Fox’s desperate push to preserve viewers exposes the hollowness of its “news” side

Television with Fox News logo

Citation Molly Butler / Media Matters

President Donald Trump’s recent attacks on Fox News appear to be driving some of the network’s viewers to its far-right cable news competitors. Now Fox is trying to slow the bleeding by emphasizing the primacy of its right-wing prime-time hosts at the expense of its purported “straight news” side. Over the last week, Fox “news” shows have been featuring on-screen promos, advertisements, and the equivalent of live ad reads for prime-time “opinion” hosts Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, and Laura Ingraham.

The network’s desperate PR strategy exposes the hollowness of its claims of an impermeable divide between its “news” and “opinion” sides. When advertisers support the network’s “news” programs, they are implicitly sponsoring its bigoted pro-Trump propagandists.

Fox depends on a two-track business model. It builds and maintains its audience by providing a platform to vitriolic right-wingers, who entrance viewers with a combination of Republican Party talking points, conspiracy theories, bigoted invective, and unhinged attacks on the left. But it monetizes that audience through payments from advertisers and cable providers, who are correctly wary of associating their brands with the network’s worst excesses. 

Fox executives traditionally square that circle by emphasizing the “news” side, which they present as a source of independent and accurate journalism comparable to mainstream news outlets. This has long been a lie -- with few exceptions, the right-wing narratives and lies common to Fox’s prime-time programming also infect its news hours (Fox’s abominable, deadly coverage of the coronavirus pandemic provides an apt example).

But Trump has exposed the tension between the two aspects of Fox’s business strategy. He is constantly watching the network and when he sees signs of less than total subservience during its “news” hours -- a tough interview with one of his staffers, unfavorable results from its polling unit, a Democrat appearing on its airwaves -- he lashes out. Those are the sorts of programming features that network executives highlight to  advertisers in order to claim that Fox is a normal news outlet that accurately depicts reality. Now the president is using them to undermine the network’s standing with its viewers, who very much don’t want to live in that reality.

Trump has escalated this off-and-on feud since Election Day, reportedly enraged by the network’s (accurate) decision to call Arizona for his opponent, President-elect Joe Biden. The president repeatedly lashed out at Fox’s “news” shows for not being supportive enough, calling the network’s behavior the “biggest difference” between the 2016 and 2020 elections. On Sunday, he urged his supporters to switch to Fox’s competitors, One America News and Newsmax, both of which have adopted his lie that he actually won the election and Democrats have stolen it through widespread election fraud.

Trump’s argument is dramatically overstated. Fox’s “news” hours, like its “opinion” shows, have spent plenty of time propping up his election conspiracy theories and trying to inject doubt into the election results. And despite his complaints, he continues to watch and tweet about Fox’s pro-Trump programming. But Fox’s rivals clearly smell blood and are leaning into the contrast. And it appears to be having some effect -- Newsmax’s ratings have reportedly soared (OAN’s are not captured by ratings services), and Trump supporters have chanted “Fox News sucks” at pro-Trump events.

Fox is responding to the prospect of serious competition by raising the profile of its right-wing prime-time lineup during its purportedly separate “news” hours.

On Friday, the network aired a promo for its “opinion” hosts during The Story, a supposed “straight news” show helmed by anchor Martha MacCallum (who is basically the epitome of how the network tries to pass off partisan conservatives as unbiased journalists). The spot described those hosts as “the voices America trusts” who are “speaking up for you,” and hyped their commentary casting doubt on the election results. 

On Monday, Trace Gallagher, Fox’s chief breaking news correspondent, provided the equivalent of a live ad read for Fox’s prime-time hosts. At the end of a segment on Hollywood “cancel culture,” he told viewers, “For more stories like this, make sure to tune into Fox News prime time, where our powerful lineup stands for what is right. Tucker Carlson beginning at 8 p.m. eastern, followed by Hannity at 9, and The Ingraham Angle with Laura Ingraham at 10.”

Fox viewers who tuned in to its morning “straight news” program America’s Newsroom on Tuesday were greeted by an unusual sight. In the box at the right end of the chyron box, which typically previews upcoming guests, Fox instead rotated through promotions for each of its prime-time programs, followed by an image of all three of the hosts over their new slogan, “Standing Up For What’s Right.” That cycle of graphics ran well over 100 times over the course of the broadcast, providing the audience with a constant reminder of Fox’s slate of pro-Trump propagandists.

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Citation From the November 17, 2020, edition of Fox News' America's Newsroom.

It’s easy to imagine an ongoing merger of the purportedly independent “news” and “opinion” divisions if that’s what it takes to juice viewership. Indeed, on Monday, the network’s biggest star hinted that something like that might be on the way.

Carlson announced that he is in talks with Fox News executives to, in his words, “expand the amount of reporting and analysis we do in this hour across other parts of the company.” He added that “the people who run Fox News want more of it, not less.” 

It’s unclear what that expansion could look like -- Carlson providing packages that air during Fox’s “news” hours? -- but it points to a larger role for someone the network’s lawyers successfully convinced a judge that no “reasonable viewer” should take seriously.

After Trump’s election, Fox protected its right flank by promoting Carlson and Ingraham and effectively turning its prime-time hours into Breitbart TV. A competition for viewers with the likes of OAN and Newsmax triggered by Trump’s defeat could pit the entire network in a race to the bottom of the fever swamp.