What happened to me wasn’t as bad as what has allegedly happened to Fox’s own employees, but it did provide a brief glimpse of Fox’s modus operandi.
At the time of the events in question I was the chief spokesman for Nielsen, caught in the middle of one of those adolescent spitball fights that periodically erupts between media companies. In one corner was Fox News, which had recently launched Fox Business News, a financial cable network that was supposed to do for financial reporting what Fox had done to political news. In the other corner was CNBC, which Ailes had once led before being ushered out the door in 1996.
In 2007, Ailes launched Fox Business with great fanfare. This included a huge ad campaign that took direct aim at CNBC. The day the network launched, Fox even sent a reporter to stand outside CNBC’s headquarters and announce that it was “hunting season.”
The problem is that the shenanigans that made Fox News a political powerhouse didn’t work with financial viewers, who, since they are making investment decisions involving real money, tend to prefer their financial news to actually be fair and balanced. The result was that the ratings for Fox Business News were in the toilet. For the first two months it was on the air, it had an average audience of 6,300 viewers, about as many people as you’d see at a small town’s Thanksgiving Day football game.
The folks at CNBC and NBC were overjoyed by Fox’s flop, but here’s the rub: under Nielsen rules, which had been carefully negotiated with all the media companies, no one can release viewing numbers with a rating below 0.1 (or 0.1 percent of the viewing audience), which in this case would have represented about 35,000 viewers. This rule is designed to protect nascent cable networks so they aren’t humiliated by low numbers as they’re trying to get on their feet.
This rule usually protects networks that no one’s ever heard of, but Fox Business had launched with so much publicity that everyone in the TV world knew who they were. CNBC wanted them humiliated, but Nielsen wouldn’t release the 6,300 number, and CNBC itself could have been sanctioned if it made that figure public.
Despite this rule, I was not surprised when someone actually did leak the number to New York Times media reporter Jacques Steinberg. For years The Times and Fox had had a contentious relationship, to say the least. Their values and biases were diametrically opposed and if there was any publication motivated and powerful enough to stand up to Fox it was The Times.
Steinberg’s call to Nielsen asking for confirmation came at the end of several weeks of furious calls among senior Nielsen, Fox and NBC executives, with NBC pressuring us to make the number public and Fox demanding that we squash the story. Emotions were running high, with both networks acting like this story was on par with the Pentagon Papers. Nielsen decided to stay neutral and enforce its own rule; eventually I ended up telling Steinberg that I would not confirm the number. But I also reminded him that I would steer him away from erroneous information, which is what I would do for any reporter.
The resulting story reported the embarrassingly low numbers for Fox Business, with the Times sourcing it to “a person who saw those internal reports [and] vouched for their contents on Thursday, speaking on condition of anonymity.” CNBC “declined comment” and Fox didn’t answer emailed inquiries. I was quoted in the piece by name as confirming the rules around the minimum reporting requirements.
I don’t think I’m breaking any confidentiality agreements when I reveal that Fox is (or at least was) full of vindictive bullies. Fox News almost always got great ratings — but whenever there was a dip, Ailes and his lieutenants would call and complain, threatening some kind of unspecified retribution. Eventually there would be a war or terrorist attack to drive Fox ratings back up and things would be fine again, but for those months when they were slumping, Ailes would make life miserable for Nielsen.
Ailes and the rest of Fox News either believed, or pretended to believe, they were the victims of a left-wing conspiracy, which was ridiculous as far as Nielsen was concerned. Our CEO, David Calhoun, was, according to public filings, a steady contributor to Republican candidates, and the rest of the executive team on balance leaned moderate right, to the extent they leaned any way at all.
As for me, it’s right there on my LinkedIn profile that I worked for a right-wing Congressman, served in the 1984 Reagan-Bush campaign and spent time in the Reagan White House. So I had no ideological problems with Fox News.
In any event, Ailes (or his PR team) was exercised enough about the story to send Nielsen a letter, which, among other things, demanded my head. The logic of the letter was that since CNBC and Fox had declined comment and I was quoted in the story explaining how the reporting requirements work, I must have been the person who leaked the number to The Times. I doubt that even Ailes believed this bit of fallacious logic. Instead I think the purpose of the letter was to punish me for refusing to play along with Fox in killing the story, which would have been impossible without outright deception.
Surprise! Nielsen didn’t fire me, viewing this as another Ailes tantrum, and he seemed to get over his fit of pique pretty quickly, since the name “Gary Holmes” never appeared in any future Ailes correspondence or conversations.
Jacques Steinberg was not quite as lucky. Fox launched a nasty on-air campaign against him, at one point even featuring him in what the late media reporter David Carr characterized as an “anti-Semitic caricature.”
With Ailes gone, will these bullying tactics also disappear? We can only hope.