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TV & Radio

Gawker vs Fox News: the media battle that divides America

Investigation into TV presenter's private life is latest episode in bitter rivalry

One is a "malevolent" right-wing news organisation run by "fatuous, fat headed people who tell lies". The other is a "lousy" gossip website run by "miserable" 20-somethings who churn out "wall to wall snark" for their dwindling band of left-leaning readers. One employs propagandists who use power, influence, and money to engage in "potentially corrupt" relationships with the police and political class. The other "borders on treason" by eschewing responsible journalistic practices in a relentless pursuit of scoops.

So goes a snowballing war of words between Fox News, the influential cable TV outlet owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp, and Gawker, a scurrilous New York-based website devoted to sifting through the dirty laundry of the rich and famous.

Hostilities between the two organisations, which represent polar extremes of the US news media, went into overdrive this week when Gawker published a revelatory investigation into the private life of Bill O'Reilly, the conservative pundit whose evening show is Fox News's most-watched programme.

According to the Gawker article, Mr O'Reilly recently persuaded high-level contacts in his local police force to order an investigation into the professional integrity of an unnamed officer. The man in question was alleged to have begun an extra-marital affair with O'Reilly's wife.

The report, based largely on information from a single, unnamed source, suggested that Mr O'Reilly employed private detectives to track the couple. It accused him of offering to donate money to the police department in Nassau County, Long Island, in return for them granting the favour.

Fox News's host, a stern advocate of family values, has yet to respond. Although he has never formally announced a separation or divorce from Maureen, his wife of 15 years, Gawker claims the couple are living apart after Ms O'Reilly bought a house in her own name this year.

The website has published photographs that appear to show Mr O'Reilly neglecting to wear his wedding ring while posing next to a fragrant brunette at a recent black-tie event. It also printed copies of documents showing that Ms O'Reilly was recently removed as a director of his personal charitable foundation.

It's a tangled web, all right. Gawker's claim that Mr O'Reilly attempted to gain special treatment from a police department is particularly awkwardly timed, given ongoing controversy about the relationship between other influential figures in News Corp and the UK police.

Fox News has so far failed to either confirm or deny any specific details of the article, which was published on Tuesday. But a spokesman for the organisation told Adweek yesterday that: "Gawker has been lying about Fox News for several years... we are not going to dignify this with any further comment."

The network has nonetheless been devoting airtime to attacks on Gawker. Only last week, it interrupted coverage of the hurricane with an item claiming the site's traffic had dropped by 75 per cent in the past year. In that report, a Fox pundit blamed the alleged fall on Gawker's staff: "This sweatshop of 20-somethings, who are post-ironic, sitting in all these cubicles, just pounding out the snarkiest things they can think of.... That's the problem: it's just wall to wall snark... as predictable as the end of a Scooby-Doo cartoon." Quite why this should be of interest to Fox's viewers, who on average are in their 60s and largely unaware of the website, was not explained. But Gawker says it was a pre-emptive strike: the attack was aired a short time after the website first contacted Fox seeking comment about Mr O'Reilly.

A couple of weeks ago, Mick Huckabee, the former Republican presidential contender and a member of Fox's stable, fired a further noisy shot across Gawker's bow in a segment alleging that the behaviour of the site "bordered on treason" because of a revelatory piece it had published about the CIA. "Doesn't their name say it all?" he said. "Gawker? What do you think of when you think of Gawker? Do you think, 'Oh that's the person I want to invite to my son's birthday party?'"

To the website, these attacks are in themselves a kind of vindication: the site has for months been taking potshots at Fox, publishing (among other things) a lengthy series of items on the various eccentricities of its power-broking chief, Roger Ailes. John Cook, the Gawker editor behind Tuesday's item on Mr O'Reilly, told The Independent that its publication followed a month-long investigation involving multiple interviews and Freedom of Information requests.

He said: "We laid out the story in detail, over the telephone and via email, to Fox News and the Nassau County Police Department, as well as their internal affairs department. It has not been denied. In fact it is greeted with a wall of silence. I am very satisfied that the story is accurate based on the knowledge of the source and circumstantial evidence."

Mr Cook said he hoped that the publication of the article, which has so far been viewed 250,000 times, would persuade people to come forward with further information about Mr O'Reilly's marriage. And he seemed happy for his site's attacks on Fox News to be described as a vendetta. "They are a malevolent organisation and any time the truth about them can be expressed, that's a good thing. We like stories about fatuous, fat-headed people who tell lies. And that's what the people at Fox News do."

How the two news groups compare


Audience Has 14.3 million unique visitors to its network of websites every month – a healthy number but some way down from its position a year ago, before a controversial redesign that prompted some users to abandon the portal.

Stars John Cook, author of the O'Reilly story, couples investigative reporting with Gawker's trademark snark. The writers are, inevitably, mostly obscure.

Politics Without being primarily focused on politics, it naturally appeals to a liberal, metropolitan audience that skews Democratic. Most of the targets of its political coverage are on the right.

Fox News

Audience Bill O'Reilly's show is the top-rated show on US cable television, with about 2.8 million viewers tuning in for every episode. His channel reached 87.4 million viewers in August, and regularly tops the cable news ratings.

Stars Only Sean Hannity, a fellow right-wing ideologue, can compete with Bill O'Reilly's following, now that Glenn Beck has left the network.

Politics Although O'Reilly's show defines itself as "fair and balanced", its coverage is unabashedly targeted at a rightwing audience in the so-called "heartland" of the US.