an atheist in the foxhole a liberals eight year odyssey inside the heart of the right wing media

An

Atheist in the

FOXhole

A Liberal’s Eight-Year Odyssey Inside the Heart of the Right-Wing Media

Joe Muto

Dutton

DUTTON

Published by the Penguin Group

Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street,

New York, New York 10014, USA

USA | Canada | UK | Ireland | Australia | New Zealand | India | South Africa | China

Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

For more information about the Penguin Group visit penguin.com.

Copyright © 2013 by Joseph Muto

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. Purchase only authorized editions.

REGISTERED TRADEMARK—MARCA REGISTRADA

LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA

has been applied for.

ISBN 978-1-101-62420-3

While the author has made every effort to provide accurate telephone numbers, Internet addresses, and other contact information at the time of publication, neither the publisher nor the author assumes any responsibility for errors or for changes that occur after publication. Further, the publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.

Penguin is committed to publishing works of quality and integrity. In that spirit, we are proud to offer this book to our readers; however, the story, the experiences, and the words are the author’s alone.

 

For my parents, who certainly taught me better than this. . . .

And for Jenny: all the way.

Contents

Title Page

Copyright

Dedication

Disclaimer

Epigraph

 

Prologue: The Beginning of the End for a Middling Cable News Career

1. Slacking Your Way to Success and Shame

2. I Coulda Been a Contender . . .

3. When Rupert Met Roger

4. Paradise by the On-Air Light

5. A White Devil in Brooklyn

6. Red Bull and Kool-Aid

7. Moonwalking into the Light

8. Crime Does Pay, But Not Particularly Well

9. The Calling

10. Radio Days

11. Stand and Deliver: Rage, Ridicule, and Sexy Ladies, Twice a Week

12. Loofah, Falafel, Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off

13. I Loved You in
A League of Their Own
, You Far-Left Loon

14. Fox-Flavored Sausage

15. I Think He Said the Sheriff Is Near

16. Rhymes with “Cat Bit Hazy”

17. Take Me Out to the Buffet

18. The Mole

Epilogue: What Have We Learned?

 

Acknowledgments

 

Everything you’re about to read happened to me. Some names and identifying characteristics have been changed, and certain individuals are composites. Some events have been compressed or reordered to assist in the narrative flow. Dialogue has been re-created from my notes, or verbatim from publicly available transcripts where applicable. Otherwise, I’ve tried to reproduce the dialogue to the best of my recollection.

There’s tremendous power in television news. If you’re calling the shots, you can help someone tremendously, or you can crush that person. With a well-positioned negative word, you can ruin a career or endeavor forever, virtually unchecked. You can make the most powerful people on earth tremble.

—Bill O’Reilly,
Those Who Trespass

Television is not the truth. Television is a goddamned amusement park. Television is a circus, a carnival, a traveling troupe of acrobats, storytellers, dancers, singers, jugglers, side-show freaks, lion tamers, and football players. We’re in the boredom-killing business.

—Paddy Chayefsky,
Network

Great story. Compelling, and rich.


Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy

   PROLOGUE   

The Beginning of the End for a Middling Cable News Career

M
y entire life, I’d always thought the phrase “my blood ran cold” was a cliché. Until Tim opened his mouth, that is.

“Oh, look, they caught him. They caught the Fox Mole.”

Boom. Just like that. Cold blood as I felt the world start to cave in around my ears.

Suppressing a shiver, I swiveled in my chair to face Tim Wolfe sitting at the desk three feet away from mine. Both of us were tucked away into a corner of the seventeenth floor of the News Corporation building in midtown Manhattan.

Like me, Tim was an associate producer for
The O’Reilly Factor
at Fox News Channel in New York City.

Unlike
me, he hadn’t spent the past two days leaking video clips, pictures, and stories from inside Fox to the media and gossip blog
Gawker
.

“They caught him.” The sentence lingered in my brain, bounced off the walls of my skull a bit, dropped into my stomach like a sandbag, sending it lurching toward my ankles.

They caught him.

They caught him?

They caught me?

So why was I still sitting at my desk, like it was a normal Wednesday? Why hadn’t a corporate SWAT team at the disposal of my secrecy-obsessed, paranoid company president Roger Ailes thrown a bag over my head and dragged me to a gulag in the basement? I must have heard him wrong.

