Fox throws in the towel on its “news” side

Fox TV

Citation Molly Butler / Media Matters

Fox News faced a stark choice in light of President Donald Trump’s defeat and the January 6 storming of the Capitol that followed his -- and the network’s -- constant lies about election fraud costing him the election. 

Fox could have committed itself to journalistic principles, enhanced the influence of its “news” side, and competed for viewers with CNN and MSNBC by offering conservative-leaning but reality-based programming. Instead, its executives have sided with its rabidly pro-Trump “opinion” side, signaling that it intends to compete with fringe-right Newsmax and One America News Network by doubling down on the inflammatory propaganda and conspiracy theories that incited its viewers over the last four years, culminating in January 6’s attempted coup by pro-Trump rioters.

Suzanne Scott, Fox News’ CEO, revealed in a Monday statement that the network was shaking up its programming in the new year. The biggest move is that Fox News Primetime, a new program featuring a rotating cast of “opinion” hosts, is taking over the 7 p.m. ET slot previously held by The Story, a “news”-side program. That program’s anchor, Martha MacCallum, who has been heavily touted by the network as a credible news source but regularly parrots right-wing propaganda, is taking over the 3 p.m. time slot once held by Shepard Smith, who left Fox in protest of its direction in 2019. Bill Hemmer, the more flexible network employee who replaced Smith and currently anchors that hour, will return to hosting Fox’s 9 a.m. and 10 a.m. hours, alongside former George W. Bush press secretary Dana Perino.

MacCallum’s demotion comes after her program shocked industry observers by taking a ratings loss from Newsmax’s offering following the election, the first time Fox had ever been bested by its erstwhile far-right rival. Fox News Primetime gives the network the opportunity to conduct tryouts for its right-wing commentators before potentially granting the influential time slot to whichever is the most impressive.

The message is clear. Fox executives hold the “news”-side figures responsible for the criticism from Trump, outcry from viewers, and the ratings dip that followed the network’s decision desk accurately calling first Arizona and then the 2020 election for President-elect Joe Biden. Rather than being rewarded for telling their audience the truth, they are being punished.

Fox had already frantically tried to revive faltering ratings and rebuild support from the right by promoting its “opinion” shows during its “news” hours. Following the election, theoretically independent “news” shows like America’s Newsroom started regularly basing segments on the nighttime antics of their “opinion” colleagues. Now the “news” side has lost one of its highest-profile hours altogether so the network can instead have a four-hour block of explicit right-wing propaganda.

These moves constitute a rout for the Fox “news” division that saw a long series of such defeats as the network became entwined with the Trump administration over the past four years. Several longtime network journalists departed, while current and former employees levied increasingly harsh criticism of its coverage. After Fox laid off members of its “Brain Room” research department in the fall, Fox staffers told The Daily Beast that the moves showed the network was acting “more like an extension of this administration, instead of a news network” and compared it to “state TV.” 

Fox executives seem committed to ensuring that trend continues long after Trump leaves office. The network belongs to the Tucker Carlsons and Sean Hannitys. And with Fox unwilling to reform from within, only its advertisers and the cable providers who carry it can exert enough influence to get it to behave responsibly.