NEW YORK — If someone at Fox News Channel wishes you well, watch your back.
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The seemingly benign sentiment is a creative signature of Fox's public relations, usually accompanied by a kneecapping. It's something like a kiss from a Mafia don.
MSNBC host Keith Olbermann was the latest to visit the wishing well. When The New York Times recently asked Fox its opinion of Olbermann, who has repeatedly used Bill O'Reilly as a pinata on his nightly news countdown, spokeswoman Irena Briganti replied:
"Because of his personal demons, Keith has imploded everywhere he's worked. From lashing out at co-workers to personally attacking Bill O'Reilly and all things Fox, it's obvious Keith is a train wreck waiting to happen. And like all train wrecks, people might tune in out of morbid curiosity, but they eventually tune out, as evidenced by Keith's recent ratings decline. In the meantime, we hope he enjoys his paranoid view from the bottom of the ratings ladder and wish him well on his inevitable trip to oblivion."
Have a nice day, Keith!
Plainly, public relations is a contact sport at Fox News Channel _ with, as Fox PR chief Brian Lewis explains, a sense of mischief sprinkled in.
"Has there ever been a more disingenuous phrase in the corporate handbook, or the PR handbook, than `we wish him well'?" asked Lewis. "`Earnings have fallen in the last eight quarters and we wish Joe well as he leaves the company to pursue other interests.' We know what they mean, so we just thought we'd have some fun and point out the hypocrisy of the term."
The list of people to get Fox News Channel's best wishes in print lengthens all the time. Here are some others:
- Ted Turner. The CNN founder called Fox a "propaganda voice" of the Bush administration and compared its popularity to Adolf Hitler's rise in Germany before World War II. Briganti: "Ted is understandably bitter having lost his ratings, his network and now his mind. We wish him well."
- Tim Russert. A journalist asked the NBC Washington bureau chief whether Fox would get better treatment from the White House with Tony Snow as press secretary and he replied, "no more than they get right now." Fox's Paul Schur shot back: "Tim's sour grapes are obvious here, but at least he's not using his father as a prop to sell books this time around. That said, we wish him well on his latest self-promotion tour."
- George Clooney. Fox News branched out to Hollywood after the actor criticized O'Reilly. "We are disappointed that George has chosen to hurt Mr. O'Reilly's family in order to promote his movie," Schur said. "But it's obvious he needs publicity considering his recent string of failures. We wish him well in his struggle to regain relevancy."
- MSNBC correspondent David Shuster. After leaving a job at Fox, Shuster said that critical reporting on the Bush administration wouldn't have been welcomed at his former employer. Briganti came back with: "We can understand David's disappointment in being let go by Fox News Channel, but he's too young to be so bitter. We wish him well in getting his career back on track."
- Jonathan Klein. On the day the CNN U.S. president was hired, Briganti offered: "We wish CNN well in their annual executive shuffle." She later stuck the knife in further with: "We wish Jon well in his battle for second place with MSNBC."
Fox has essentially changed the language in the TV industry with its wishing well, turning a pleasantry into "take a hike."
'Mild, medium or spicy'
The wishing well opened at Fox in the late 1990s. Look further back in the archives and you'll find examples of where the network wished someone well and actually appeared to mean it.
Whatever name is attached to it, a wish-well is generally a team effort by Fox's PR staff, Lewis said. Fox News chief Roger Ailes even contributed the memorable "his mind" line to the Turner kiss-off.
Each line is a counter-punch, Lewis noted. Fox doesn't "go nuclear" unless provoked. And he doesn't want the lines to lose impact by overdoing it.
"Not every attack on us deserves a response," he said. "It could be no response. That's a strategy. It could be mild, medium or spicy, depending on what our needs are."
Olbermann doesn't find the whole thing particularly amusing. He may be the most frequent target, and he enshrined Briganti in his "worst person in the world" feature for the latest attack.
"I've heard it all before and each time she's said it the ratings go up 25 percent in the ensuing year, so I'm encouraging her to say it as much as possible," Olbermann said. "They're just without humor and without understanding of the impact of their words. It's like O'Reilly. Every time he opens his mouth, I get more viewers."
He believes more people are laughing at Fox than with them.
"If they're going to come out and say these things, I'd much prefer the old muskrat line, whatever they said about Paula, then these attempts to sugarcoat these things," he said.
It was a raccoon, actually.
The reference is to one of Ailes' most famous quotes after Paula Zahn left Fox for CNN. He dismissed Zahn's ratings increases while at Fox as a reflection of the network's overall growth by saying, "I could have put a dead raccoon on the air this year and got a better rating than last year."
"We know (Olbermann) has thin skin," Lewis said. "Why else would he make a PR person one of the worst people in the world? Come on, we get that. What he's trying to do to O'Reilly, we're doing to him. It's obviously getting to him."
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