“What’s that?” I asked, trying my best to keep my voice calm and casual.

“Check out
Mediaite
,” Tim said, pointing to the website he had up on his screen. “Fox says they’ve got him.”

I typed the address into my browser. Mediaite.com was a popular site for industry news, and it had been all over the Mole story since my first post had gone up on
Gawker
the day before. The site loaded and there it was in a screamingly large font: the headline
FOX NEWS SPOKESPERSON TELLS MEDIAITE: WE FOUND THE MOLE
.

I clicked through to find a short, disturbingly ominous statement from a network spokesman:

“We found the person and we’re exploring legal options at this time.”

Shit.

“Wow, I guess they got him,” I said to Tim, chuckling, all innocence. “Ha-ha. That was quick.” I fake laughed.

Tim laughed, too. “I’d hate to be that guy right now.”

“Oh, yeah,” I said. “That guy is fucked.”

Thirty seconds later, I was in the bathroom. I noticed that my hands were shaking as I turned on the faucet. I looked in the mirror and saw that my face had gone totally white, while my neck was flushing a deep red. I felt light-headed. At some point during the brief walk between my desk and the commode, I’d apparently morphed into a heroine from a Victorian novel.
Did I have the vapors?
Would Keira Knightley play me in the movie version?
If I fainted in the bathroom, would it gain me any sympathy from the company goons who were no doubt on their way to apprehend me?

I splashed water on my face.

Pull it together, Joe. They’re bluffing. They don’t know it’s you. You were very careful. You took every precaution. There’s nothing they have tying you to
Gawker
. They can search your work computer, your phone, even your personal e-mail, and there’s absolutely nothing. No proof. They’re just saying they caught you to buy themselves time, or to make you panic and expose your identity. If they really knew it was you, do you think you’d still be in the building right now? Of course not. You’d have ten security guards at your desk, waiting to haul you away. Don’t do anything stupid. Just act normal.

My little mental pep talk had the desired effect. After a minute or two more of water splashing and deep breathing, my color returned to more-or-less normal and my hands stopped shaking.

Leaving the bathroom, I passed Tim, who was conferring with another producer at her desk. He looked at me with narrowed eyes as I walked by, a concerned look on his face.
Maybe I haven’t recovered as much as I thought. Maybe he’s on to me.
I shot him a reassuring smile.

All is well,
I hoped my grin said.
I’m mere minutes away from having a total nervous breakdown
is what it probably broadcast, in retrospect.

Back at my desk I tried to concentrate on my duties. If, as I hoped, management was bluffing about having found me, I needed to act normal and do my job. Shirking my duties in panic was a surefire way to draw attention to myself.

Calm and casual,
I told myself, and leaned back in my chair, my foot kicking the duffel bag under my desk, which had slipped my mind until that very moment. I had spent the previous night at my girlfriend Jenny’s apartment and headed straight into the office from her place, carrying my soiled clothes with me to the office.

That brought two things to mind immediately. One: I hadn’t told Jenny a thing about any of this. She’d flown to Pittsburgh that morning to visit her family, and arguably would not react well to an over-the-phone revelation that I’d decided to make a career transition from cable news producer to potentially criminal corporate espionage agent without consulting her first. (You know how women are. They hate when you do that.)

Two: More pressing, I had something else in the bag, something nestled up against my dirty undies—an iPad filled with the
Gawker
posts I’d written and copies of the behind-the-scenes videos I’d leaked. I’d been so busy congratulating myself for my cloak-and-dagger tactics that I’d completely forgotten I had brought into the building all the proof they’d ever need to nail me, sitting in a bag under my desk, marinating in my day-old crotch sweat.

Okay, maybe
now
is the proper time to shirk my duties in panic
.

I grabbed the duffel and popped out of my chair. I knew I needed to get the evidence out of the building. The prospect of getting fired was scary enough, and something that I (wrongly, as it turns out) thought I had mentally prepared myself for, but it occurred to me that my company
did not fuck around
. While I didn’t actually
believe
Fox News had a hidden subterranean dungeon that they’d stash me in while a crack antiespionage team went through all of my personal possessions, I didn’t completely dismiss it as a possibility, either.

