Is there a case against the Fox Mole, or Gawker? (Are they the same?) Plus, ‘New Yorker’ celebrity hangers-on

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Howard Kurtz interviews 'The Fox Mole.' ()
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When last week the website TVNewser published a letter addressed to the "Fox Mole," Joe Muto, from lawyers for Fox News Channel, it was all very unsurprising.

If you've worked in a managing position in media for long enough, you have received (or your employer has received) a legal letter of some kind promising that someone or other plans to "pursue any and all rights and remedies" in a legal forum yet to be determined for reasons as yet unknown. Deciphering these letters can actually be quite difficult, because they will always suggest the largest possible legal fracas; these letters normally are the beginning of a negotiation and nobody comes to the table without as much appearance of firepower as possible.

"Be advised that your admissions are admissions of likely criminal and civil wrongdoing on both your and Gawker’s part, which will be the subject of further extensive investigation," the letter reads in part.

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In case you've been living in a molehill: Muto was an associate producer at "The O'Reilly Factor" who Gawker announced as its "newest hire" in an "inaugural column" of The Fox Mole, who would be "providing Gawker with regular dispatches from inside the organization."

It's been said that lots of what Muto produced wasn't particularly juicy, or even damaging to the network; people can disagree on that, and I'm not sure that the column would have needed to deliver giant scandals from "The O'Reilly Factor" to be a compelling look at the inside workings of the organization even on a day-to-day basis.

But it was not to be: He was fired from Fox News after being identified a mere 24 hours after this first post; he doesn't appear to be updating the column anymore on Gawker.

Gawker hasn't of course pulled any of the Muto posts from its site, which is implied as a demand in the lawyers' letter, a similar version of which was reportedly sent to Gawker. But nor do they seem to be publishing any more of his reports. (After all, when the fellow is so publicly no longer "inside," some of the cachet is lost.)

For now, that's score one for the lawyers, who are no doubt talking a lot right about now both to Muto and to Gawker's legal counsel. (Gawker's is famously efficient at repelling legal actions.)

What we came across last night (a little late) was Forbes staff writer Kashmir Hill's post about what case the lawyers might have to sue, or to complain to authorities so that they might take some kind of action against Muto, Gawker or both.

The cases against each are not exactly the same, of course; Muto stands to be in more danger than Gawker, certainly.

On Muto, Hill writes:

One charge that might be considered for Muto is “computer tampering.” Though Muto, as a (then) associate producer for The O’Reilly Factor had legitimate access to the Fox News outtake videos that he passed along to Gawker, New York law forbids “unlawful duplication of computer related material … [that] wrongfully deprives or appropriates from an owner an economic value in excess of $2,500.” Muto was fingered by Fox as the Mole because he had accessed two behind-the-scenes videos — of Newt Gingrich being groomed ‘like a circus walrus’ and Mitt Romney bantering with Sean Hannity—that wound up on Gawker in recent weeks. Gawker told my Forbes colleague Jeff Bercovici that it paid Muto $5,000 for his posts and for those videos, which, by my count, is indeed in excess of $2,500.

That is, not that Muto stole $5,000 worth of material, but that he misappropriated the proceeds of that material to himself.

Is Muto a whistleblower, though? There are protections for that, though getting paid for your contributions to a whistleblowing exercise muddies them considerably. It's doubtful whether any judge or jury would consider any of this stuff to be in the "public interest," whatever some media critics may say of Fox News.

Joe DeMarco, a former federal prosecutor who works on Internet crime cases, tells Hill:

“Absent matters of public concern, i.e. legitimate whistle-blowing, purchases of inside information raise legal issues. When you’re paying an insider for live, real-time inside information, the chance that you’re committing a crime is pretty good.”

Another interesting thing to watch, then, as this drama unfolds, is whether Gawker and their "newest hire" (and latest fire?) will stick together in the legal proceedings with Fox, if they ever happen.

In other news...

Erik Wemple on the transparency of the Pulitzer process. [The Washington Post]

An early look at The Huffington Post's soon-to-launch iPad magazine. [Folio]

Yahoo plans to shut down 50 properties "it deems inessential" and "refocus its media network around the core areas of sports, news, entertainment and finance." [Forbes/Mixed Media]

New York Times labor reporter Steven Greenhouse weighs in on the contract negotiations between the paper's union and management. [Jim Romenesko]

Choire Sicha on Chris Jones storming off the Internet. [The Awl]

Who broke the Trayvon Martin story? [Poynter]

Checking in on Politico Pro. [Nieman Journalism Lab]

At The New Yorker's White House Correspondents' Dinner table: Fred Armisen, Carrie Brownstein, Jason Schwartzman, Aziz Ansari [Amy Wicks/WWD]