The truth about the 'Muslim prayer rugs' at Fox News's DC HQ
Over the weekend, reports began circulating in the media that Fox News's D.C. headquarters had turned long-time employee Oliver North's former office into a "meditation room," complete with "Muslim prayer rugs." North left FNC and vacated his office when he took the top job with the National Rifle Association two weeks ago. The report, initially by Gabriel Sherman in Vanity Fair on Saturday, was quickly picked up and more or less confirmed – and only mildly challenged in the face of competing claims – by other media, including, on the left, Esquire and, in this order on the right, the Daily Caller, Breitbart, and World Net Daily.
Sherman's article cast an approving light on the alleged "Muslim prayer rug" development and put it in the context of what some claim is a steady lurch to the left of Fox News, the country's only major cable news channel that isn't dedicated to the anti-Trump Resistance. Vanity Fair's headline was a guaranteed attention-grabber:
The article began:
When Roger Ailes founded Fox News in 1996, he made it one of the network's core missions to fiercely oppose identity politics and political correctness. Now, nearly two years after Ailes was fired for sexual harassment, Fox News is getting woke.
Sherman then mentioned the three-day-old news that veteran Fox News exec Suzanne Scott had been elevated to the job of Fox News CEO. Unmentioned is the fact that Scott has worked at FNC for 22 years and was closely involved with former top executive the late Roger Ailes and high-level programming decision-making at the channel. Sherman should know better than to omit such vital context: he has written extensively – and always negatively – about Fox News for years. He's the author of a critical, bestselling 2014 biography of FNC co-founder Roger Ailes. He is a regular contributor to snobby elitist magazines like New York and Vanity Fair, and he frequently appears on MSNBC.
Gabriel Sherman (photo: Twitter).
Next came the meat of Sherman's short article at Vanity Fair:
But as Fox News adapts its 1950s workplace culture to fit the times, staffers are on edge. According to sources, Fox News recently installed a "meditation room" complete with Muslim prayer rugs in Ollie North's [emphasis original] office in the network's Washington bureau[.] ... Staffers now attend mandatory sexual harassment training, and the employee intranet includes a section for gender-transition policies and guidelines. "People are terrified. They kicked Ollie North out and put in a prayer room. We've got a new trans policy. You're not allowed to be transphobic," one source said. Other changes that would have been alien in the Ailes era include the creation of a workforce and diversity council. "People's heads are blowing up," one insider said.
The story was immediately challenged by a source from Fox News and by additional context provided to this writer in off-the-record comments by a knowledgeable source.
A source with knowledge of the room tells me:
Sherman has blown the story completely out of proportion. [The source] said the room is meant to serve as a quiet meditative place for all employees and nursing mothers and is a "multi-purpose wellness room." The source confirmed that the mats weren't purchased with a particular faith in mind and there were no other religious icons or symbols in the room. Using North's office for the wellness room was just a coincidence since he happened to vacate the office at a time when employees needed the space.
That seems clear enough to set the record straight. Esquire, however, which shares a left-wing tilt with Vanity Fair, ran a piece largely echoing Sherman's article. The Esquire article got more mileage when it was picked up and distributed by Yahoo! News. Surprisingly, possibly sensing a clickbait-rich story, several media normally friendly to FNC and the conservative cause not only got in on the story, but also echoed the Sherman article's inaccurate spin, including leading their own articles with sensational headlines almost identical to Vanity Fair's.
Breitbart ran no clarification at all in its piece, WND included two sentences at the end, and the Daily Caller included most of the context and explanation of the room from a source – at the very end. All three publications led with a similar inaccurate but incendiary headline. Conservative Tribune by W.J. ran the longest article, which was nuanced and included the author's ruminations on the leadership succession that's in progress at Fox News as co-founder and former CEO Rupert Murdoch, 87, relinquishes his day-to-day control to his son Lachlan. At the end of the article, context from a source was added as an update. Still, the Conservative Tribune headline was similar to everyone else's.
Taken as a whole, this exercise illustrates how in one short news cycle, a questionable story, officially denied or at least significantly clarified by its subject, nonetheless propagated around the internet, with most of the – you might call it – "fake news" still intact and serving as the basis of the articles before any minimalist corrections or addenda were appended. And this also occurred at the hands of conservative publications!
The current online-dominated media environment, with editorial judgments often a slave to the potential lure of clickbait stories, is a strange one, and it's getting weirder by the day.
[Revised to clarify Fox News source's context.]