Tim and I were a little bit separated from the other members of the O’Reilly staff, a seating arrangement left over from the days when O’Reilly was still doing a radio show, on which I had originally been a staffer before transitioning to the TV side. We had the unique experience of having desks immediately outside O’Reilly’s office, yielding hours of fascination and entertainment; but the separation from my peers
could
feel a bit isolating at times. That day, however, I was thankful that the dozen or so other producers were located fifty feet down the hall and couldn’t see me indecisively pacing holding a duffel bag.

My floor was arranged into three concentric rings. Anchors, reporters, and a few high-powered producers occupied the coveted window offices on the outer ring. The middle ring, where I was, consisted of lower-level producers scattered among desks separated by chest-high cubicle walls. The inner ring was a few windowless offices, video editing suites, break rooms, janitor closets . . . and the elevator bank.

It was that elevator bank I needed to get to, walking along the middle ring straight past the other O’Reilly producers—a potentially risky move, since, with the realization that I was in possession of the incriminating iPad, I was guessing that my briefly absent Victorian lady complexion had returned; and if my appearance didn’t give me away, the fact that I was leaving the building with a bag a good seven hours before quitting time was bound to raise a few eyebrows.

There was another way, though. If I followed the ring in the opposite direction, I wouldn’t have to pass my colleagues; I wouldn’t even have to use the seventeenth-floor elevators. It’s true that was a longer route, weaving through the base camps of several of the other shows that were stationed on the seventeenth floor; but it also led to a little-used, virtually unknown stairway that would allow me to climb to the much less populated eighteenth floor, where I could use the elevators to escape to the ground floor. The longer route would potentially bring me in contact with more people, but, hopefully, they wouldn’t think a sweaty, pale-faced O’Reilly producer making a beeline for the exits was anything out of the ordinary.

As I started down the long way out, I passed O’Reilly’s office. The door was open, but he wasn’t inside; in fact, he wouldn’t be there for a few more hours. Though the man was intimately involved in every aspect of his show’s production and started his workday at seven
A.M.
, he spent roughly four hours a day actually
present
in the office.

It’s good to be the boss.

And for the time being, it was good to be me. Or lucky to be me, anyway. Because my path was blessedly devoid of people. It was early lunchtime, and most of the desks along my route were empty. A few bored staffers munched salads at their desks, heads dipped as they grazed; others inhaled sandwiches, eyes glued to their screens, checking Facebook or Twitter or, alarmingly, Mediaite. I breezed past them one by one with no incident, calmly walking down the nearly abandoned hallways, past desks and cubicles and offices, until finally I was so close I could see the source of my freedom: the door that would bring me to the out-of-the-way staircase that led to the floor above.

Twenty feet to the doorway. Ten feet. Five feet.

Then a voice from behind.

“Hey, Muto!”

So close.

I turned to face the speaker. It was Nick De Angelo, a producer I’d worked with on another show a few years back.

“Where you goin’ in such a rush?” he asked, peering at me over the top of his computer monitor.

“Oh, just to get some lunch,” I lied, uncomfortably shifting on my shoulder the duffel bag that suddenly felt like it weighed seventy-five pounds.

“I have something to ask you,” Nick said, a deadly serious look on his face.

He took a deep breath, then said: “Are you the Mole?”

My heart flip-flopped.
How did he know?

And then I saw that he was laughing, his shoulders shaking, a goofy smile plastered on his face.

He was just giving me shit.

“Yup!” I replied, matching his laughter, pretending to enjoy the ball busting. “You got me!”

But I must not have gotten the tone right. Or my frantic, nervous eyes gave me away. Or maybe he already suspected, and was testing me to see how I reacted. Either way, the laughter faded from his face, replaced with a wry, curious look.

He studied me. When he spoke again, his voice was quieter, more tentative. “No, seriously, though. Is it you?” he asked.

I kept up my fake dumb grin. “I told you, man. You got me!”

As he furrowed his brow, watching me thoughtfully, I turned on my heel and walked as calmly as I could through the doorway.

And it was only at this moment—long past the point when the thought could have done me any good—that the little voice in my head stated what should have been obvious to anyone who wasn’t a moron.

This might have been a terrible idea.

5 Years Earlier . . .

   CHAPTER 1   

Slacking Your Way to Success and Shame

T
he Old Man was angry that day.

