On The David Pakman Show, Media Matters' Matt Gertz explains why Fox is still backing Donald Trump

Gertz: “It's really hard to imagine the various tentacles of the right-wing not coming back under his wing”

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Citation From the March 22, 2023, edition of The David Pakman Show

DAVID PAKMAN (HOST): It's great to be joined today by Matt Gertz, senior fellow at Media Matters where his work focuses on the Fox-Trump feedback loop, news coverage of politics, as well as media ethics. Matt, really great to have you on. I appreciate it. So, I mean, let's just start with something and maybe that can be the Dominion lawsuit against Fox News. We have, of course, been covering with great interest. For me, one of the most interesting storylines has been yet another layer to what goes out on the airwaves at Fox doesn't necessarily match what the feelings are among some of the hosts behind the scenes, and that's totally fine, but what's the bigger story, if there is one yet, about how the audience of Fox News is reacting to this lawsuit and the leaked texts, if they are even aware of it, because this is something I've been talking to my audience about. Will the average Fox News viewer even know what it is that is going on? 

MATT GERTZ (MEDIA MATTERS FOR AMERICA SENIOR FELLOW): Yeah, I think you've hit the nail on the head there. That's really the question. I mean, as we know, people who follow Fox News are really in a bubble of right-wing media. They are getting their news solely from outlets like Fox. They are disinclined to believe what they hear from people like you and me and The New York Times and The Washington Post and everybody else, and that's something that Fox has really cultivated for decades, trying to make its viewers not believe other sources. I think what we are seeing, though, is some right-wing outlets are trying to get the news out in hopes of building up their own audiences. That internal rivalry within the right could be causing Fox some trouble as outlets like Newsmax try to hive off a little bit of Fox's market share by revealing what Fox hosts and executives were saying behind the scenes. 

PAKMAN: We know that Donald Trump has been arguing that now Fox News isn't doing as well in the ratings, he would argue, because they are no longer as positive about him as they once were and we'll get to the narrative about Trump on Fox more recently, but as far as the ratings go, is there any truth to that claim that Fox is not doing as well? 

GERTZ: I don't think specifically. It's easy to make that claim right now. I mean, in general, there's been a drop off in cable news viewership since the last election. I would expect that to pop up a little bit more as we get closer to the next presidential election, but right now, I don't think we're seeing an evaporation of Fox's market share due to it not supporting Trump enough — though, as we saw in the Dominion filings, they are very, very attuned to that possibility and are willing to take fairly substantial action in order to prevent that from coming to pass. 

PAKMAN: So there's a survey which suggests that about a fifth of Fox News viewers now say they trust the network less since the revelations from the text messages. This is pretty squishy. It doesn't strike me as the most scientific claim, and there's some definitional questions here, and how much did they trust them before? They probably still trust Fox way more than you or I would. So there's sort of some squishiness here, but if we can believe that there is a portion of the Fox audience that is now less trusting of Fox News, what specifically would it be? Would it be that they feel the hosts are telling me one thing but privately believe something else? Or like what would be the practical belief that's affecting them? 

GERTZ: Yeah, that's the real question and something that the poll can't really get to, is why they trust Fox less. Is it because, you know, they think Fox was lying to them on TV or that they think Fox was not sufficiently supportive privately? Is it because Fox is too into election denial or not into it enough is something we can't really pars out of that poll. Though, I mean, I do think to a large extent what Fox fears the most is other rivals on the right, and so it is bad for them if Newsmax or OAN can make the case that they are the real pro-Trump, pro-election denial outlet, and Fox's audience turns to them instead. 

PAKMAN: What is the landscape, by the way, right now of what we would consider the biggest competitors to Fox? And the context in which I ask that is one in which many of us in this business, we know about Newsmax. Newsmax has chosen to stream live 24/7, I believe, on YouTube. They're also on a number of cable systems. OAN famously has had issues where I think they've been they've been non-renewed by DirecTV and maybe one other. I don't think you OAN is currently on YouTube and that may be because they were kicked off. Although, the details sort of escape me at this point. What does the competitive landscape look like right now? 

GERTZ: Yeah, that's definitely an issue. I mean, I think, you know, the TV landscape is, I think, less robust if anything than it was during the 2020 election cycle. You had both Newsmax and OAN, as you mentioned, losing access to some cable systems, being generally less available to the public. At the same time, as the TV audience deteriorates, some of the digital and streaming options have gotten stronger. So you see outlets like The Daily Wire or The Blaze picking up some steam, and those are competing for the same audience if not showing up in the Nielsen ratings or what have you. 

