Reporter: I Printed False Story But Fox News Made Me Do It

The media world is abuzz today with an inside-baseball story about a reporter claiming that Fox News deliberately tried to embarrass him by feeding him a false story which he then went ahead and published based on a single unverified source.

Yet somehow instead of the incident being an indictment of the reporter, Matthew Flamm of Crain’s New York Business, the media critic world is spinning it as an indictment of FNC--even though the basis of doing so appears to be on a single anonymous source of another reporter. Click past the break to travel down the rabbit hole.

The story begins in 2008 when Flamm was working up a story about FNC’s rival CNN actually beating it in the 25-54-year-old ratings during the battle that Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were waging against each other. Here’s Flamm’s version of what happened:

CNN was beating Fox News in the ratings, an unusual enough event to deserve a story. I emailed Fox News PR lieutenant Irena Briganti, described what I was working on, and asked for comment.

There was no response. But I did soon receive an email from someone describing herself as a Fox News producer, who wanted to "pass along a tip" about a decision by the company to have Bill O'Reilly anchor the channel's primary coverage the following Tuesday.

Putting a pundit in the anchor's seat would have been unprecedented for Fox. My "greed" was roused at the chance of a scoop.

But my judgment had not yet been warped. In more than 20 years as a journalist, I had never run with a story from a source I didn't know, or without confirmation or corroboration. For the rest of the week I tried to coax this "producer" to speak to me. She refused, claiming she feared for her job. She gave me her name, which checked out, but worried about getting her fired, I didn't call. However, I did call and email Ms. Briganti and her boss Brian Lewis, seeking confirmation. But never heard back. [...]

At the end of the week, having only one source, my editor at the time and I decided to run a short item online and see if that would scare up a reply from Fox. We considered it a shot across their bow.

Yes, that was pretty stupid. But we were late learners when it came to understanding the Web's ability to amplify an error.

The rest is miserable history. Within minutes of the item's posting, Ms. Briganti emerged from her silence with comments to TVNewser about how ridiculous it was to even consider that Mr. O'Reilly would anchor a newscast. She then added that nothing I had written could ever be trusted. (My previous story on Fox, in 2006, had been about a ratings decline.)

I sent an email to the "producer" but it bounced back; her Hotmail account was dead. Yes, I finally picked up the phone and called her. Only to learn that she knew nothing about the emails "she" had been sending.

Later on in his piece, Flamm acknowledges that he doesn’t have any evidence that he was actually the victim of a high-level setup by Fox News. “But the sequence of events, and the fact that Ms. Briganti and Mr. Lewis were aware of the ‘tip,’ made it hard to consider any other explanation,” he asserts.

Flamm then refers to a new book out by NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik which first recounted the incident. According to Folkenflik, a former FNC employee confirmed that it was a setup. “a former Fox News staffer knowledgeable about the incident” confirmed that it was all a trick.

And we should believe this because the former staffer told Folkenflik this via a Yahoo address instead of a Hotmail one. (Note: That last sentence is sarcasm for those who are impaired.)

Not knowing the full back-story behind the Flamm incident, it certainly is possible that someone at FNC played a prank on him. But nothing that Flamm or Folkenflik wrote points to the false story as being an elaborate scheme created by the Fox News media relations team. It could very well have been the work of a solitary person who just wanted to mess with him for some other reason.

It’s also not proof of anything that the FNC PR head Briganti didn’t respond to his inquiries. If indeed the relationship between the media trade press and the Fox media relations shop is as bad as Flamm claims, there is no reason why she or any of her employees would try to prevent a reporter from embarrassing himself by making the rudimentary error of printing a story based on a single unknown source. Just because Briganti knew about the fake story is not proof at all that she was behind it.

The only other “evidence” we have for Flamm’s claim to have been the victim of an elaborate ruse is a single sentence in Folkenflik’s book which actually doesn’t even say what the Crain’s reporter thinks it does. Here it is in full:

“A former Fox News staffer knowledgeable about the incident confirmed to me they [Flamm and his editor] had been set up.”

Assuming this is the truth, the sentence could mean anything from that Flamm was victimized by a rogue producer, a single member of the PR staff, or any possible combination of Fox News employees including its president Roger Ailes.

That’s hardly the basis to conclude there was a grand conspiracy afoot. There’s some doubt as to the origin of fake story but at this point, the only person who ought to truly come off bad from this affair is Matthew Flamm for publishing something based on a single unverified source.

Even if all of Flamm’s suspicions are true, is what happened to him really all that different from what a group of President Obama’s top national security advisers did to a staffer who was printing things about the White House they didn’t like? According to the Washington Post, the Obama White House came up with a plan to concoct false rumors as a means to flush out the identity of a Twitter user named “NatSecWonk” who was posting all sorts of negative insider gossip.

It’s an interesting question to consider. Should those who are condemning Fox News today also condemn the Obama White House for deliberately lying to embarrass someone they didn’t like?

Matthew Sheffield
Matthew Sheffield
Matthew Sheffield, creator of NewsBusters and president of Dialog New Media, an internet marketing and design firm, left NewsBusters at the end of 2013