We all knew it, too, though if you had asked us, we wouldn’t have been able to explain how we knew. No one had told us. There had been none of the usual signs—no shouting heard from behind the closed office door; no hushed, panicked
what-do-we-do-now
phone calls between the senior producers; no unlucky associate producer getting screamed at for a minor infraction. An outsider would think he or she was witnessing a calm, normal meeting.

But we knew better. It was some mysterious sixth sense that we’d all developed to pick up on his moods, something that science couldn’t explain. Maybe it was telepathy, or pheromones, or something with magnetic fields, like how a flock of birds knows to shift direction simultaneously. It doesn’t matter how we knew, but we did.

And though we would never admit it to each other, we were scared.

Bill O’Reilly was sitting on a chair in the middle of the
Factor
“pod,” the collection of low-walled cubicles where his staff was headquartered. The other producers and I were standing in a loose semicircle around him, clutching our pitches—computer printouts, articles clipped from newspapers, books from authors who were dying to get on the show—in our trembling fists.

Looming over the proceedings was The Board, a massive eight-foot-tall expanse of cork with a wooden bezel, covered from top to bottom with a calendar grid fashioned from electrical tape and studded with index cards held up with pushpins. The ragged, torn edges of the electrical tape and the sometimes illegible scrawl on the cards gave The Board a makeshift feel, one that belied its strict mathematical precision. Designed by our head guest booker, Eugene Flarmben, it was divided into rectangles: four rows, each denoting a week’s worth of shows, with the current week perched at the top and the following weeks underneath; five rectangles per row marking Monday through Friday; space for six index cards per rectangle, the proper number of segments to fill a single show. The index cards were color-coded: blue cards for firm-booked guests, pink cards for guests or topics that were tentative, green cards for segments that had been pretaped, and ominous blank spaces where there were no segments planned.

Our job was to fill the holes.

We weren’t particularly good at it.

The pitch meetings took place on Mondays and Thursdays. At two thirty in the afternoon on those days, the troops would all line up, reluctantly, for what usually amounted to a twice-weekly exercise in futility, a half-hour parade of failure: Bill shot down 95 percent of ideas, usually peppering his rejections with ridicule. Mockery was his standard response to a pitch he didn’t like:
How can you be stupid enough to present me with this dumb idea?

But sometimes mockery simply wasn’t enough for him to display the contempt he felt for an idea, and that’s when he turned to anger, which could manifest itself explosively, without warning, especially on days when his mood was already sour, which we sensed it was that day. So we were all on edge. Me especially.

It was the spring of 2007. I’d been on the show just a few months, having previously worked for some of Fox’s smaller, less prestigious programs. Now that I was in the big leagues, I was frustrated to find myself striking out more often than not, the boss rejecting pitch after pitch, week after week.

To be fair, the rejections that came my way in those early months were much gentler than those that came later in my career, or those that my more seasoned coworkers received. O’Reilly seemed to have an unofficial policy of going easy on the new hires, at least until they got their feet under them a little bit. (Very sporting of him, actually, like a hunter refusing to shoot a baby deer. Though after some of the more brutal pitch meetings, a quick merciful bullet between the antlers would have been a relief.)

It wasn’t 100 percent failure on my part. I’d managed to sneak a few minor pitches past the goalkeeper, but nothing to write home about—they were mostly B or C stories, small items that got thrown into the hopper to be discussed by the panel at the end of a longer segment, maybe getting only a minute total of screen time. I still hadn’t scored with a headlining pitch, something that would lead the show or, at the very least, get its own segment. That was the Holy Grail. Every producer in that semicircle was praying to Jesus, or Yahweh (or in my case, no one), that the big pitch would land in their lap, that they would not get mocked or yelled at but praised, held up to the other producers as a golden child, an example to which the others should all aspire.

My marquee story that day, the pitch I was going to lead with, was something I’d stumbled upon mere minutes before the meeting. An errant blog link had led me to an article in the
Navy Times
, a military newspaper. The piece pointed out a major error in a recent
New York Times Magazine
story about women who experienced PTSD after getting deployed to war zones. It turned out that one of the women profiled in the
Times
piece had never been in combat—and had in fact never even set foot in Iraq.

I printed out the article, then double-checked the
Drudge Report
—a conservative news-aggregating website that we all checked religiously—to see if it had picked up on the scoop yet. If
Drudge
had it, chances are that one of my colleagues had also seen it and would beat me to it, mentioning it in the pitch meeting before it was my turn to go, and stealing my thunder. But there was no mention of it on Drudge, and it looked like no other blogs—aside from the obscure one I had been reading—had posted it yet.