PAKMAN: And what's the deal with Real America's Voice? I see clips very often, but it's not clear to me whether it — does that even have a cable channel that is available aside from whether anyone's carrying it or is it online only? 

GERTZ: It's mainly online. I think there's some cable availability, but not a ton. That said, you know, as cord-cutting continues to be a real business imperative for these networks, streaming does become somewhat more viable and important. 

PAKMAN: So let's shift a little now and talk about the primary coverage that we've seen of the Republican primary. My assessment right now, and you'll be able to give us some kind of more fine-tuned assessment was that before the news of the looming arrest of Donald Trump, it seemed as though Fox News was sort of creating a little bit of space for themselves in the direction of Ron DeSantis. There were some, you know, man-on-the-street, a.k.a. Brian Kilmeade in a diner segments that seemed tailored to find people that wanted Ron DeSantis to run. They did some actual man-on-the-street segments where like seven of the eight people they included in the segment said that they want DeSantis there. Steve Doocy has been sporadically a little bit more critical of Donald Trump, and it sort of seemed like it was a soft escape hatch. So if it's DeSantis, they have a credible path to have access, but if it's Trump, they can kind of revert back and maintain the access that they want. We were talking before the interview. You said that that may have shifted back a little bit since the news of the looming arrest of Trump.

GERTZ: Yeah, I think what we tend to see with Fox and Trump is they often have these sorts of squabbles where the network will try to create a little bit of distance, Trump will lash out at the network for not being supportive enough, but in the end, they always come back to one another because their relationship is so valuable to both of them because Fox is a very effective propaganda tool for Trump and Trump has a real hammerlock on the Fox viewership, and so when we had we had a similar sort of sense that Fox and the broader Murdoch universe were trying to break away last year, but then the FBI raid on Mar-a-Lago really sent the Fox hosts back into Trump's corner, and news that an indictment may be pending for Donald Trump has created a similar situation. You have Fox hosts like Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson really rallying around the former president, saying that any indictment of him is an attack on his supporters, which obviously means their viewers, that it would be un-American and a sign that we're in a banana republic. So, you know, they're certainly not planning on using any indictment as a way to bolster some other candidate in his stead. It really seems like they've fully committed back to his side right now. 

PAKMAN: How should we expect the primary to go, assuming Trump stays in it and that the arrests slash indictments don't lead to him dropping out? If there is a real contested primary here, should we expect some version of what we've been seeing throughout until it becomes clear who is likely to be the nominee or since Donald Trump continues to poll so strongly at this point in time, is it likely that there will be some kind of shift? I'm trying to think of what we should expect as far as that goes. 

GERTZ: Yeah, I mean, Trump's polling has strengthened considerably since late last year when it really looked like DeSantis was making a run and you could see the possibility that there would be a sort of coalescing around him but if that doesn't really happen, if DeSantis fades and it's Trump with 50 to 60% in the polls against a bunch of people with 10% or less, it's really hard to imagine the various tentacles of the right-wing not coming back under his wing. I mean, he's going to have so much of the energy at that point that it will become a sort of business imperative for them like it was after he became the nominee in 2016 to find a way to be on his side. 

PAKMAN: What do you make of the potential impact of the Dominion suit? Because from a business standpoint, there's some pieces that argue, yeah, it's quite possible that Rupert Murdoch's going to have to cut a pretty large check, but he can do that and it won't really have an impact on the network. Maybe there will be part of an agreement. Could be, this is all hypothetical, that some number of corrections need to be issued on air or something like that. We've seen that in other situations, but maybe not. Do you think that the actual outcome, aside from the fact that the texts were released and now we know what's in them, will impact Fox News' viewership one way or the other? 

GERTZ: I don't know about its viewership. I do think that on the business side, things could get very dicey. If Rupert Murdoch has to cut a very large check over this, there's going to be, I think, a substantial push from other shareholders to sue the network for various malfeasance cases. I think that's going to pose a real problem for Murdoch going forward, assuming that he does have to write that check, and, you know, that's always it's sort of tricky to make predictions around defamation lawsuits, though obviously, this does seem pretty strong as they go.