Fox News spent the last four years remaking itself as President Donald Trump’s personal propaganda tool. Until the very end, it was a remarkably effective strategy: The network’s audience swelled to record heights while its hosts achieved unprecedented influence as personal advisers to the Fox-obsessed president. But Trump’s reelection defeat -- and his subsequent turn against Fox for acknowledging it -- has left the network in a precarious position at the dawn of Joe Biden’s presidency, scrambling to recapture lost viewers and build a new identity without its key audience in the White House.
Trump’s feud with Fox has the right-wing network facing real competition for the first time in years. The network lost its decades-long dominance of the cable news ratings war as viewers answered the president’s call for his supporters to switch to its fringe-right rivals, Newsmax TV and the One America News Network, or tuned out from cable news altogether. Pro-Trump outlets that once accepted Fox’s primacy in right-wing media are now trying to grab market share by positioning themselves against it. And mainstream commentators on the center-left and center-right are denouncing Fox’s election fraud lies and calling for corporate action to stymie its reach.
This conflict will shape the right-wing media ecosystem and the Republican Party during the Biden administration. And the network’s likely strategy to regain its edge can already be seen in its post-election decisions.
Fox's 2020 coverage helped stymie the response to a pandemic that has killed more than 400,000 Americans to date and triggered an insurrection in which pro-Trump rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol. What comes next will be worse. In response to sagging ratings, network executives are taking steps to increase Fox's reliance on incendiary right-wing propaganda, while weakening the internal faction that had at least a nominal commitment to reality.
The result will be a race to the bottom of the fever swamp, as Fox competes with its rivals for viewers by promoting ever-more-unhinged conspiracy theories and using increasingly apocalyptic rhetoric that encourages more violent insurrections. And that irresponsible behavior will court a backlash from the corporate interests that make the network’s bigotry and lies a profitable endeavor.
Fox's faltering business model
Fox has a two-track business model. The network attracts its audience with right-wing demagoguery. But it monetizes those viewers through payments from advertisers and cable carriers.
Those companies are rightfully uneasy about associating their brands with the network’s worst excesses, and advertisers have largely abandoned its most controversial properties. Fox executives traditionally keep them from dropping the network entirely by highlighting their “news” hours, which they claim are independent and credible, while occasionally cutting ties with low-level commentators when their inflammatory rhetoric draws too much attention.
Trump made that strategy untenable by denying the network its “news”-side fig leaf.
The president watched Fox’s programming constantly and lashed out whenever he saw the “news” side producing coverage he considered insufficiently supportive. He raged against the network in November after its decision desk declared first that Biden had won Arizona and then that he was the president-elect. And over the following weeks he increasingly consumed, touted, and promoted programming from Newsmax and OAN, which refused to acknowledge Biden’s win, bolstering their ratings at Fox’s expense.
Fox is choosing propaganda over news
Fox executives had two potential pathways in the wake of Trump’s defeat, each with perils to its business model. They could try to reinforce the “news” side and compete for current CNN and MSNBC viewers by producing credible journalism, even if it cost them with the network’s traditional right-wing audience. Or they could double down on the right-wing propaganda of the “opinion” side in hopes of winning back pro-Trump viewers, but risk an advertiser revolt.
Every public move since Election Day suggests that they prefer the latter strategy. They are rewarding the “opinion” side for its years-long effort to lie to its audience in support of Trump, while purging the “news” side of individuals who tried to keep viewers at least somewhat tethered to reality.
Fox “opinion” hosts spent the weeks furiously promoting internet conspiracy theories about voter fraud costing the president the election. That full-throated endorsement of feverish nonsense got the network into potential legal trouble, triggered embarrassing on-air corrections, and led to the violent pro-Trump insurrection of January 6. Those same commentators responded to the storming of the Capitol by validating the rioters’ concerns and repeating the lies that incited the mob.