I was pretty confident that I was sitting on a winner—mostly because it involved
The
New York Times
. Fox News has always had a bizarre institutional animosity toward the
Times
. The newspaper was routinely caricatured by O’Reilly and the rest of the network as a liberal rag, a monolithic left-wing institution full of reporters and editors crawling all over themselves to destroy the Republican Party and promote a grab bag of progressive causes—atheism, homosexuality, Hollywood depravity, big government, and so on. In a way, Fox’s depiction of the
Times
was an exact mirror image of the left’s depiction of Fox, but that irony was lost on O’Reilly, who took delight in skewering the
Times
at every available opportunity. (With the exception of the admittedly frequent occasions that one of his books charted on their Best Sellers list, in which case he was happy to tout their wisdom and authority.) I was heading into the pitch meeting with a potential blockbuster.

But as the gathering got under way, I began to lose confidence. Our fears about the boss’s ill mood had been well founded. He was impatient, snarling at pitches that didn’t get to the point fast enough. The mockery was even more vicious than usual. Producer after producer came up empty. Pitch after pitch went down in flames.

One producer suggested that we do a segment on the trial of Scooter Libby, a former Dick Cheney aide accused of outing a covert CIA agent.

Bill was not interested.

“I don’t care about that story. Not one bit,” he said. “Our audience doesn’t care about that story. I’m not even sure Scooter Libby cares about it at this point.”

Another producer suggested a segment on the flat tax, offering up a guest who wanted to advocate for it.

O’Reilly scoffed: “What makes you think we would
ever
do a story like that on this show?” he demanded. “That might be the most boring thing anyone has ever pitched at one of these meetings. I think I fell asleep while you were talking.”

The producers all laughed, and not entirely sycophantically. Bill’s rejections were often funny, especially when they weren’t happening to you. Those of us who still were waiting our turn couldn’t bring ourselves to laugh as hard, though. This was shaping up to be an epically bad pitch meeting. No one had gotten too severely burned just yet, but we all knew that, on a day like this, we were all just one dumb pitch away from triggering a spectacular explosion.

And then it was my turn.

“All right, Muto,” Bill said, turning his attention to me. “Whattaya got?”

“Bill, the Pentagon is very angry,” I started, “because
The New York Times
got a
major
detail wrong in a story this weekend.”

I saw him perk up immediately. As I’d suspected, the
Times
angle grabbed his attention.

I laid out the rest of the pitch and watched O’Reilly’s mood change almost instantly, with him getting more and more excited until he could no longer contain himself.

“Yes!” he yelled triumphantly, interrupting me mid-sentence and karate chopping the air in celebration. His eyes swept the rest of the group as he pointed to me: “Everyone,
that
is how you pitch. That is a
great
story.”

I was stunned. I gazed around the semicircle at my fellow producers, soaking up the looks of envy on their faces.

“Flarmben,” Bill said, swiveling his chair to Eugene, “get a card up there. It’s the lead segment tomorrow. I’ll do a Talking Points Memo on it, too.”

I watched, suddenly overwhelmed by a feeling of thrill that surprised me, as Eugene wrote out a blue card and rose from his chair, pinning it to The Board for the next day’s show.

“Muto,” O’Reilly said, returning his attention to me, “that was
perfect
. More of that, please.”

I was on a high the rest of the day. Compliments from Papa Bear were incredibly hard to come by, and I’d just been given a huge one. It was my first experience basking in the warm-by-comparison light of his praise.

And to my absolute horror, I found myself enjoying it.


The fact that I even had the opportunity to be ambivalent about getting kudos from the most prominent conservative cable news host in America was something of a minor miracle.

In the spring of 2004, in the course of about six weeks, I’d gone from a jobless, left-wing film student to a cog in the machine at the New York City headquarters of what I had always assumed was a cartoonishly evil, far-right, conservative media cabal.

It all started when I was a few months shy of graduation at the University of Notre Dame. The university—a Midwestern Catholic school that proudly celebrates its Irish heritage by deploying as a mascot an angry-faced, presumably drunk leprechaun with raised fists—was relatively hard to get into, which I liked because it was impressive on a résumé. But like all top-tier liberal arts schools, it was secretly easy on the academic side, allowing me to breeze through four years with minimal effort and maximal mind-altering substances.

