The future of Fox News is hanging in the balance

It’s time for Rupert Murdoch’s outlet to decide if it’s a news network or a Trump network

James Moore
Saturday 21 November 2020 12:24
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Fox News admits Giuliani’s news conference was ‘light on facts’

In a recent column I looked at the rise of rivals like One America News (OAN) and Newsmax that seek to outflank the network on the right, which would be tougher with the possible launch of Trump TV (or maybe the soon-to-be-former president will partner with one of them).

I wonder how Fox responds. It’s a fascinating question given the pushback it’s facing from its audience and the central role it plays in Rupert Murdoch’s empire.

CNN’s Brian Stelter has made the point that Fox’s much smaller, but suddenly fast-growing rivals, are driven by their Donald Trump loyalist viewers’ demand for a fictional universe in which their god-emperor won the election.

Fox caters to this with its prime time “opinion” hosts; people like Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, who have gleefully followed their viewers down the rabbit hole.

But some of its anchors, in particular its news anchors, and analysts have taken a different path, one guided by the facts.

Trump’s most passionate fans find it very uncomfortable when they’re confronted with those because they’re clear: Joe Biden won the election. He won the popular vote. He won the electoral college. The claims of widespread voter fraud emanating from the White House are fictional.

The network’s number crunchers triggered Trump and his fans with their early (and correct) call of Arizona for Biden. But there was more.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” said host Neil Cavuto, as the network cut away from coverage of White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany. “She’s charging the other side as welcoming fraud and welcoming illegal voting. Unless she has more details to back that up, I can’t in good countenance continue to show you this.” And he didn’t, to the ire of Carlson.

Then on Sunday anchor Eric Shawn aired a series of interviews with election officials and experts, including one with Republican Philadelphia city commissioner Al Schmidt, decked out in a stars and stripes mask. They denied the baseless allegations tabled by Donald Trump. He also screened a statement from Dominion Voting Systems saying: “Vote deletion/switching assertions are completely false.” The company flatly refuted any ties to political parties or Venezuela (also screened).

Shawn then served up a monologue in which he asserted: “Election officials across the country insist, as of today, there is not evidence of any widespread fraud affecting the presidential election, that our precious democracy was not tampered with and that such baseless and false claims are an insult to the thousands of elections officials and workers across the country who we have seen dedicating themselves 24/7 to ensure a fair and free election for all of us.”

Fox has always denied that it is the propaganda arm of the Republican Party, insisting rather that it is a news network, albeit one set up as a counterweight to its supposedly liberal-leaning rivals which dominated before its emergence (whether they really were liberal is open to debate).

There are some at the network who appear to believe the hype, who buy into the idea of a fact-based news operation that is distinct from the opinion hosts with their alternative facts.

Fox is still awful. The impact it has had on journalism is awful. The stuff it pumps out is awful. Some of the stories it has whipped up and obsessively followed are scarcely stories at all. The alleged “war on Christmas”, Benghazi, the Clintons as puppet masters behind the deep state responsible for all the world’s ills. Check out the coverage and weep.

But despite the ubiquity of that toxic sludge, in having hosts who view themselves as news anchors guided by facts Fox does differ from the other parts of the conservative media ecosystem it inhabits. They don’t have anything like that. They have displayed no interest in offering any pushback against Trump’s baseless claims. They are a safe space for their audience. Fox sometimes isn’t.

This resistance to Trump’s narrative from certain quarters at Fox has clearly created tension between it and a part of its audience, the part which is, as Stelter rightly pointed out, fully immersed in Trump’s fictional alternate universe. A universe that the channel ultimately helped to create.

The idea that Fox is a news network, as opposed to a propaganda outfit for Republican shills, is an important part of how it sees and markets itself. And it has benefited the channel in the past. When the Obama administration, for example, tried to cut it off, the other networks ignored its constant sniping at them and pushed back on its behalf.

Does that change if it abandons the pretence, and muzzles or kicks out the anchors that have pushed back against Trump? How does Fox handle the competition going forward?

This is no small question for the Murdochs. Fox News Channel has been a moneymaking machine for them, one that has benefited from an effective monopoly position on the right.

If it follows OAN, and Newsmax and dedicates itself solely to the alternative universe they inhabit and some of the viewers want, its attempt to portray itself as a news network will become that much harder. If the Biden administration shows some claws and attempts to replicate what the Obama administration tried it may find it easier to succeed.

On the other hand, if Fox stays the course, the competition from its scrappy rivals on its right flank may become more serious, especially if, as I suggested in my previous column, one or the other of them manages to add Trump to their roster.

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