People talk about the news far more than they talk about how the news gets reported. But the latter topic remains a strongly debated one, on issues of bias and simple competence, and three recent books have offered different perspectives on the process.
Top of the Morning by (Grand Central, $28) Brian Stelter takes you “inside the cutthroat world of morning TV,” mainly the battles between NBC’s Today and ABC’s Good Morning America during the period that included Today’s disastrous demotion of Ann Curry and the ratings ascendance of GMA. Zev Chafets’ Roger Ailes Off Camera (Sentinel, $26.95) follows the life and career of the Warren native and mastermind of Fox News — while An Atheist in the FOXHole (Dutton, $26.95) describes author Joe Muto’s experiences as a self-described liberal working at the network — work that ended after he was outed as a mole filing reports on network doings for the Gawker website.
By far the least satisfying of the three is Muto’s work. A first-person account of his years in off-camera production at Fox News, including a period working for Bill O’Reilly, it expects readers to be as interested in Muto’s dating life and a moment-by-moment recap of his last day at the network as in how news is made and what the network’s people are really like. Although I am not a fan of many things Fox News does, Muto still comes across as a cocky little snot, and one whose writing is often lazy. (And a book that is being sold heavily on the strength of personality portraits should have an index.)
Muto does not say much that would surprise either detractors or fans. The network paid its young staff poorly (as many organizations do), made mistakes (ditto) and let ideology affect coverage even in small ways: The morning-show Fox & Friends’ recap of late-night jokes was not to include ones about then-President George W. Bush or Vice President Dick Cheney, but Clinton jokes were welcome.
Some of the sections about O’Reilly are especially interesting; whatever you may think of his opinions, he comes across as very smart, especially about what makes people watch TV.
But there are other points where Muto simply did not get close to people and has to draw on outside sources — or on what anyone could see on the air. Nor, like some of the actions he criticizes, does Muto let a need for facts get in the way of a pointed anecdote:
He relays a story about an on-air gaffe about singer Meat Loaf even though he never knew if the story was true because “the story was repeated so many times by so many different people … I couldn’t help but believe it was true.”
And speaking of believability, the biggest cause for concern is this note at the beginning of Muto’s book:
Everything you’re about to read happened to me. Some names and identifying characteristics have been changed, and certain individuals are composites.
At which point I thought, uh-oh. But there was more:
Some events have been compressed or reordered to assist in the narrative flow.
Not the sort of thing to be in a nonfiction book, especially one about news.
Even as Ailes hovers over Muto’s book, he is the obvious center of Chafets’ book. The author — whose credentials include a favorable biography of Rush Limbaugh — followed Ailes to meetings and public events, interviewed him, met his family and – in Chafets’ words — “got a closer, more prolonged look at Ailes than any journalist ever has.” Ailes is recorded on his political philosophy, his approach to news, and his disdain for competitors and politicians. Chafets also traces Ailes’s path from a rough childhood — his father did not hold back from beating young Roger, even though the boy was a hemophiliac — to success in TV (notably with Mike Douglas), political influence and finally even more influence, wealth and a circle of friends that includes not only other media titans like Barbara Walters, and big-time politicians, but also ideological foes like Jesse Jackson and Rachel Maddow. (Ailes even gave Maddow a blurb for her book Drift.)
Ailes’s cooperation was not complete: “He intends to write his autobiography someday,” Chafets said, “and I imagine he is holding something in reserve.” Still, until that autobiography appears, Off Camera is unquestionably a presentation of Ailes’ world view. Chafets, in fact, goes out of his way to back up Ailes, sometimes laboriously. (A section comparing the slogan “Fair and Balanced” to other news organizations’ mottos is especially tedious.) If nothing else, it counterbalances Muto’s work.
Stelter’s book, meanwhile, tries to show the actions happening across the big canvas of multiple networks and programs seeking viewers in the morning. It certainly digs deep into the Today drama (and is far from sympathetic to Curry), as well as demonstrating how GMA did things right in addition to benefiting from Today going wrong.
There are also briefer looks at CBS’ morning struggles, and a long side trip into MSNBC’s Morning Joe (which “almost everyone in the industry speaks of with reverence,” says Stelter) as emblematic of “more focused or indie-style a.m. entries designed for edgier or more eccentric tastes.” CNN and Fox, meanwhile are barely acknowledged in Stelter’s discussion of morning programs — a demonstration both of how huge the topic is, and how narrowly selective Stelter was in his presentation.
His attempts at brisk writing could fail badly; regarding Today’s decline, he wrote, “it seemed to many as if America’s first family was going the way of the Mulvaneys in Joyce Carol Oates’s We Were the Mulvaneys.”
But, if nothing else, Top of the Morning provides a look at a significant period in morning television, one whose impact could continue for many years.
Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including the HeldenFiles Online, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him after June 30 at 330-996-3582 or email@example.com.