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News Analysis

Holding a Grudge or a Dead Raccoon? Jilted Network Takes It Out on Paula Zahn

Media* Since Fox News lost anchor Paula Zahn to rival CNN last year, the digs have been plentiful--some humorous, others not so funny.

October 07, 2002|DAVID BAUDER | ASSOCIATED PRESS

NEW YORK--Shortly before CNN unveiled the new studio it had built in Manhattan for Paula Zahn's "American Morning" last month, a telephone rang at the desk of a reporter.

A publicist for Fox News Channel was calling. For anyone writing about Zahn's show, she wanted to point out how much better Fox's morning show, "Fox & Friends," was doing in the ratings.

With that in mind, CNN's new studio "is nothing more than rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic," said Fox spokeswoman Tracey Spector.

As digs go, this one was relatively mild. But it follows a pattern.

Ever since Zahn jumped to CNN from Fox News Channel last fall, her former employers have badmouthed her relentlessly. The jibes are sometimes brutal, sometimes humorous and once even profane. The underlying message seems clear: It's not wise to cross Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes.

Zahn was host of a prime-time news hour on Fox News Channel last year when CNN weighed in with an offer she couldn't refuse--her own three-hour morning show, reportedly at twice the salary.

When Ailes learned of the offer, he fired her. CNN immediately signed Zahn, and the cable channel put her on the air six months earlier than it had expected.

That dismissal is an important distinction to Fox. More than a year after it happened, network representatives called Associated Press to complain that a story about Zahn did not say that she had been fired.

Ailes set a tone for the post-Zahn era with a comment that quickly became legendary, in part with the help of Fox's on-air personalities. In an article about Zahn's firing, he minimized how she had improved ratings in her time slot while at Fox News Channel.

"I could have put a dead raccoon on the air this year and got a better rating than last year," Ailes told the New York Times. "That's all just the growth of our network. All our shows are up."

Subsequently, the "Fox & Friends" anchors talked about Zahn on the air with a stuffed raccoon toy on the table in front of them. Fox anchor Steve Doocy, cameras in tow, presented Zahn a gift basket that included the stuffed raccoon after the new studio opened.

Ailes sued Zahn's agents, claiming breach of contract. A New York State Supreme Court judge dismissed the complaint in March.

"From the very beginning, this was a case of sour grapes by Roger Ailes," Zahn said at the time. "I am glad the judge saw it for what it was and dismissed the suit as meritless."

In the last year, Zahn's "Fox & Friends" rivals have been her most frequent needlers.

In January, disc jockey Mancow, a "Fox & Friends" contributor, called Zahn a "knucklehead." Because she's the enemy, he said, "I just want to punch her in the face."

Two months later, Mancow performed an on-air skit with an actor he said was portraying Zahn. He hit the actor in the face, knocked him down and shouted, "I'll kill you, Paula. We will kill you, Paula."

"That was great," anchor Brian Kilmeade said, although co-anchor E.D. Hill urged Mancow to stop as he kept pounding away. Hill has said that Zahn is host of a "bad program, but she's a nice woman."

Mancow also made an off-color remark about Zahn that refers to her hobby of playing the cello.

When the CNN studio opened in Manhattan, trucks carrying Fox signs circled the block around it. People distributing Fox merchandise and wearing Fox T-shirts passed by the studio window, according to CNN.

Last month, Fox News Channel spokesman Robert Zimmerman was quoted in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: "Paula Zahn's supposed attempt at reinventing herself as a journalist is like putting a fresh coat of paint on an outhouse."

Zahn would not comment for this story, but her network came to her defense. CNN spokeswoman Christa Robinson said Ailes seemed obsessed with his lost anchor.

"At first, it was somewhat amusing, but one year later it's getting old and, frankly, a little bizarre," Robinson said.

"Paula simply chose to leave Fox to join CNN. Given the success of her show and her reputation in the industry, I'm sure this was a disappointment for them. Their actions are deliberate, sad and speak for themselves."

A Fox News Channel spokeswoman, Irena Steffen, said that "we don't go out of our way to shoot at her."

CNN and Zahn have attacked Fox, she said, declining to provide examples. Both the "dead raccoon" and "outhouse" remarks appeared in stories after CNN statements defending Zahn's ratings and describing "American Morning" as a more traditional news show than its cable rivals.

"Why don't you ask why she's making a mountain out of a molehill?" Steffen asked. "Why don't you ask why she's turning this around and why she's making herself into a victim?"

Steffen again pointed out the "Fox & Friends" ratings advantage. "As a former network star, it's sad Paula has sunk to this level, but we wish her well," she said.

The publicist turned down requests to talk with Ailes.

Some of the motivation here may be revenge from a former political street fighter who hates to lose, particularly to chief rival CNN. Ailes retaliated months after Zahn's exit by plucking CNN's Greta Van Susteren to fill Zahn's old time slot.

Oddly, Ailes' best revenge may simply be the ratings; Fox News Channel passed CNN in average viewership earlier this year and hasn't given up the lead since.

It would seem to make all the trash talk redundant.

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