Desperate to win back viewers, Fox breaks its promise to advertisers

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Citation Molly Buter / Media Matters

Fox News’ unprecedented ratings losses in recent weeks have forced the network to choose between its right-wing viewers and its corporate advertisers. Its decision to side with its audience has left the companies that financially support the network holding the bag for its incendiary coverage of the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. 

Fox has a two-track business model. Its audience tunes in for right-wing propagandists spewing unhinged rhetoric. Its advertisers pay for access to that audience, and cable providers pay to sell that audience a package that includes the network. But those companies are rightfully wary of being associated with the network’s excesses. Fox executives historically bridge that gap by pointing their business partners toward the network’s purportedly independent and professional “news side.” The Daily Beast reported last week on one such effort, a presentation document for prospective advertisers touting the network’s “hard-hitting journalism.”

Advertisers have fled the programs of Fox hosts Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, and Laura Ingraham over the last few years in light of their bigoted and conspiracy-minded commentary. The network’s prime-time commercial blocks are barren wastelands held together with MyPillow ads and network promos. But blue-chip companies continue to support Fox’s “news” hours, ensuring that the network’s leading sponsors include firms like Procter & Gamble, General Motors, and Kraft Heinz.

Fox’s argument about its “news” side already lacked credibility given the Republican talking points and propaganda pushed by the “news”-side programs, particularly during President Donald Trump’s administration. But over the last two months, the network’s own decisions have fatally undermined its case.

Fox executives broke their tacit agreement to protect advertisers

When Trump attacked the network after the election for being insufficiently supportive, some of its viewers defected for fringe-right competitors like NewsMax TV and One America News. Fox’s executives were concerned about the ratings shift and took action to stem it. But their strategy for winning those hardcore pro-Trump viewers back has involved blowing holes in the supposedly sacrosanct walls between the network’s “news” and “opinion” sides. 

Fox is heavily touting its right-wing stars during its “news” hours. The network’s anchors regularly build “news” segments around clips from their monologues, asking guests to weigh in on the views of Carlson, Hannity, or Ingraham. And all day long, the network runs promos of their shows in heavy rotation, featuring on-screen branding previewing their broadcasts. Fox “news” anchors have even done the equivalent of live ad reads for their prime-time colleagues. 

Fox has breached its tacit agreement to protect its blue-chip advertisers from its right-wing ideologues. Companies moved their advertising to the network’s “news” hours to avoid tainting their brands with the network’s prime-time demagogues, and now the network is airing clips from those same hosts during those news hours.

The situation will only worsen in the days to come. On Monday, Fox announced that it was reducing its number of “news” hours altogether, replacing Martha MacCallum’s high-profile 7 p.m. show with one hosted by a rotating cast of Fox’s right-wing commentators. More lineup changes are reportedly in the works as network founder Rupert Murdoch reasserts his control over the crown jewel of his media empire.

Fox propaganda helped cause an insurrection. The network is doubling down.

Fox angered Trump when its decision desk called the state of Arizona and then the election for President-elect Joe Biden. But that did not stop the network from aiding the president’s effort to overturn the election results on the basis of false claims of widespread voter fraud and unhinged conspiracy theories. Indeed, as Trump began lashing out at Fox, its employees responded by becoming more supportive of his anti-democratic plot.

Fox’s “news” and “opinion” side alike ran hundreds of segments casting doubt on the election results, and its most prominent figures cheered on Trump’s attempt to subvert them. You can draw a straight line from that reckless and cynical coverage to the January 6 insurrection, when the president incited an angry pro-Trump mob that then breached the Capitol in an attempt to stop the peaceful transition of power.

There’s been no soul-searching at Fox in the days since the Capitol riots led to five deaths and threatened the lives of members of Congress and Vice President Mike Pence. “The network's senior leaders have exerted no discernible effort to corral their leading figures or even express any coherent guidance for on-air discourse,” NPR reported based on five Fox sources. In the absence of such guidance, the network’s stars have continued to undermine confidence in the election, while further inflaming their viewers with apocalyptic rhetoric.

Fox’s propagandists largely condemned last week’s violence. But they also made sure to validate the concerns of the rioters and stress that their false belief that the election had been stolen from Trump was justified. 

“These are not conspiracy theorists motivated just by lies,” Pete Hegseth claimed in a representative segment 24 hours after the attack. “These are people that understand first principles, they love freedom and they love free markets.  And they see exactly what the anti-American left has done to America -- indoctrinating our kids, opening our borders, canceling individuals, totally censoring entire viewpoints, all the double standards that exist in our country right now.” 

In the days since the riot, Fox has settled on the real villains: Biden, Democrats in Congress, and social media platforms that have responded by trying to hold Trump accountable and prevent further violence. And its on-air personalities have stressed that that response is actually an attack on them, warning that it will be “freedom crushing.” 

“They're coming for you next,” Fox contributor Dan Bongino warned after Twitter permanently suspended Trump’s account and Apple threatened to remove the far-right social media network Parler from its app store. “This fight's coming to your door, folks. Get ready. You can't avoid it.” 

Fox’s unhinged rhetoric has included references to the Holocaust. Fox host Jeanine Pirro described the action against Parler as “akin to a Kristallnacht,” the notorious 1938 pogram during which Nazis sent tens of thousands of Jews to concentration camps and vandalized thousands of Jewish businesses as well as homes and synagogues. And Glenn Beck used an appearance on Carlson’s show to say of tech company actions, “This is like the Germans with the Jews behind the wall. They would put them in the Ghetto. Well, this is the digital ghetto.” 

Whipping its audience into a frenzy like this is incredibly reckless, as the events of last week showed. Fox is playing with fire as pro-Trump forces plan armed protests across the country in response to Biden’s upcoming inauguration.

And the advertisers who make the network profitable are taking risks as well. No matter what shows they support, they are now associating their brands with the network’s worst excesses. They should get out now before more people get killed.