Helping me in minimizing my effort was the school’s Department of Film, Television, and Theatre, which was a perfect refuge for those of us who wanted a somewhat artistic field of study but couldn’t figure out how to tell our parents with a straight face that we’d decided to become ceramics majors.

“You know, there’s a lot of money to be made in film and TV,” I told my father at the end of my freshman year, right after informing him that I’d be dropping all of my business classes.

“There better be,” said my father, “because if you think we’re supporting you financially for the rest of your life, you’ve got another thing coming.”
1

My parents, Joan and Tony, were both New Yorkers who had met as members of the class of ’72 at the University of Dayton. They’d bonded over their shared working-class Italian backgrounds; both were the first in their families to go to college. After a postgraduation wedding, a move fifty miles south to the relatively-sleepy-but-still-better-than-godforsaken-Dayton city of Cincinnati, and ten years of married bliss, I came along in 1982, followed soon by a brother, Stephen, and then a sister, Theresa. (She was given the nickname Teddy shortly after birth, a play on the way my fresh-off-the-boat great-granny with her thick Italian accent pronounced the name Terry.)

Neither of my parents was overtly political. I don’t remember having any political conversations as a child—unless you count the time I was six years old and I told my mom I was sad that Ronald Reagan was leaving office because he had been the president the whole time I was alive—but if you asked him, my dad would readily cop to being a conservative. He was fond of quoting the maxim “If a young man isn’t a liberal, he has no heart; if an old man isn’t a conservative, he has no brain,” a quote that is often attributed to Winston Churchill (and should, by the transitive property, be attributed to gin).

My mother was more a moderate; she’d voted for Clinton, twice, a fact she enjoyed needling my father with. But she also voted for George W. Bush twice, a fact she enjoyed needling
me
with. She was an equal-opportunity needler.

I had political opinions at a very young age—conservative ones, oddly enough. I remember being ten years old and lying in bed, listening to conservative talk radio. A local talk show host named Bill Cunningham lulled me to sleep most nights with complaints about Slick Willie Clinton and his shrewish wife. The political conversion for me came in high school, when I noticed that a wonderfully crusty history teacher whom I loved had the odd habit of giving himself the sign of the cross every time he mentioned FDR’s name.
2
When I looked into this Roosevelt fellow, it was like a gateway drug into Democratic politics. With my newfound knowledge (and the help of a few
real
gateway drugs), I completely changed my ideology over the course of a semester. By the time the Lewinsky scandal rolled around, I was totally on Slick Willie’s side.

The relative ease of my first two decades of life lulled me into a false sense of complacency: My idyllic Midwest upbringing had been marred only by an unfortunate bed-wetting stint that lasted well into middle school, and an equally unfortunate obsession with Star Wars that peaked a few years before that series’ late-’90s resurgence in popularity.
3
I coasted on autopilot through college, earning mediocre grades in an easy major and paying very little attention to what I considered bourgeois concerns like “my future” and “a career” and “making a living.”

I’m an artiste,
I reasoned, mistaking the mild notoriety that my twice-monthly column in the student paper had garnered me for something resembling a career plan.
The job opportunities will come to me,
I delusionally told myself, assuming that the article I wrote complaining about how the members of the football team were the only ones on campus getting laid would
obviously
grab some big-timey magazine editor’s attention. Job seeking just didn’t appeal to me; I was much more interested in my humanitarian work, spending my senior year heroically attempting to rid South Bend, Indiana, of drugs
by doing them all myself
. (I later listed this on my résumé as “Community Anti-Drug Initiative.”)

In retrospect, I was probably a pretty typical college senior, but for someone like me, whose life had always had an inexorable forward motion, I found myself terrifyingly unsure about my next step as I approached graduation. The expected job opportunity had not, as I’d naively assumed, materialized out of the ether. And none of the employment listings I browsed online seemed to be seeking pot-addled, would-be campus radicals who were good at writing eight-hundred-word, dick-joke-filled newspaper columns every two weeks.

