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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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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