While the growing chorus of allegations from former employees are making Rupert Murdoch’s cable news network sound more like a malevolent bachelor party in Las Vegas, what happens at Fox News is not staying at Fox News.
As a federal investigation of the network reportedly grows in scope and more lawsuits pile up alleging a toxic corporate culture, Fox’s problems are increasingly spilling outside its walls and creating ramifications for local and national political figures as new allegations emerge and old ones are dredged up.
In recent weeks, a candidate for mayor of New York City has admitted to investigating two of Ailes’ accusers on behalf of Fox, while an aspiring Virginia politician has been accused in court of orchestrating online smear campaigns at the behest of Fox executives. Meanwhile, several people familiar with the arrangements have told Politico that President Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon and longtime confidant Roger Stone coordinated with Ailes to monitor and undermine the ousted Fox chief’s perceived adversaries.
“The question in the Fox scandal is not, ‘Who did what?’ It’s, ‘How close were you to anybody who did anything?’” says Hank Sheinkopf, a veteran Democratic strategist based in New York. “This is the boiling hot pot of politics. … Anybody who touches it is going to be get burned.”
The most immediate political consequences are those facing New York mayoral hopeful Richard “Bo” Dietl, a private investigator and former Fox News contributor who had long denied reports that he surveiled Ailes biographer Gabriel Sherman and others on behalf of the ousted network chief. Last week, Dietl admitted to the Wall Street Journal that he had investigated Andrea Mackris, a former Fox producer who sued Bill O’Reilly for sexual harassment in 2004, and Gretchen Carlson, whose accusations against Ailes prompted his ouster last year, on behalf of the network.
According to one Republican operative in New York, multiple mayoral campaigns are planning to use Dietl’s work and alleged work on behalf of Fox against him. Dietl said that the potential complications for his mayoral campaign prompted him to speak out to clarify his investigative work for Fox. Earlier this month, local Republican leaders decided not to grant Dietl special dispensation that would have allowed him to run on their party’s primary ballot, forcing him to make an independent bid.
In addition to the political liabilities inherent in working to undermine alleged victims of sexual harassment, Dietl’s recent admission to the Journal also opens him up to charges of dissembling. Just days earlier, he had told Politico, “I have never, ever done any work for Roger Ailes.”
In a follow-up interview, Dietl defended that denial on the grounds that while he had done work for the network while Ailes was its CEO, he had not worked for Ailes personally. “We’re splitting nickels here,” he said.
Dietl’s admission also does not clear up all of the Fox-related work performed by his firm, Beau Dietl & Associates (He went by “Beau” when he named his firm and changed it to the earthier “Bo” for Fox appearances).
In 2008, Gawker received an anonymous email tip about the sex life of Rupert Murdoch’s then-wife Wendi Deng that described her as a “whore” and “nymphomaniac.” In 2014, Gawker reviewed the metadata of the Word document containing the tip, which identified the document as belonging to Maria Stasek, an officer manager for Dietl at the time the tip was sent—and the website proceeded to report on the origins of the anti-Deng smear.
Stasek declined to comment and Dietl told Politico he has “no knowledge” of any work his firm performed related to Deng. “I don’t even know what you’re talking about,” he said.
But a former employee said that at the time Gawker published its story, Dietl “went off the rails,” going from room to room at his firm’s headquarters to inform employees about the dangers of leaking electronic documents to the press. “He doesn’t even understand how PDF files or other types of files work, but he understood that if you leak it there’s always a way to trace it,” said the former employee.
The former employee recounted checking the firm’s shared research folder in the hours after the Deng fiasco erupted and finding that a handful of news articles about Deng and public domain photos of her remained there. Private investigators regularly use publicly available photos to help them identify the targets of their in-person surveillance. “They definitely did do some work on it,” said the former employee of the firm and Deng.
Dietl said that because his firm has many clients, it could be performing investigations without his knowledge, and repeatedly suggested the firm might be investigating a Politico reporter. “Right now, I could be investigating you, and I don’t even know it,” he said. Amid further questioning about Deng, Dietl terminated the phone call.
“If I were Bo Dietl, I’d come up with a better explanation,” opined Sheinkopf, who said that Dietl was one of eight New York mayoral hopefuls who have sought him out to discuss their aspirations, though he has declined to work with any of them.
A suit filed last month by former Fox host Andrea Tantaros also alleges that Dietl illegally obtained journalists’ phone records and credit reports at the behest of the network’s general counsel, Dianne Brandi. Dietl has denied that charge, as has Brandi.
Though it is illegal, private investigators routinely gain access to people’s phone records on behalf of wealthy clients, according to two operatives familiar with the practice who did not want their names to be associated with criminal activity.
