whether it might be a problem that she had never held a position higher than junior minister. Howard, whose long career includes stints as home secretary and opposition leader, demurred: “I don’t think experience is hugely important.”

Even in this jaw-dropping season, that comment caused significant mandibular dislocation. I thought: the next Tory leader will become prime minister at a time of national crisis, faced with some of the UK’s most complex problems since the Second World War. If experience doesn’t matter now, it never does. What does that imply about the job?

Leadsom’s supporters contended that her 25 years in the City were just as valuable as years spent at Westminster. Let’s leave aside the disputed question of whether Leadsom was ever a senior decision-maker (rather than a glorified marketing manager) and ask if success in one field makes it more likely that a person will succeed in another.

Consider Ben Carson, who, despite never having held elected office, contested the Republican presidential nomination. He declared that Obamacare was the worst thing to happen to the United States since slavery and that Hitler may have been stopped if the German public had been armed. Yet Carson is not stupid. He is an admired neurosurgeon who pioneered a method of separating conjoined twins.

Carson is a lesson in the first rule of expertise: it does not transfer from one field to another. This is why, outside their domain, the most brilliant people can be complete dolts. Nevertheless, we – and they – often assume otherwise. People are all too ready to believe that successful generals or entrepreneurs will be good at governing, even though, more often than not, they turn out to be painfully inept.

The psychologist Ellen Langer had her subjects play a betting game. Cards were drawn at random and the players had to bet on whose card was higher. Each played against a well-dressed, self-assured “dapper” and a shabby, awkward “schnook”. The participants knew that it was a game of chance but they took more risks against the schnook. High confidence in one area (“I’m more socially adept than the schnook”) irrationally spilled over into another (“I’ll draw better cards”).

The experiment points us to another reason why we make poor judgements about competence. We place too much faith in social cues – in what we can see. As voters, we assume that because someone is good at giving a speech or taking part in a debate, they will be good at governing. But public performance is an unreliable indicator of how they would cope with running meetings, reading policy briefs and taking decisions in private. Call it the Boris principle.

This overrating of the visible extends beyond politics. Decades of evidence show that the job interview is a poor predictor of how someone will do in the job. Organisations make better decisions when they rely on objective data such as qualifications, track record and test scores. Interviewers are often swayed by qualities that can be performed.

MPs on the Commons education select committee rejected Amanda Spielman, the government’s choice for the next head of Ofsted, after her appearance before them. The committee didn’t reject her because she was deficient in accomplishments or her grasp of education policy, but because she lacked “passion”. Her answers to the committee were thoughtful and evidence-based. Yet a Labour MP told her she wasn’t sufficiently “evangelical” about school improvement; a Tory asked her to stop using the word “data” so often. Apparently, there is little point in being an expert if you cannot emote.

England’s football team is perennially berated in the media for not being passionate enough. But what it lacks is technique. Shortly before Wales played England in the European Championship, the Welsh striker Gareth Bale suggested that England’s players lacked passion. He knew exactly what he was doing. In the tunnel before kick-off, TV cameras caught the English goalkeeper Joe Hart in a vessel-busting frenzy. On the pitch, Hart allowed Bale to score from an absurdly long range because he was incapable of thinking straight.

I wish there were less passion in politics and more cool logic; less evangelism and more data. Unthinking passion has brought the Labour Party to its knees and threatens to do the same to the country. I find myself hungering for dry analyses and thirsting for bloodless lucidity. I admire, more than ever, those with obscure technical knowledge and the hard-won skills needed to make progress, rather than merely promise it.

Political leadership is not brain surgery but it is a rich and deep domain. An effective political leader needs to be an expert in policy, diplomacy, legislative process and how not to screw up an interview. That is why it’s so hard to do the job well when you have spent most of your time in boardrooms or at anti-war rallies.

If democratic politicians display contempt for expertise, including their own, they can hardly complain if those they aspire to govern decide to do without the lot of them. 

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt