Our ’90s-era business-casual clothes were a bit baggy, which may have contributed to the sense that we were children playing grown-ups, wearing our fathers’ suits. About a dozen reporters and producers had gathered around the conference table in the fishbowl, and we were pitching stories for FoxNews.com. Leading the meeting were a producer and editor who, like us, were in their mid-20s. You knew it was your turn to speak when the producer tossed a foam football your way.
“What about the Bermuda Triangle?” our editor asked. We looked at each other and shrugged. “I haven’t heard about anyone disappearing in a long time,” he clarified. “Do people still disappear?”
Even with our limited journalism experience, most of us felt there wasn’t much of a story there. “Sounds more like an episode of Scooby Doo,” said one of the reporters.
Beyond the glass wall stood the thrumming hub of FoxNews.com, a circular newsroom ringed by a low wooden wall, with a dozen televisions suspended from the ceiling overhead like numbers on a clock. Everything was cathode ray tube — the dangling TVs, the clunky desktop computers — but to us, this online nerve center was the height of modernity. It brought to mind the bridge of the starship Enterprise.
I was fresh out of Columbia’s journalism school when I started working for Fox News in the fall of 1996 in its brand new online newsroom. The Internet itself (i.e., “the World Wide Web”) was brand new too. A New Yorker cartoon from 1996 lampooned the hype in a way that would be unthinkably obvious now, with a sidewalk doomsayer holding a sign whose message, “The End is Near,” is appended “www.endnear.com.” The Simpsons also took aim that year: Homer discovers the internet, launches a new media company called “Compuglobalhypermeganet,” and, before he can figure out what he’s selling, is bought out by Bill Gates.
Our Chelsea-based operation reflected the youth of the web itself: We were all under 30. Amazingly, Rupert Murdoch’s son James, who was our age at the time, reported to work every morning, but he almost never emerged from his spacious corner office, with its Hudson River view, on the opposite side of the building. Fittingly, our offices were not far from “Silicon Alley” — the newly coined locale for hip tech startups — on 18th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues (on the sixth floor of the decidedly unhip Bed, Bath & Beyond building).
Perhaps emboldened by the fact that no one was watching us — not our audience, and not our corporate overlords — we felt free to play. We focused on making multimedia content, with short articles, videos, and java applets, about silly subjects like the infomercial king Ron Popeil (“But wait, there’s more!”) and video game nostalgia (a producer’s headline suggestions: “Retro Tech!” Pause. “Tech Retro!”).
There was also the occasional winning story. A report on fat federal subsidies given to Florida sugar barons included a searchable database of every Congress member’s vote on the 1997 subsidy renewal, alongside the value of the sweet campaign contribution he or she received in exchange. I traveled to Washington, DC, and received a tour of the FBI crime lab to report on DNA testing for a feature that nimbly illustrated the convoluted process with interactive graphics.
I flew to Cape Canaveral to cover the launch of STS-95, the 1998 space shuttle mission that vaulted John Glenn into space for the second time in his career. There, I stood among a throng of real journalists — seasoned reporters who’d been covering NASA for years, some of them familiar network faces — and I almost felt like one myself.
As far as political coverage went, we left it mostly to the wire services, just like everyone else did at the time. But a liberal slant was clear in many of our homegrown features, like the nostalgic commemorations we published just a few months apart in 1998 for the anniversaries of the civil unrest of 1968, and of Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination, the latter being the sort of shameless liberal idol worship that would surely have made Roger Ailes and Rupert Murdoch shudder — or maybe even vomit — had they known we’d published it.
Ailes came to visit twice, and Murdoch tagged along with him the second time. They toured the newsroom about six months after the site launched. Aside from those brief visits, the Uptowners seemed oblivious to what was happening down on 18th Street.
Every so often, there was a cab ride up to “the Channel,” Fox News’s Midtown headquarters at 1211 Avenue of the Americas, to sit in on the grown-ups’ editorial meetings, or to check in with Ailes’s “Brain Room,” an underground bunker that required security clearance to access. Its existence was, at the time, top secret.
The large, windowless conference room housed more than a dozen researchers who dug through databases for dirt all hours of the day. According to reports that surfaced years later, the researchers also had access to private telephone records, and the Brain Room was eventually linked to our corporate parent’s phone hacking scandals in Great Britain. An FNC spokesperson disputed this.