In September, Gabe Sherman reported in New York magazine that Fox News executives had obtained the phone records of Media Matters reporter Joe Strupp in 2010 in order to discover who was leaking to Strupp. Angelo Carusone, the president of the liberal media monitoring group, said its lawyer has ordered Fox to retain records relevant to the allegations and that he is currently looking for ways to fund the estimated $500,000 cost of litigating a case through the discovery phase before the statute of limitations runs out in the coming months.
A Fox News spokeswoman, Irena Briganti, pointed to general counsel Dianne Brandi’s previous denial that the network had obtained people’s phone records and referred other questions for this story to Ailes.
Beyond the rough-and-tumble of New York politics and media, Tantaros’ suit also drags the more genteel, blazer-and-khakis world of northern Virginia’s establishment Republican politics into the Fox News fray.
In the suit, Tantaros, who is pursuing related claims in arbitration against Fox and Ailes stemming from alleged sexual harassment, claims that operatives working on behalf of Fox hacked her computer and eavesdropped on her phone calls and then used private information to harass and intimidate her over social media.
Much of her complaint revolves around allegations against former Fox contributor Pete Snyder, an investor and aspiring Republican politician in Virginia, where he unsuccessfully sought the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor in 2013. Snyder is also the founder of New Media Strategies, an online marketing firm that counted Fox among its clients before he sold it in 2011.
According to Tantaros’ suit, Snyder has confided in her that he ran smear campaigns at the behest of Fox executives using social media “sock puppet” accounts—those that conceal the true identities of their operators—and that he later used similar tactics against her when her relationship with the network soured.
“Andrea Tantaros’ lawsuit against Pete Snyder is a sham and a shakedown,” Snyder’s lawyer, Randy Mastro, said in a statement. “It will be thrown out of court because it is meritless, time-barred, and subject to arbitration in any event. As Ms. Tantaros and her lawyer are well aware, Pete Snyder and his company ceased doing any social media-related work for Fox News in 2012; Snyder sold his social media company long ago, and has had nothing whatsoever to do with what she is now alleging supposedly occurred to her over the past year.”
Snyder—who passed in September on running for governor and instead endorsed former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie—has also retained the high-powered public relations specialist Stephanie Cutter, a former Obama deputy campaign manager and White House adviser, to handle media inquiries related to the suit.
Snyder founded New Media Strategies, an online marketing and market intelligence firm that was an early pioneer in social media marketing techniques, in 1999. While the handling of most of the firm’s clients was delegated to others, Snyder himself dealt directly with Fox executives, according to several former employees. Cutter said that Snyder interacted with Fox executives roughly once a month.
During the latter half of the last decade, the company conducted audits of the online conversations about clients, pitched favorable news to bloggers and posted anonymously on message boards and comment threads to promote its clients’ brands and projects like new movies.
The purpose of this astroturfing was to “Basically create a counter-narrative,” according to one former employee. “There was some level of disclosure, like ‘I work in this industry and I know,’ so it wasn’t just a random commentator but there was not full disclosure.”
At the time, such commercial astroturfing was a widespread practice. In recent years the Federal Trade Commission has been issuing stricter rules requiring disclosure of online marketing campaigns.
According to two people with direct knowledge of the firm’s work for Fox, the company anonymously posted favorable messages about Fox and negative messages about CNN. Those people said they had no knowledge of New Media Strategies spreading the kind of highly personal smears that some perceived Ailes adversaries have encountered over the years.
Last month, however, Salon reported that New Media Strategies also ran sock-puppet fan websites for Fox, including several that objectified the network’s female on-air personalities. Snyder, who declined to comment on the record for this story, denied to Salon that his firm was involved in creating the websites.
Ailes’ lawyer, Susan Estrich, said her client had no knowledge of New Media Strategies’ specific actions on behalf of Fox, but added that “every company places items to their advantage on the internet.”
In 2007, Snyder sold New Media Strategies to Meredith Corporation and he stepped down as its CEO in 2011. The next year, he ended a brief stint as an on-air Fox News contributor. He now runs the angel-investing firm Disruptor Capital, which owns stakes in several politically connected firms clustered around Washington and Alexandria, Virginia, including the right-leaning news outlet Independent Journal Review.
The network of operatives allegedly used by Ailes and other Fox executives to monitor and demean perceived threats also extends to Trump’s inner circle, according to several people with knowledge of those relationships. Trump’s longtime confidant Stone, a veteran practitioner of political dark arts, was paid for off-air work that included keeping tabs on Sherman and publicly criticizing Newsmax CEO Chris Ruddy, according to three people familiar with the arrangement.
