President Donald Trump spends most days watching hours of Fox News programming and many nights talking with its stable of pro-Trump hosts. But his recent criticism of the network shows that he doesn’t understand the con at the heart of the network’s model. Fox is a propaganda outlet whose success depends on maintaining just enough trappings of journalism to avoid that label. And if Trump turns his warning shots into a sustained assault, the result could spell disaster for the network.
Fox and Trump have enjoyed a mutually beneficial, symbiotic relationship. The network helped drive Trump’s political rise, all but fused with his administration after his election, and regularly cheerleads for him. Trump, in turn, is obsessed with the network, whose programming and personalities shape his worldview and frequently impact his decision. He regularly promotes Fox’s coverage and has given its hosts unprecedented access, lifting the network’s ratings.
But Trump clearly views the network as part of his messaging operation, and he has publicly aired his grievances when it has failed to live up to that standard by hosting Democrats or publishing unfavorable polls. While watching Fox on Wednesday morning, he again saw something he didn’t like: an interview with the Democratic National Committee’s communications director.
The president quickly responded on Twitter, denouncing the segment for “heavily promoting the Democrats.” After listing other Fox commentators who he claimed had taken Fox too far to the left, Trump declared: “We have to start looking for a new News Outlet. Fox isn’t working for us anymore!”
Trump’s critique was that it is unacceptable for the network to provide anything short of the sycophancy he gets from Fox hosts like Sean Hannity and Lou Dobbs. Its failure to produce such programming around the clock is, in Trump’s telling, an affront to his supporters that should lead them to abandon the outlet for one of its competitors.
That view clashes sharply with Fox’s business model, which depends on creating the impression the network isn’t a 24/7 propaganda outlet.
Fox was founded on a con. The network claimed to be the only outlet providing an honest review of the news of the day without liberal bias, epitomized by its slogan “fair and balanced.” At the same time, it effectively served as an arm of the Republican Party, smearing Democrats while both helping to elect Republicans and pushing them to emulate the cutting, hyperpartisan style of its biggest stars.
In the decades since, Fox executives have consistently pushed back against criticism by arguing that while the network’s “opinion” hosts are conservative, it also features a “news” division which produces objective journalism like other media outlets.
This is largely farcical -- Fox’s purported “news” hours feature much of the same disinformation as its “opinion” hours. But they provide the appearance of similar programming on other networks, with interviews of members from both major parties, reports from correspondents, and panel discussions.
That image is essential to maintaining the network’s business model. Fox draws a sizable audience that comes for its core product of right-wing propaganda undergirded by bigotry and conspiracy theories. But major advertisers are rightfully uncomfortable associating their own brands with such content, and in recent months, dozens of companies have abandoned the network’s most-watched shows, sending Fox’s overall ad inventory into a tailspin. Fox executives have sought to keep advertisers from abandoning the network altogether by stressing the credibility of the network’s “news” division.
There are opposing tensions in this argument. Advertisers must be willing to ignore the unhinged commentary that occurs on the network’s other hours. And Fox’s core viewers, who adore the president and the hard-right prime-time hosts who support him but are turned off by the “news” personalities, need to accept that not every hour on the network can be Hannity.
Now the president himself -- the Fox superfan supreme -- is signaling that he wants to blow up that fragile equilibrium.
In the short term, Fox employees can try to turn the criticism to their benefit by citing the president’s response as evidence that they aren’t really propagandists. But if Trump sustains his criticism, it will trap the network in a vulnerable position with no good options.
If the network tries to push back on Trump’s criticism, the result could be a cycle of escalations that triggers a viewer backlash. Previous altercations have shown that Fox’s audience will side with Trump over the network, and Trump has repeatedly promoted the even more overtly propagandistic One America News Network, suggesting a potential alternative for unhappy Fox viewers.
If Fox responds by shifting its coverage to be even more favorable to Trump, it will be abandoning the argument it has used to pacify its advertisers. More of them will likely flee in response, and it will become ever more difficult for the network to win them back.
And if the network does nothing, the result could be either -- or both.
Fox’s infamously hyperaggressive PR team has been unusually quiet so far, leaving the network’s response to the president’s criticism in the hands of its commentators. “Fox News isn't supposed to work for you,” senior political analyst Brit Hume tweeted in response to the latest salvo.
Fox’s problem is that Trump disagrees, and its audience is likely on his side.