But within a couple years of launching, our souped-up stories and early-days multimedia experiments began to look like time capsules. The thrust of the new technology was speed, and the mission of Fox News — and the future of FoxNews.com — crystalized soon after the internet’s first all-consuming news story broke.
The sheer velocity of the Lewinsky-Clinton saga determined the way news would be played henceforth in the digital age: fast and cycle-less, highly competitive, repetitive, and, where Fox was concerned, far from “fair and balanced.” Downtown, we too were all over the scandal; we had no choice. Our pageviews ballooned from 600,000 to 2.2 million per month by the time of the impeachment hearings. And as sure as shit flows downhill, the editorial dictates began to pour down from Uptown. It was now obvious that Ailes had discovered the internet.
The top brass at the channel had taken a keen interest in their little downtown website and what it could do to advance their cause, which at the time appeared to be bringing down the president. Soon, a grown-up television producer was installed as the executive editor of the site, and one of her first brainstorming sessions included a pitch for a multimedia feature about the infamous blue dress.
Maybe I should have understood the Fox News agenda back when I wrote my first story for the site. It was about the first presidential debate between Bill Clinton and Bob Dole, and the article launched the website on October 7, 1996, the same day Fox News Channel debuted. At the time, I believed the adults had their network, and the web was ours. Looking back, some early clues suggested otherwise.
Like everyone else at work, I watched the debate on television, from the middle of the newsroom. All the political experts I spoke to afterward agreed that Clinton had handily won the night. But when I arrived at work the next morning and began to read my piece, I noticed something mysterious had happened to it.
Somewhere between my final revisions, the night before, and publication, the lead paragraph had been rewritten. My version had highlighted Clinton’s deft performance and victory; the top of the story now stressed that Dole had “made up more ground” against Clinton during the debate than he had at any previous point in the campaign. There was no mention of the widespread view that Clinton had won until a few paragraphs down, and even then, this perspective was tempered with a line about how early it was in the debate season.
Being naive about the editorial process (and believing every word I wrote was golden), I was shocked by the rewrite. I nursed this grievance for a week or two, though I still didn’t understand what it presaged for Fox. But more evidence of the network’s idea of “fair and balanced” coverage arrived on election night. We watched from the newsroom as the electoral votes racked up in Clinton’s favor. At the top of the 9 o’clock hour, when a new round of polls closed, anchor Catherine Crier prefaced the latest numbers this way: “More bad news.”
That viewpoint was largely reserved for the network in those early years, but the hostile takeover of FoxNews.com came in September 1998 with a new development in the presidential scandal. Independent counsel Ken Starr, tapped to investigate a failed real estate investment known as Whitewater in 1994, had turned his attention to Bill Clinton’s dalliances with his former intern.
Salacious details had riveted the nation for months, and Starr was now poised to release his findings, known as the Starr Report. Everyone knew it would be instantly available online everywhere the moment it was unveiled, but we had to be first. I had become the managing editor by now, so the oversight of this grim task fell to me. It was duly if begrudgingly executed. Maybe we were first, maybe we weren’t. Who knew? Predictably, within seconds, everyone had published Ken Starr’s third-rate Harlequin romance online.
I wasn’t going to stick around to see how it all played out. I had joined FoxNews.com to explore the potential for innovative storytelling using emerging digital technology. (It didn’t hurt that I was also broke and in debt.) Now that the kids were no longer running the show, the site came to focus increasingly on breaking news and little else. It was a wire service with a video stream. I resigned in December and rang in 1999 as a freelance writer.
For a time after I left, the vestiges of our work at FoxNews.com could still be found via a bug labeled “Fox News Archive,” but it soon disappeared, swallowing a period of my past. By the time the new millennium arrived, I no longer knew anyone who worked there.
One afternoon, I took the train in from Brooklyn to see the old newsroom. It had doubled in size in the short time since I’d worked in it, but it now stood vacant, the Starship Failure. Murdoch had summoned his online crew uptown, to the channel. A glass wall and door had been erected between the reception desk and the empty newsroom, heightening the sensation that I was looking in on a preserved movie set from some long ago production.
Frank Houston worked as a reporter and editor for more than 15 years in New York and Miami. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Salon, and the Columbia Journalism Review. Like many recovering journalists, he now practices law.
This essay originally appeared on Narrative.ly.
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