Fox prime time’s apparent solution for ratings woes: Pandering to Proud Boys, white nationalists, QAnon, and anti-vaxxers

Fox News Proud Boys

Citation Molly Butler / Media Matters

Fox News’ prime-time hosts appear to be trying to make inroads with violent extremists and conspiracy theorists as they attempt to pull out of an unprecedented ratings spiral. Over the last week, they have defended the Proud Boys, QAnon adherents, and white nationalists, while flirting with anti-vaccination sentiment. 

After spending the last two decades as the dominant force in cable news, Fox has fallen to third place. Many of its right-wing viewers responded to former President Donald Trump’s election defeat by switching to its even more pro-Trump rivals or turning off cable news altogether, causing a ratings collapse even as CNN and MSNBC saw their audiences grow. Fox executives have responded to this unprecedented ratings decline by punishing the network’s “news” side and increasingly incorporating its “opinion” hosts in purportedly independent “news” programs. 

But Fox viewership losses are not limited to the “news” hours. Fox’s prime-time propagandists, who traditionally win their time slots handily, have also seen their audiences shrink. On Friday, for example, Tucker Carlson Tonight, Hannity, and The Ingraham Angle averaged 2.94 million total viewers and 427,000 in the key 25-54 age demographic, down from 4.45 million and 709,000 three months ago. 

Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, and Laura Ingraham are desperate to recover their sagging ratings. And as they try to do so, their most prominent hosts are diving deeper into the fever swamps and making a play for viewers from extremist and conspiracy-minded communities. While Carlson in particular has previously pandered to such groups in the past, the new appeals come after they were linked to the violent, deadly January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and as the nation’s coronavirus death toll passed 400,000. 

Carlson has spent the last week vigorously defending right-wing extremist groups linked to the January 6 insurrection and conflating their members with his viewers. He lashed out at the media for covering the violent and deranged QAnon ideology, which he described simply as “a forbidden idea,” warning that this criticism could lead to “tyranny” in which his viewers will be “slave[s]” to “dictators.” He responded to a Democratic call for increased federal law enforcement scrutiny of white nationalists and domestic terrorists by saying, “They’re talking about you.” And he mocked journalists devoting attention to “so-called Proud Boys, whoever they are.” (Here’s a photo of Carlson posing with Roger Stone and some members of that violent street gang, which was “at the forefront” of the Capitol attack, according to The Wall Street Journal.) 

Ingraham joined Carlson’s defense of QAnon followers on Monday. After airing clips of commentators calling for screening them out of military service on the grounds that their support for the executions of Democratic leaders for their purported role in a global child trafficking scheme is inconsistent with their military oaths, Ingraham commented, “This is absolutely poisonous for the country. Republicans have to stand up and stop Democrats from targeting our active duty military personnel or our vets.”  She went on to suggest that Democrats want to treat all Trump voters in the military as extremists. The chyron during the discussion read, “Dem Push to Purge Military of Political Opponents.”

Hannity’s appeal has a different target -- the burgeoning movement opposed to the use of the coronavirus vaccines. Experts say the vaccines are safe, phenomenally effective, and represent the best hope for regaining the normal functioning of society. But on Tuesday, the Fox host offered a skeptical take on vaccination.

“I don’t know when my number gets called,” he said. “I’m actually beginning to have doubts. I've been telling my friends I'm getting the vaccine. Half of them agree and the other half think I'm absolutely nuts. They wouldn’t take it in a million years. I don't know who to listen to.”

Hannity’s vigorous support for wearing facemasks to slow the spread of the virus had previously made his pandemic coverage somewhat more responsible than that of his prime-time colleagues. His hesitancy to endorse vaccination might win him some new viewers. It could also lead to the deaths of his current ones.

Fox hosts spent 2020 promoting dangerous pandemic misinformation and demagoging about election fraud leading to a left-wing “coup.” The result was hundreds of thousands of deaths and a right-wing extremist effort to physically prevent the peaceful transfer of power. And they’re not finished yet. If they won’t behave responsibly, the companies that fund their broadcasts should.