The Beginning of the End for a Middling Cable News Career
My 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.”
“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 anti-espionage 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.
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.