FEAR & UNbalanced: Confessions of a 14-Year Fox News Hitman
How Roger Ailes & Fox News Got Rich Scamming America’s La Z Boy Cowboys and Selling Out America’s Soul
Note: This article turned into a new book from Diversion Books: Foxocracy: Inside the Network’s Playbook of Tribal Warfare.
Please order your copy now.
Since his death, many folks have asked me about my 14 years at Fox News and my experiences with Roger Ailes. I can tell you he was one of the top 5 best public speakers I’ve ever heard. I can tell you like anyone who knew him he was funny as hell and the MOST competitive person I ever met in the business. He also prized loyalty above all else and repaid that loyalty in spades countless times.
BUT…in 2000 when I started at Fox as a paid contributor (aka “Hitman’) and asked my new boss (like my pal Joan Walsh from Slate.com asked him in 2000 as well) “So Roger tell me…who is your Fox News target audience and what turns ’em on?”
What he told me . . . of course “off-the-record” . . . should not be shocking. But now that he is gone, it’s time to be real and tell the truth about Fox News... about everything I lived and experienced in my 14 years as a paid contributor and part-time anchor on Fox Business Network.
According to Roger:
“What does our viewer look like?
“They look like me…white guys in mostly Red State counties who sit on their couch with the remote in their hand all day and night.”
“What do they want to see”
“After the producers/host scares the shit out of them, I want to see YOU tear those smug condescending know-it-all East Coast liberals to pieces . . limb by limb . . . until they jump up out of their LaZ boy and scream “Way to go Toby…you KILLED that libtard!”
He did NOT tell me what he told Joan (who recently reported her brief one-time conversation in 2000) discussing a new more liberal show idea (as she shared in her recent Nation.com article):
“And Joan they don’t want to see anyone like you,” looking directly at my liberal friend. “They don’t want to see you — they don’t even want to know that you exist!”
Well, it’s obvious now: Partisan conservative politics staged and acted out as performance art was Roger’s “gift” to America. Above all else, Roger understood and practiced the concept of “culture trolling” before the term “trolling” ever became commonly used.
But he not only created an alternative partisan universe for mostly older, politically partisan red zip code living white males (FYI — the average age of Fox viewer today is 68 — that means a lot of FNC viewers are OLDER that 68). . .
. . . he perpetrated the biggest TV scam ever . . . against the most vulnerable and gullible senior Americans . . . one that makes the game show fixing scandal of the late 50’s look like a tea party.
The media obsesses on the obvious: it’s not just that in Roger’s alternative world “visuality” mattered; the competition was audio-only conservative talk radio so adding another media dimension was core strategy. But what mattered most at Fox was to create an entertainment product out of political/military/economic news and opinion that
By careful design and staging Fox News manipulated (and ultimately addicted) the most vulnerable people in America to the most powerful drug cocktail ever: Visceral gut feelings of existential outrage relieved by the most powerful emotions of all . . . the thrill of your tribe’s victory over its enemy and the ultimate triumph of good over evil.
Indeed and effect, Fox News turned our democracy and politics into performance art and efficiently sold the soul of America to the highest bidder in return for 2-minute ad sequences aired during the performance intermissions.
Sure women in Roger’s world were mostly blonde and wore short tight skirts and lower cut tops with makeup and hair right from a high-end strip club. “Visuality” as Roger always said counts big for TV ratings.
Many times when I was on set Roger would call down from his 2nd-floor office packed with TV screens to tell female anchors during breaks (“I have a call for you from the Second Floor) to “tart it up — tits up and necklines down.”
For the non-endowed female anchors, this meant being required to wear an uplifting “water-bra” while on set to meet Roger’s idea of what a female host on Fox should look like.
The older the hosts got, the bigger the water bra and the longer the hair/eyelash extensions got too.
But what the mostly older, trusting, small city/rural living Fox News fan never seem to understand about Fox’s partisan performance art programming was this:
The outcomes for Fox’s “panel debates” have ALWAYS been carefully fixed by the producers so that the home team (i.e, the conservative panelists like me) ALWAYS won.
MORE simply: The staged gladiatorial-like rhetorical fight to the death the Fox viewer loves to watch are ALWAYS fixed by the show producers for the conservative actor to win…always.
Just like pro-wrestling, the panel opinion programs are carefully staged and choreographed by Fox producers so the viewer's home team (in WWE language the “Baby Face”) always wins over the “Heel” aka the poor pathetic “libtard.”
