Fox News Lobotomizes Its ‘Brain Room,’ Cuts Fact-Based Journalism


The recent mass layoffs at Fox News—an estimated body count of around 70, amounting to a little less than 3 percent of the cable channel’s workforce—signal what current and former employees describe as the purposeful devaluing of fact-based journalism in favor of right-wing opinion, race-baiting, and conspiracy-mongering at the top-rated, Donald Trump-friendly cable outlet.

Fox News’ PR department used anodyne corporate-speak to characterize the job losses, namely “restructuring various divisions in order to position all of our businesses for ongoing success.” But the layoffs, outside of the hair and makeup department, cut most deeply into the channel’s straight-news operations at Fox News Digital and elsewhere, according to insiders, while protecting the ratings-heavy, revenue-generating domains of Fox & Friends in the morning, and of Trump cheerleaders Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, and Laura Ingraham in primetime.

The outlet’s so-called “Brain Room,” which the late Fox News founder Roger Ailes established as the 24-year-old channel’s fact-checking and research unit, has been especially hard-hit, losing around one-fourth of its 30-person staff along with two supervisors—a virtual frontal lobotomy, according to sources familiar with the cutbacks.

In October 1996, when the late Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes launched the channel for Rupert Murdoch, Ailes’s idea was to create a right-leaning outlet that challenged the perceived liberal bias of the mainstream media—CNN was a juicy target—but also presented a robust straight-news operation to counter the opinion shows. “Fair and balanced,” was Ailes’s mantra—and, while Ailes was the supreme leader, he managed news and opinion programming separately under different executives. In recent years, however, especially after Ailes was forced out in July 2016 amid sexual harassment and discrimination allegations, that distinction has steadily eroded.

Along with the painful layoffs, fired employees—worried about getting new jobs amid the COVID-19 pandemic—are being forced to sign severance agreements that include draconian non-disclosure requirements that one current staffer described as shocking, in order to receive their severance packages.

With these layoffs in multiple news departments… it looks like Fox is more like an extension of this administration, instead of a news network.

— A current Fox News employee

The non-disclosure section of the severance agreement requires laid-off employees to “assign to the Company any and all rights to publicity concerning any matter relating to the issues that resulted in your separation from the Company and/or this Agreement. You agree that you will not publish, contribute to or otherwise facilitate the creation of any story, book or other account relating to the Company or any Released Party. In the event you ever receive any compensation for any publicity, story, book or other disclosure relating in whole or part to those issues, all such compensation shall be immediately given over to the Company.”

Manhattan attorney Michael Willemin, a partner at Wigdor, LLP, which has sued Fox News on behalf of alleged victims of workplace discrimination and sexual abuse, told The Daily Beast: “While it is not terribly uncommon for companies to require individuals to sign releases or NDAs in connection with a severance payment, that does not mean that the practice is morally defensible. These are individuals who have just been terminated in the midst of a global pandemic and one of the worst job markets in history. Many of these individuals need these severance payments simply to make ends meet.”

Prominent labor lawyer Martin Hyman, who represented Gretchen Carlson and other Fox News women in lawsuits against the channel (including former Fox News Digital reporter Diana Falzone, a co-author of this story), told The Daily Beast: “The confidentiality clause is onerous, but I can’t say it’s unusual. It’s a largely boilerplate gag order designed to intimidate and compel women to remain silent about what they have experienced behind closed doors in major companies. It protects and enables predators. And it’s totally inconsistent with any claims by company executives and spokespersons that they are committed to cleaning up their act and protecting female employees from abuse, humiliation or worse.”

Multiple sources said Dianne Brandi, Fox News’ former executive vice president of legal and business affairs, who took a leave of absence in October 2017 amid news reports detailing her intimate involvement in company payments to the female victims of Fox News founder Ailes and star anchor Bill O’Reilly, has quietly returned to the channel as an influential consultant to Lily Fu Claffee, who became Fox News’ general counsel in 2018, and to the network as a whole.

A current Fox News employee—who, like others who spoke to The Daily Beast, asked not to be further identified for fear of retaliation—placed blame on Porter Berry, a former longtime Hannity producer who is Fox News Digital’s editor-in-chief, and Berry’s second-in-command Stefanie Wheeler Choi, a former communications director for hard-right Tennessee politician Marsha Blackburn, for much of the carnage that has concentrated on straight-news reporters and photojournalists. Berry and Choi had a large hand in recommending who would be laid off, this current Fox News staffer said.

Separately, Brain Room staffers were let go, this person said, “because they help fuel journalism and fact-based reporting and Porter and Stefanie are not interested in facts. They are obsessed with pitching ‘on-brand’ stories that include Blue Lives Matter, anything antifa-related, anyone who has suffered during BLM protests that can put the protestors in a negative light, anything that threatens Christianity, and anyone who is a Trump supporter who has somehow been wronged.”

The Daily Beast sent Fox News a detailed list of questions raised in this story and the company declined to provide an on-the-record comment.

A second Fox News employee said it’s widely known among staffers at the channel that top executives have “long been unsupportive of real, unbiased reporting. They do not see themselves as a real news operation in the sense that people are doing original work, trying to break stories and get to the bottom of things, wherever the chips fall. They are first and foremost a collector of other outlets’ reports and rewriting, and writing stories about what guests say on their most highly rated shows.”

Fox News, the profitable cash cow of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, reported $12.3 billion in revenue for the year ending June 30 and is widely perceived as allowing Murdoch to prop up his massively money-losing newspaper holdings in the United States, Great Britain, and Australia.

According to multiple Fox News insiders, the most recent cuts were ordered by Joe Dorrego, a former Fox Corp. executive who is both Fox News’s new chief financial officer and chief operating officer. In what is bound to be a bitter irony for laid-off Fox News employees, Dorrego claimed in a staff meeting this past Thursday, according to an insider, that the channel has so far experienced record revenue and profits in 2020.

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