“Stone would just write public articles when Ailes told him,” one of those people explained. In a March 2015 article for the Daily Caller, Stone accused Ruddy of being “in bed with the Clintons.” In an April 2015 piece for the publication, Stone attacked Ruddy for criticizing a Fox News special about the Clintons.
At the time, according to a person familiar with Ailes’ thinking, he had become “obsessed” with Ruddy and the possibility that his plans to launch Newsmax TV would present a threat to Fox’s conservative news hegemony. “Roger goes through this period where he becomes convinced Ruddy is out to get him and he utilizes a lot of the grassroots to go after him,” explained another person familiar with the effort.
Starting in 2014, Ruddy detected a dramatic uptick in negative mentions of him online indicative of an organized effort but was unable to determine who was behind it, according to a person familiar with the situation.
(Citing a March 2014 email exchange about Ruddy between Snyder and Ailes lieutenant Bill Shine, a former Fox News executive, Tantaros’ lawsuit alleges that Snyder also participated in the effort to undermine Ruddy, though Snyder’s lawyer denies it.)
Stone said that his paid work for Fox consisted of writing Ailes “a shitload” of strategy memos about attracting more libertarian viewers and that his broadsides against Ruddy were motivated by anger over Ruddy’s donations to the Clinton Foundation, not monetary inducements.
Ailes’ lawyer said her client was unaware of any paid work performed by Stone. “Roger doesn’t know anything about payments to Mr. Stone, and believes the allegations are untrue,” she wrote in an email.
But three people familiar with the arrangement said Stone was also paid to keep tabs on Sherman as he worked on his biography of the Fox News chief. Stone said he was not paid to monitor Sherman but instead was motivated by friendship to act as a liaison between the two. “I would try to keep the two of them from killing each other because they’re both friends of mine,” he said. “They became obsessed with each other. It was really unhealthy. I think Gabe’s a great journalist. I think Roger Ailes is a genius.”
The network of allies Ailes employed to neutralize threats also extends into the White House itself, according to three people familiar with the situation who said White House chief strategist Steve Bannon coordinated with Fox in Breitbart’s publication of negative stories about Sherman.
In the weeks before the release of Sherman’s biography, 2014’s “The Loudest Voice in the Room,” Bannon huddled inside a Fox News conference room with Ailes, Ailes’ personal attorney Peter Johnson Jr., pollster Pat Caddell and former Fox journalist Peter Boyer to discuss discrediting the book, according to two people familiar with the meetings. (None of the participants would comment on the record.) True to form, Bannon advocated an all-out “go to war” approach during these sessions, while Boyer advised a hands-off approach, according to one of those people. Bannon described the resulting attacks on Sherman as “love taps,” according to an acquaintance he later told about the meetings.
There is no indication that Bannon was paid to do this, though at the time he enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with Fox, which promoted his conservative documentaries. Ailes’ lawyer said that Breitbart’s coverage of Sherman was taken of its own initiative. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer did not respond to requests for comment on this story, and Alexandra Preate, who acts as a spokeswoman for Bannon, referred questions to Breitbart editor-in-chief Alex Marlow.
Marlow said Brietbart’s critical coverage of Sherman was consistent with the outlet’s values and that he does not believe Bannon was influenced by other considerations. “Steve talks to a lot of people,” Marlow said. “He he makes it his business to be connected with lots of different people … but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the coverage was going to be pre-ordained.”
Bannon has also collaborated with Jim Pinkerton, a former Fox News contributor who for years authored the anonymous blog “The Cable Game” to tout Fox and attack its rivals on behalf of Ailes.
Pinkerton, who did not respond to requests for comment, has written for Breitbart under his own byline since 2014. According to four people with knowledge of the arrangement, Pinkerton has also written for Breitbart under the pseudonym Virgil, an homage to the ancient poet whose work was commissioned by Caesar Augustus, the first Roman emperor, to help legitimize his reign. Marlow declined to comment on the pseudonym.
From 2012 to 2014, many of Brietbart’s attacks against Sherman were authored anonymously under another pseudonymous byline: “Capitol Confidential.” When “Capitol Confidential” was not attacking Sherman, it was attacking environmental protections and Google, and writing articles favorable to the tobacco and timber industries.
Marlow said “Capitol Confidential” had been managed by the site’s former politics editor Mike Flynn, who died last year. (The late Flynn was not related to the former national security adviser of the same name, Marlow said.)
Presented with the suggestion that the byline resembled a cover for undisclosed work on behalf of corporate interests, Marlow said it was not. “If there are any patterns,” he said, “That would be for you to figure out.”