“Fair & Balanced” was not just an ironic tagline…the opinion debate segments have always been a staged scam. . . with a scripted narrative and story line almost exactly like pro wrestling.
In fact, when Fox hired WWE Superstar John “JBL” Layfield as a paid contributor I chuckled to myself every time JBL and I would perform on our weekly show “Bulls & Bears”…it was too perfect.
It‘s ’always been a scam; the Fox News tagline, in reality, should be “Fear & Unbalanced.”
Roger knew it was easy to manipulate fear and loathing in an elderly audience raised on 3 broadcasting channels (CBS, NBC & ABC plus PBS). They grew up trusting the news and Walter Cronkite. He knew better than anyone (coming from a small conservative town in Ohio) that in their endless desire to confirm the righteousness of their right-wing tribalism they would NEVER see the Big Lie perpetrated every day to them by Fox News on their beloved TV screen.
The Fox News opinion panel scam works like this. More often than not, in my panel segments, I was the protagonist or “designated hitman” aka the one called on by the host (as instructed by the producers in my ear or the ear of the host) to “kill ‘em.” You’d know I was the designated hitman when the panel show hosts tossed the final death blow 15–20 seconds to me when they say “Toby you have the final word.”
But before I delivered the final rhetorical death blow …understand the producer of the segment had given me my script 24 hours BEFORE the show started, I knew 24–48 hours in ADVANCE of taping how the designated liberal was going to argue his/her point…and more importantly how I was going to win the day with our partisan audience.
All I had to do was perform my lines with conviction and leave the host enough time to “tease” the next totally choreographed and contrived segment.
At Fox News, conservative contributors were expected to play their designated role on the air…especially on the “The O’Reilly Factor”
Bill O’Reilly was the only on-air talent that, when you were a guest expert on this show and on the Fox payroll, told you what he wanted you to say.
He would literally come into your earpiece before your “hit” aka appearance on a Factor segment and say “Smith…here’s how it goes down. You said last time oil prices were going higher…I said lower…well they are lower and I’m going to blame the oil companies. You bit is to support them, capiche?”
Well…he was dead wrong and I told him that and his answer was “Is this the Tobin Smith show? If it is, say what you want. But if this is the O’Reilly show you give what I want.”
OK, Bill…and that was the last time I was on The Factor after 40+ appearances.
Linda Chavez, a longtime Fox conservative contributor, basically became a nonperson when she took the position in favor of more legal immigration — even though her position had been consistent for 30+ years and is based on her belief in markets over central planning.
As Linda tells the story “One producer basically told me that it was “confusing” to have me on to discuss the subject because conservatives were supposed to be for less immigration and liberals for more. Another time, O’Reilly spoke in my earpiece from NY when I was in the DC studio to warn me not to confuse everybody with a lot of facts and statistics. “You have your facts and I have mine, so keep it general.”
Key Point: IF your role on Fox News is to be a conservative, you are expected to play that role IF you are getting paid as a contributor. IF you are an unpaid conservative and don’t act like one on the air, your number is lost and your Fox talking head career is over. Period.
At Fox ALL the actors are expected to play their roles according to their partisan political ideology in the 8-minute performance art act that was being staged for delight of > 68-year-old men in Small Town America.
And what about those designated liberals aka “libtards” on my shows?
I can tell you (with very few exceptions) that a big part of the Fox News “fair and balanced” scam was also built from this reality: articulate, principled, worldly liberals — especially women — don’t exist in Roger’s Fox News world.
The designated liberals job was simple: make the viewer so enraged from their recitation of hated liberal/progressive ideological heresy (theology that the Fox viewer, of course, had been taught to hate from decades of listening to thousands of hours of conservative talk radio) that the viewer literally felt like “throwing a brick through my TV screen.”
Key Point: the viewer’s rage set their brain’s pleasure-giving dopamine delivery system into high gear...and when their fellow conservative protagonist/tribal hero (aka me the hitman) turned the liberal’s own words against them and vanquished the sniveling apostate into living hell on live TV…WOW…the pleasure chemical rushed through the Fox viewer's brain like a deep hit of crack cocaine (btw its the dopamine system in the brain that cocaine stimulates and makes it so addictive).
The other reality of Fox opinion programming is even more diabolical than simply fooling old people into believing they are watching a “fair fight”:
The goal at Fox News is explicit: Produce outrage inducing partisan performance art insufficient emotional intensity to produce enough pleasure/dopamine to get their dopamine addicted viewer the high the need until the NEXT Fox News opinion program.