Meanwhile, the network’s executives broke their tacit agreement to use Fox’s “news” programming to protect blue-chip advertisers from their right-wing ideologues. Fox’s purportedly independent “news” hours began featuring clips from the “opinion” hosts, promoting their prime-time shows, and running ads in which they cast doubt on the election results.
A staffing shakeup reportedly ordered by Rupert Murdoch is now underway. Fox is cannibalizing one of the network’s highest-profile “news” shows in favor of another hour of right-wing commentary. The potential “opinion” hosts receiving tryouts in that time slot include Brian Kilmeade and Maria Bartiromo, both fanatically loyal Trumpists who pushed absurd conspiracy theories about election machines flipping votes from Trump to Biden.
Fox anchor Maria Bartiromo: “A new report says that some far-right protesters have discussed posing as members of the National Guard to infiltrate the inauguration — the way Democrats infiltrated two weeks ago and put on MAGA clothing” https://t.co/pi4wyM1ZdN pic.twitter.com/nWA01TvHbr
— Media Matters (@mmfa) January 19, 2021
As it promotes its “opinion” hosts, Fox is conducting what insiders describe as a “purge” of the network's “real journalists.” The layoffs are reportedly masterminded by former Sean Hannity executive producer Porter Berry, who oversees the network's digital operation, as part of Fox's “larger effort to pivot its website from straight-news reporting to right-wing opinion content in the mold of Fox’s primetime programming.” Political editor Chris Stirewalt is the highest-profile victim -- an apparent casualty of Trump’s war on Fox’s decision desk -- while senior vice president Bill Sammon is retiring; both were longtime members of the “news” side.
In the months to come, this ratings pressure from the right will continue sending Fox down fringe-right rabbit holes. And its programming, in turn, will influence the way the Republican Party responds to the post-Trump era.
Fox's choice will shape right-wing media -- and the GOP
Fox has always mimicked the attributes of the leading elements of the era’s Republican Party. It was founded by former Nixon adviser Roger Ailes as a pro-GOP network to push back on what conservatives saw as a hostile, liberal press, and it both shapes and reflects the party it supports. Fox was a jingoistic, pro-war network during the Bush administration; rebranded as an anti-tax, anti-spending, tea party-booster after President Barack Obama’s election; and morphed into a state TV outlet under Trump.
The network's executives would likely prefer to move on from Trump and pivot back to its Obama-era brand, becoming the “voice of opposition” to the incoming Biden administration. The network could focus its programming on smearing Biden officials, conjuring up Biden pseudo-scandals, stalling or blocking Democratic proposals, and bolstering anti-Biden political movements and Republican challengers. That was a unifying message for the right in 2009 that garnered huge ratings for the network. And Republican leaders would doubtless appreciate new Benghazis and “death panels” as cudgels to use against the incoming Democratic administration.
At the same time, Fox’s on-air talent will come under tremendous pressure to rebuild its once-record audience. The clearest path to that goal will be to give the recalcitrant Trumpist viewers what they want: more lies that Trump actually won, more unhinged conspiracy theories about Democrats, more paranoid fantasies about the left, and more apocalyptic culture war rage. That will incentivize the rest of the right-wing media to do the same, in hopes of either snagging guest appearances on the network or pulling away some of its market share.
And with Trump refusing to cede the stage, the network may be unable to cut him loose. Fox could face constant loyalty tests from Trump to keep him as the network’s main character, which competitors like OAN, Newsmax, and others would eagerly exploit in order to build their audiences.
The result could be that Fox, and the Republican Party it shapes, remain firmly planted in an alternate reality and functioning as Trump’s state TV outlet and personality cult. Indeed, the network's propagandists are already trying to purge the party of leaders it views as insufficiently loyal to Trump.
This reckless strategy could win back Fox’s faltering viewership. But it also poses serious risks for the network’s business model. It sends a clear message to the network’s advertisers and the cable providers that carry it that Fox is unwilling to reform from within, that it will only get more dangerous, and that it is no longer willing or able to provide them with cover. That puts the onus squarely on Fox’s corporate enablers to stop rewarding the network for its dangerous behavior.