Another week, another flimsy attack in Gawker’s years-long crusade against Fox News and its CEO, Roger Ailes. This time, Gawker excited liberal mass media with a scandalized report on legal minutiae related to a settlement between Fox News and a former executive, Brian Lewis, who headed up public relations for the channel.
Ailes fired Lewis last July “for cause,” the story lending itself to media suggesting the departure exclusively resulted from communications with Soros-backed Ailes biographer Gabriel Sherman. In fact, a Breitbart News report cites a source close to the story then saying Lewis was “on the outs with management for years, and that he was hardly high in the Ailes pecking order.”
Breathlessly reporting that Ailes fired Lewis for potentially colluding with Sherman and subsequently settled with Lewis for what a single source claims is $8 million, Gawker attempts to paint this story as unique in the world of broadcasting corporate history– and, of course, somehow ignoble. The one source for the Gawker piece claims Lewis’ department had fallen into something of a civil war over Sherman. That’s an interesting rewrite of history, because back in July, Fox News made it quite clear that Lewis had committed “financial irregularities.” Fox News also pointed to “material and significant breaches of his employment contract.”
The various holes in the Gawker story clearly visible on its surface did not seem to deter its spread throughout the media. Within a matter of hours, Gawker’s report from an anonymous source hit a wide array–the usual suspects, one might say–of mainstream media outlets: Politico, The Washington Post, Media Matters, The Huffington Post, Variety, The Hollywood Reporter. The articles surfaced rapid-fire, magically fully-formed and seemingly prepackaged from the moment Gawker published their piece.
Even so, The Washington Post‘s Erik Wemple noted that using one anonymous source to cover a story is traditionally considered bad journalistic practice, though a double-standard has developed recently when the story pertains to Fox News. It’s a problem Gawker’s editor in chief John Cook has addressed in the past, telling the New York Times in defense of Gawker’s shoddy journalism: “We are dealing with a volume of information that it is impossible to have the strict standards of accuracy that other institutions have.” Instead of working to minimize that volume for the sake of accuracy, Gawker publishes what it has.
The rest of the outlets repeating the latest Lewis story were not kind enough to emphasize the sloppiness of the source, instead salivating over said report’s details as it reverberated wildly in the left-wing media echo chamber. Gawker benefits in publishing the story that way, in that by virtue of wanting to believe the story, media outlets will, in essence, report it blindly as if its presentation at Gawker were honest.
Whatever the legally confidential underpinnings of Gawker’s hit piece may be, the sensationalist connotations of the report itself are as disingenuous as they come. Gawker’s attempt to paint the story as a blockbuster look behind the curtain of a nefarious media bigwig’s dealings requires the reader to accept three easily debunked premises: first, that Lewis’ firing was somehow unjust; second, that Lewis was so important to Ailes that he was a “right-hand man” without whom Ailes could barely function; and third, that a settlement where parties exchange money and a confidentiality agreement is extraordinary.
As to the first, any reader should be able to easily dismiss the implication that Fox News dismissed Lewis unjustly by virtue of Gawker ignoring the most important claim in Fox News’ statement on Lewis back in July: he materially breached his employment contract. Lewis’ attorneys have not denied that. No one has stepped up to prove that is untrue. The source in Gawker’s story only dismisses the claims of “financial impropriety” as “bullshit” without providing any explanation. That lack of explanation is good enough for Gawker, of course. When an employee breaches an employment contract, the employer is in their full right to fire them. Period.
The second claim the media–from Gawker most recently to The Hollywood Reporter in first breaking the news–have made regarding Lewis is that he was near-indispensable to Ailes, a “guardian” as Politico put it. The news of Lewis’ firing took many who knew Ailes by surprise because of these claims, something those in the know found “laughable” at best. Greta Van Susteren described those making Lewis seem prominent as “full of ****.” Rush Limbaugh, who has known Ailes for a quarter-century, declared on air that he didn’t know who Lewis was.
Indeed, the idea that Ailes—executive producer of the #1 daytime TV show of its day (the Mike Douglas Show), close adviser to three US presidents (Nixon, Reagan, and Bush 41), chief of CNBC before creating Fox—would need a protector is laughable to anyone who has watched Fox‘s success these last 17 years.
Moroever, as even Gawker conceded, in a rare moment of candor, that Lewis’ settlement number would have been “much higher” if Lewis were as important as the media seems to hope he was, but he did not have enough confidential information to threaten to reveal to ask for more. Yes, $8 million is a big number, but not in New York City corporate circles; and once again, there’s no evidence that it’s true–other than taking Gawker’s word for it.
The third claim–that such a confidentiality agreement is anything but business as usual–also flops. Anyone in news media can tell you that confidentiality agreements play a key role in employment contracts. Any lawyer can tell you confidentiality is a key bargaining chip in settlements. As one article published by the American Bar Association puts it, “Being asked to espouse the positives of including confidentiality clauses in a settlement agreement is akin to being asked to take the ‘pro’ position in a debate titled ‘Chocolate Chip Cookies–Yes or No?'”
Every case is different, though in general confidentiality benefits both parties to a suit, contract dissolution, or any disagreement with legal repercussions. This case concerns the successful management of a news conglomerate, however. A news organization cannot function without trusting its team to work as just that–a team–to promote the organization’s mission. When most of mass media, Hollywood, and the White House openly hate your organization, this need for trust grows ever more acute. There is nothing sinister about that, only the inherent unfairness Fox News faces in a media marketplace that the left monopolized for decades.
Many signs point to Lewis having gravely breached that trust. Gawker’s report coincides with a Breitbart News report from last August that Lewis had some communications with the aforementioned Sherman. Sherman has a patchy journalistic history at best; at worst, he has been accused of “harassing” and “stalking” both Ailes and his family for his New America Foundation-funded book. He has a history of fabricating tension among Fox News employees. Random House, Sherman’s publisher, was reported to be concerned about Sherman’s book as early as last April, when the first publication date was pushed back.
In any event, nothing about Gabriel Sherman screams someone a high-level Fox News employee should trust–especially one as high-ranking as Gawker et al insist on believing Lewis was. To bring the argument full circle, Fox News was in their full right to dismiss Lewis, especially if these claims about his ties to Sherman are true. Even if they are not, a material contract breach is sufficient to fire him.
Debunking such hack jobs is a necessary service to the people dependent on media for their news, but one can expect little change from these outlets in the way they cover Fox News. They rely on their coordinated echoes to magnify the volume of the original voice reporting the non-story, making it appear more robust to the casual reader solely on the basis of this many publications taking it seriously. The sad truth for those that want to make a mountain out of this molehill is that relying on Gawker–they of the laughably unnewsworthy “Fox Mole” who exploited a Fox News employee’s suicide–for any Fox News “scoop” is rarely a wise choice, tempting as it always seems to be.