Neuroscience has known for years that “news junkies” or “political junkies” were in fact addicts…junkies…who got their addictive dopamine hit from the emotional roller coaster of unbridled outrage followed by the dopamine-releasing experience derived from the thrill of watching the victory/denouement of the ideological apostate.
In short: there is a NO better feeling in life than when a person’s existing beliefs are attacked and then a smart-sounding expert PROVES you right all along. Fox News turns this process of ideological attack and ultimate victory of the righteous into partisan performance art of steroids.
Yes one part of the Fox News strategy is the tried and true conservative media narrative to insulate their audiences from opposing views — in part, by continually denouncing the mainstream media(i.e., other news sources) 24/7/365 as “liberal, biased, and not to be trusted.”
Fox of course also follows the traditional conservative partisan good guy/bad guy narrative in general. As long-time Fox & Friends host Bob Sellers shared with me:
“Most of the stories on our morning show had a good guy and a bad guy, and the anchor was on the side of justice. This gave every story a narrative that followed through to the end of the story or to the next news cycle.
I always knew to pick the good guy and follow the narrative through. You could say almost anything, as long as it followed that good guy-bad guy narrative and you sought justice. It’s actually brilliant in providing dopamine hits to the viewer.”
But Fox News takes their viewer addiction strategy and techniques to a much more unseemly level (that the academic liberal “studies” like this Yale news release miss). At Fox it’s not just turning politics and partisan tribalism into performance art — the Fox programming scam is WAY more contrived and even sinister: Their game is to simply manipulate the emotions and trust of their elderly and gullible senior audience.
To sell Fox New’s “Big Lie”, Fox manipulates and stages everything it does in opinion programming to create/facilitate actual addiction. The master Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels would be impressed at the lengths Fox goes to in staging their partisan performance art aka propaganda-like programming.
First and most obviously, with an older male core audience good looking women are obviously stimulative. Hosts on Fox have progressively gotten younger and sexier. The busty ex-prosecutor Kimberly Guilfoyle is the woman I am asked most about these days.
Liberal female opponents/antagonists on Fox debates have always been selected for their looks too…and definitely not their rhetorical chops or subject matter expertise.
So-called “Democratic Consultants” with dark skin are always desired and important to liberal/enemy typecasting (and just about any African American liberal who calls herself a “Democratic Strategist” will get at least one call from segment producers for a segment “hit” and tryout).
But yet another big part of the Fox News scam is that many times the “Democratic Strategist” label was a ruse — let’s call them “fake analysts”.
For example, Kirsten Powers (now a contributor for CNN) was promoted by Roger as a “Democratic Strategist” with experience in the “Clinton White House.”
In reality, she is a prime example of the fake political analysts Ailes launched with fudged or outright fake resumes. For years I would hear from ACTUAL democratic strategists in my DC hometown that they had no idea who Kirsten was and that she had no significant political experience at all.
So… voila! Kirsten was given a column at Murdoch-owned NY Post and then introduced as a “political columnist” instead of Dem strategist. She claimed she worked in the “Clinton White House.” At the time, in reality, she had merely worked in a low and mid-level job in a non-cabinet agency the Office of US Trade Representative.
Then of course another feature of compelling Fox News scripted performance art are the fake/contrived “cat fights.” What male DOESN’T love a good girl-on-girl fight in high definition TV?
My long-time friend and Conservative columnist Cheri Jacobus shared with me one of her experiences in how Fox News producers constantly are trying to gin up “Battle Royales” between attractive partisan females (note: the WWE analogy is on purpose).
According to Cheri “About 12–14 years ago I was blackballed (for several years) at Fox News because when I was asked to have a “catfight” with “democratic strategist” Kirsten Powers. I said I’m happy to have a spirited debate, but no catfight.
Kirsten (then a paid contributor and thus expected like me to follow the orders of segment producers) had tried to start one with me a few days earlier on the air with me. When I refused to play ball...the Fox booker phone stopped ringing.”
The same kind of rigged outcome and selection of demonstratively weak opposition is part of Fox’s military debates.
My fellow Fox News contributor Bob Bevelacqua recently shared
“Tobin, I read your article on “fixed debates” at Fox. I can say the same thing happened on the Military analysts side of the house and is the main reason I tore up my contract in 2005 with Fox. Thank you for telling the truth!”
