Fox mole hunting
In the first, published on Monday, the Fox Mole describes the misery of working for the channel: He (we don’t know for certain it’s a man, but it seems a reasonable assumption) hoped that his Fox gig would help him find “a new job that didn’t make me cringe every morning when I looked in the mirror.” He also leaked a moderately amusing pre-broadcast chat between Mitt Romney and Sean Hannity.
The second, published today, portrays the “soul-crushing” material conditions of working at Fox News. “The basement newsroom is dreary, with no windows, fluorescent lighting, and constant worrying about an infestation from bedbugs, mice or some other vermin,” the Mole writes. He also complains about having to work on ancient computers, about the poor reception that desktop TVs receive, about malfunctioning printers and other office injustices.
If this is the work of a media mole, Gawker should think about replacing him with a hippo, which the site may have the opportunity to do soon if, as an unnamed Fox News spokesman told Mediaite, the channel has already identified him.
The problem with smoking media moles out is that they’re like Spartacus – there’s always another wise guy willing to risk his job to tell tales on his bosses. As one who reported on the secret doings inside other media organizations for many years, I can tell you that finding a newsroom asset who will spill the beans on his bosses, leak embarrassing documents and otherwise rat his organization out is as easy as placing a phone call.
Journalists don’t necessarily leak to other journalists about their workplace because they’re inherently untrustworthy. Leaking comes naturally to them because they spend so much time drilling for their own liquid assets, because they’re in the information-trading racket, because they thrill at the sight of transparency, and because they love to defy authority, especially when the authorities are the ones who sign their paychecks.
When I wrote regularly about Washington media for Washington City Paper back in the 1990s, I received – without asking – potentially embarrassing confidential memos from inside the Washington Post, the Washington Times, the wire services and the TV network bureaus, as well as provocative emails and edit trails that documented how editors had twisted a story. One time, a Postie leaked me the 5,000-word-plus internal critique of the Washington Post Style section (which I published). Another time, a Washington Times reporter sent me the novel-in-progress the newspaper’s executive editor was idiotically composing on the paper’s computer system. One Post editor got so peeved at the frequency with which I published memos from his publication that he announced plans inside the paper to create counterfeit memos to fool me. That subterfuge was compromised when a Post reporter leaked it to me.
Leaks to alternative weeklies kept editors and producers on their toes for a couple of decades. Then the Web happened. Or should I say Jim Romenesko happened. Newsroom renegades forwarded every newsworthy interoffice memo written by their editors to Romenesko for inclusion in his blog with such regularity that the editors might as well have cc:ed him on all of their correspondence.
Thanks to Romenesko and other journo-leak gatherers, news organizations operate in near-fishbowl environments. If a boss starts his chat to staff with, “I’d better not read this in Romenesko or Gawker,” he only doubles the chances that it will land there. The salutary effect has been a reduction in overt boss-to-employee cruelty, but probably an increase in covert boss-to-employee cruelty. Still, the current status quo operates to the benefit of the staff, which can undermine transgressing bosses with unprecedented speed and accuracy.
Rarely are leaks or reports from media moles half as interesting as the leakers or moles think they are. Morale is low inside the Daily Bugle? A top editor is shagging an intern? Johnny Deadline is getting demoted to obits? Who cares! Leaks matter most when wrapped inside of context or delivered with some sort of art. The vocoder through which Spy magazine’s pseudonymous J.J. Hunsecker warbled about doings at the New York Times proved endlessly entertaining, demystifying the stuffed-up place. (Still, I can’t remember a single entry off the top of my head, except for J.J.’s observation that one of the editors at the Sunday magazine had a habit of not washing his hands after making night soil in the bathroom.)
Likewise, I’d have more affection for the Fox Mole if he could write more like Moe Tkacik, Alex Pareene, Choire Sicha or any of the other acid pens to have scribbled under Nick Denton. Doesn’t Gawker have a rewrite desk?
Here’s hoping that reports of the Fox Mole’s capture are exaggerated and that he’ll start filing dispatches that tell us more about the editorial practices at Fox News and less about the condition of Fox News bathrooms (unless he catches somebody coming out of one without washing his hands). The toughest part of serving as the Fox News Mole is this: Practically nothing he overhears in the newsroom, pinches from the email threads or purloins from the video stream can be half as outrageous as what Fox News broadcasts every day.
Addendum, April 12, 9 a.m.: The Fox Mole has been flushed. David Carr’s take.
The Reuters Mole in the Washington, D.C., bureau – me – has these complaints: No Caller ID on the phones, and Windows XP, a 10-year-old operating system, on all of the computers. The bathrooms are all right. Send your leaks to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com and watch my Twitter feed for confidential drizzles. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns, and subscribe to this hand-built RSS feed for corrections to my column.
PHOTO by Zenera, courtesy of Flickr