NEW YORK — Joe Muto has dealt with losing his job, losing his reputation and losing friends. The low point for the former Fox News Channel “mole” came three weeks ago, when he needed to be escorted from a holding cell in handcuffs to use the bathroom.
The ex-producer at Fox is still dealing with his spectacular flameout of April 2012. Muto, who worked on Bill O’Reilly’s prime-time show, began writing an anonymous column for the Gawker website about what it was like for a liberal to work at Fox. His bosses blew his cover and fired him within 24 hours.
Muto did get a book deal out of the experience, though, and “An Atheist in the Foxhole” (Dutton) is being released Tuesday.
He also got a criminal record. In an agreement with the Manhattan district attorney, Muto pleaded guilty May 9 to two misdemeanors — attempted unlawful duplication of computer material and attempted criminal possession of computer material. He had copied two Fox outtakes to prove to Gawker that he worked there, and the website posted them. One showed Newt Gingrich’s wife primping her husband’s hair before an interview. Sean Hannity and Mitt Romney chatted about horses in the other.
The videos were what enabled Fox to identify Muto as the mole; their investigators found that someone with his computer sign-on was the only one to look at them recently in the network’s archive.
Muto was sentenced to 10 days of court-ordered community service and 200 hours of private service that he will fulfill by working with a literacy organization in Brooklyn. He was fined $1,000 and ordered to give to charity the $5,000 that Gawker had paid him.
He’s already joined a work crew cleaning trash in city parks three times. At one, he compared crimes with fellow workers — one had gotten drunk and stolen a cab for a joyride, another had punched a cop. They couldn’t quite understand why Muto was there for making a copy of a Gingrich clip.
“I don’t want to give the impression that I’m being railroaded by the system,” Muto said. “I did something very stupid and I suppose it’s right that I paid for it.”
But John Cook, editor-in-chief of Gawker, called the sentence “preposterous” and suggested Manhattan district attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. was trying to curry favor with Fox and its powerful chairman, Roger Ailes. A spokeswoman for Vance’s office declined comment. Fox representatives didn’t return phone or email requests to talk about Muto.
Muto’s short-lived tenure as the Fox “mole” wasn’t particularly well thought-out in the first place. After eight years at Fox, his first job out of Notre Dame, Muto had decided to leave. He said Fox had gotten more conservative since President Barack Obama’s election, and he was growing more uncomfortable feeling the disconnect with his own politics.
He wanted a job at Gawker and met with its editors, who suggested maybe he could write for them before leaving Fox.
The mole was born. It died before making any shocking revelations; Muto spent most of the only column he wrote prior to detection criticizing a Fox-related website. He bears no ill will toward Gawker, which paid for his defense against felony charges of computer tampering.
“I have enough self-awareness to realize that I pretty much made an ass of myself last year,” he said. “It was weird, because I would be able to step back from it and say, ‘Wow, this guy is really ruining his life here. What is he doing?’ Then I’d be like, ‘Oh, wait. That’s me!’”
Muto realizes his career in cable news is over. Besides writing his book, he’s done some freelance work in reality TV since then. He’s found many people don’t even remember the incident, which may bode well for future employment, if not book sales.
“An Atheist in the Foxhole” mixes work anecdotes with the story of the uncomfortable hours before he was led out of Fox’s office. Muto said he wasn’t miserable at Fox, even if he’d roll his eyes at some of the things he saw on the air, and misses some former friends who won’t have anything to do with him since his act of disloyalty.
The book is filled with observations on current and former Fox personalities, like former commentator Sarah Palin (usually unprepared), Ann Coulter (very nice off-camera, sharklike when the camera light is on), Sean Hannity (doesn’t get along with O’Reilly, and vice versa) and Glenn Beck (book chapter about him is titled “Rhymes with ‘Cat Bit Hazy’’’).
His book isn’t a diatribe, and is often funny. He knows there are stories some of his former colleagues won’t like, but Muto is hard on himself, too.
One thing he said surprised him about working at Fox was how few of his co-workers bought into the “fair and balanced” idea.
“Even the true believers, the conservative producers, are like, ‘Oh, yeah, we’re here to dole out red meat to our conservative audience. We’re not here to be fair and balanced. We’re here to stir up the crazies, basically. We’re here to stoke up anger in our conservative fan base and that’s how we get ratings,’” he said.
Muto’s proximity allowed him to make a detailed character study of O’Reilly. He said his ex-boss was hard to read and hard to please, prone to rages and quick to cut down his staff if he didn’t like their ideas. He’s cheap and socially awkward. There’s a priceless story about why falafel is a frowned-upon lunch item.
O’Reilly’s also smart. He writes virtually every show himself and has kept it interesting, maintaining his status as the top-rated cable anchor for more than a decade, he said. His opinions aren’t knee-jerk or unhinged.
Despite everything, Muto wrote, “I actually like Bill O’Reilly.”
“He might even be one of the most misunderstood media figures of all time,” Muto said in an interview.
To this day, he said he still has dreams that he’s working for O’Reilly, much like adults might dream they are missing a math test in school. So what would he say if he somehow found himself in a room standing next to his former boss?
“I’d probably say ‘arrrrgghhh,’ because he’d be twisting my head off my body like he was opening a tall boy,” he said.