So what about the male opponents . . . the “liberal dudes?”
Liberal dudes aka “libtards” are mostly selected out of Liberals Central Casting… the smugger, nerdier and more ethnic looking the better.
In the 8 minute Kabuki performance art of Fox News opinion segments, my hitman role was to use the script the producers gave me pre-taping (and that I had rehearsed) to, as Roger had instructed me “shred the libtards into pieces . . . but with a smile.” Even diehard right-wingers don’t want to watch people insult each other to the point of anger…that’s uncomfortable (us male WASPs HATE confrontation of course).
“Kill em with a smile” was the direction I learned early on. IF I threw in a facial contortion while the liberal ranted though, so much the better; that guaranteed me more TV time for the “reaction shot.”
In the “fear and unbalanced” scam that Roger created and taught his team to produce, I won when the “contest” when I got the so-called “liberal tears” flowing from the left and the fist-bumping/blood racing “atta boys” from the right-wing folks riding their Lazy Boy steeds 6–8 hours every day.
All the successful conservative opinion contributors and hosts were the best performance artists. Those who did not get this reality did not last. In over 2000 segments on Fox News and Fox Business Network, I played the character of an angry (but smiling and pithy) partisan warrior for whom the white La Z Boy cowboys would want to shake hands with and congratulate with their always heartfelt
“Man you KILLED that Libard on Saturday Tobin…I loved it!”
Over 14 years I heard that compliment a lot of Red States — in airports, restaurants, on the street and always the same thing. “Way to go Tobin… I wanted to throw a brick through my TV screen…but then you KILLED that idiot libtard.”
What the La Z cowboys and cowgirls never figured out was the game they had just watched was a scam…it was fixed so their home team couldn’t lose.
What the average elderly Fox News fan never knew about the panel show they loved to watch at Fox News:
I knew what the “libtard” was going to say because their “POV” aka point of view talking points were in my hands BEFORE the segment ever taped.
Before the camera light ever came on I had my DETAILED bullet point arguments from the segment producer pounded into my brain. I always knew what was coming and how I’d shut the liberal actor down. I just added my sparkling personality and pained looks of incredulity for visual effect and BOOM…the socialist apostate was once again conquered by the righteous hero.
What continues to blow me away to this day is most Fox News fans STILL don’t seem to get that the Fox opinion programming they are addicted to is just as fixed and fake as pro wrestling.
But the worst part of this “news” farce is how families and children are losing their fathers (and some mothers too) into the abyss of Fox News performance art. Hundreds of thousands of >70 aged men, addicted to rush they feel as they watch the staged gladiatorial fight of good and evil for hours a day, have simply lost touch with non-Fox reality.
As author Edwin Lyngar shares in his book “How I Lost My Father to Fox News:”
How did I lose my Dad? He consumes a daily diet of nothing except Fox News. He has for a decade or more. He has no email account and doesn’t watch sports. He refuses to so much as touch a keyboard and has never been on the Internet, ever. He thinks higher education destroys people, not only because of Fox News but also because I drifted left during and after graduate school.
I do not blame or condemn my father for his opinions. If you consumed a daily diet of right-wing fury, erroneously labeled “news,” you could very likely end up in the same place. Again, this is all by design. Let’s call it the Fox News effect. Take sweet, kindly senior citizens and feed them a steady stream of demagoguery and repetition, all wrapped in the laughable slogan of “fair and balanced.” Even watching the commercials on Fox, one is treated to sales pitches for gold and emergency food rations, the product cornerstones of the paranoid.
To some people, the idea of retirees yelling at the television all day may seem funny, but this isn’t a joke. We’re losing the nation’s grandparents, and it’s an American tragedy.
The award-winning documentary “The Brainwashing of My Dad” from Jen Senko tells this story in urgent and touching detail.
Director Jen Senko found the brainwashing of extreme right wing media to be a phenomenon. "Personal Stories" of…
Most Fox News fans just seem to think the liberals always lose because they are inferior libtards. But in reality, At Fox News, political and economic opinion programming is nothing more than a scripted, fixed outcome partisan performance art product…a parallel universe silo morphed into a scripted entertainment mashup of the WWE and ESPN.
Roger Ailes created and directed this scam for 20 years…and I am sure is somewhere still critiquing the on-air talent cleavage and denouements of the designated libtards by the designated righteous hitmen like me.
Copyright 2017 Tobin Smith “Fear & Unbalanced: Confessions of a Fox News Hitman”