I started sending out résumés frantically. I had a vague idea that I wanted to be in New York City, doing something with writing, film, television, or journalism, so I hit up all the big media companies that I thought I might want to work for: CNN, MSNBC, NBC, CBS, ABC,
Time
magazine, the
New York Times
, Comedy Central, MTV, VH1, and, just for good measure,
Martha Stewart Living
. I even e-mailed a résumé to Lorne Michaels’s production company, offering to clean toilets and empty wastebaskets if it would get me onto the set of
Saturday Night Live
.
4

It was not my finest hour.

After a few months of dispatches, I had gotten zero responses, and my résumés and cover letters were getting increasingly desperate.

Finally, the answer came to me in the unlikeliest of places—a tropical-themed, northern Indiana dueling-piano bar called Rum Runners.

It was graduation week, and the Notre Dame senior class was celebrating our entry into adulthood and maturity by guzzling cheap margaritas straight from the pitcher and heckling two middle-aged guys with ponytails as they pounded out classic rock songs on grand pianos.

It was there, under an indoor tiki hut, that I bumped into the man who would change my life: Rufus Banks.

Rufus and I were friendly, but we mostly ran with different crowds. I had first noticed him freshman year, when we had a genetics class together. The survey class was easy, and the teacher was a notorious grade inflator, making it a magnet for athletes, slackers, and arts and letters students trying to check off a science requirement, and earning the course the accurate (if predictable) nickname Genes for Jocks. Rufus didn’t stand out in the massive lecture hall until Halloween, when he showed up in class dressed as a mime: face paint, white gloves, black turtleneck, and beret. Out of two hundred kids in the room, he was the only one in costume. Immediately realizing this fact upon entering the room, he shrugged, walked down the middle aisle of the stadium-style seating, and sat directly in the front row, calmly ignoring the stares and snickers from much of the class, as well as some light sassing and “Oh, shit, look at that dude” style commentary coming from the football player contingent in the back of the room.

I instantly admired how fearless he was about drawing attention to himself, a unique quality for a freshman at a school where conformity was expected. It was a quality that had apparently stuck with him over the four years of college, considering that he was proudly wearing a loud Hawaiian shirt at the piano bar that night.

We were making the typical “I can’t believe this is all over/what are you doing after graduation” small talk when I had to ask him to repeat himself.

“You’re trying to get a job with who?” I yelled in his ear, struggling to be heard as the piano men banged away on a raucous duet of “Bennie and the Jets.”

“Fox News Channel!” he yelled back in my ear. “The website. I interned for them last summer. I’m waiting to hear back to see if they’ll take me full-time.”

“What about their politics?” I asked. “Don’t they bother you? They’re pretty right-wing.”

He shrugged. “Nah. It’s mostly a bunch of computer nerds, like you’d expect to be working at any website. Why don’t you apply, too? You can do it for a few months just to get established in New York, then find something else.”

The next afternoon, I sat at my computer, the smell of the previous night’s booze still sour on my breath. My fingers hovered over the keyboard as I struggled with some pretty severely mixed feelings. On one hand, I was reassured that Rufus had suggested the company was not—as I, and most other liberals assumed—a top-to-bottom den of slavering right-wingers. To hear him describe it, Fox was a few powerful ideologues surrounded by professionals who just wanted to do their jobs. On the other hand, that sounded suspiciously close to the rationale offered by everyone throughout history who’d ever worked for organizations with questionable goals. (“I’m just keeping my head down and doing my job! I can’t control what my bosses do” is something I’m sure multiple Nazi storm troopers said after the fact.)

In the end, I erred on the side of potential gainful employment. While I was fairly turned off by the idea of working for an organization as conservative as Fox, I was even more turned off by the prospect of kicking off my adult life by moving into my parents’ basement. I decided to bite the bullet and apply.

Anyway, what were the odds I’d even get a response? No one else had responded to my increasingly desperate entreaties. And the Fox application process was relatively low-tech and not exactly confidence-inspiring: While other media organizations had required complicated online forms and usernames and passwords, Fox just wanted me to toss an e-mail to [email protected] Chances were I’d just be casting my information into the electronic equivalent of a black pit.

With that in mind, I did something a bit different with the cover letter. I don’t know if it was desperation, or if I had stopped giving a shit, or even if I was subconsciously trying to sabotage my application, but I decided to throw out the rote, generic form letter I’d been sending that had gotten me zero responses so far.

Here’s what I sent instead:

Subject: Award-winning
5
writer seeks entry-level NEWS-WRITING POSITION;
willing to work crappy hours for peanuts . . .