Right-wing media’s civil war is setting off a race to the bottom
As Newsmax and OAN gain viewers, Fox News is taking note
At 11:20 p.m. on November 3, the Fox News Decision Desk called the state of Arizona for Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. This, according to a New York Times report, sent President Donald Trump into a rage ahead of a 2:30 a.m. speech in the White House East Room, where he falsely claimed victory.
That Saturday, November 7, Fox News joined other mainstream national decision desks in calling the race for Biden. In doing so, the pro-Trump media organization inadvertently kicked off an ideological race to the bottom among right-wing media. To Trump and his supporters, Fox’s call was a betrayal; to others in conservative media, it was a call to arms. With Trump virtually immune to criticism -- if the past few years have proved anything, it’s that the president is seen as a sort of demigod among the far right -- the sharpest attacks in the wake of his electoral defeat were aimed at Fox News.
“If Trump loses and it’s a close election, blame Chris Wallace and Fox News,” said Newsmax CEO Chris Ruddy during a November 3 appearance on The Michael Berry Show.
“There’s a lot of people mad -- Fox News viewers -- and those people are sampling other places,” said former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly during a November 17 edition of his No Spin News show. “We have been a tremendous beneficiary of that. We have tens of thousands of people signing up for memberships on BillOReilly.com in the last few weeks.”
The Daily Wire called on its newsletter subscribers to “cut the cord” on cable news, in part because Fox “downplayed any questions about voting irregularities reported from the most important swing states.”
One America News Network host and unofficial Trump legal adviser Christina Bobb went so far as to call Fox a “Democrat Party hack” that “was trying to breathe life into the Biden campaign” by calling Arizona. On Twitter, OAN host Kara McKinney told a viewer, “Don’t worry about me caving like FOX. My morals are more important to me than any paycheck or ratings.”
Newsmax host Grant Stinchfield tweeted that Fox News was “sinking” and welcomed its viewers to watch his network, instead. Serial plagiarist and Newsmax host Benny Johnson tweeted that “Fox News is now indistinguishable from CNN” and called on conservatives to stop watching.
A right-wing media civil war had broken out in the election’s aftermath -- the type of conflict that would prompt dozens of “Democrats in disarray!” headlines if the infighting were happening on the left. But as with so much of what passes for news among conservative media outlets, the claims that Fox now stands against Trump are far from accurate.
Fox News is as much of a right-wing disinformation vector as ever.
Between October 14 and November 1, Fox News spent 36 hours and 34 minutes spread across 596 segments covering dubious stories about Biden’s son Hunter. The entire Hunter Biden saga, itself a hard-to-follow conspiracy theory, was pushed by Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani with the goal of torpedoing the elder Biden’s presidential campaign. Key aspects of the story were debunked or otherwise unsubstantiated.
But questionable or not, Fox couldn’t get enough of the nonscandal, spreading its coverage across both opinion (21 hours, 56 minutes) and “straight news” (14 hours, 38 minutes) shows. And this was only one example in a series of right-wing smears Fox News promoted in the run-up to Election Day.
From the failure of the “unmasking” scandal to repeated efforts to downplay the damage being wrought by COVID-19, Fox consistently sided with Trump and tried to boost his reelection chances throughout the 2020 campaign. During one nine-day stretch in October, Fox aired more than nine hours of live coverage of Trump rallies. The network also helped Trump spread baseless allegations of widespread voter fraud before the election even happened, celebrated a group of Trump supporters who tried to run a Biden bus off the road, and made a last-ditch attempt to concoct a “deplorable moment” scandal for Biden.
Fox News does not have a “leftist agenda” nor is it in any way a liberal news outlet, and the network certainly did not turn against Trump following Election Day. In fact, a recent Media Matters study of the first nine days after Fox called the race for Biden found that the channel cast doubt on the election results 574 times, with 208 of those instances happening during Fox’s “straight news” shows. Fox host Sean Hannity called for a “do-over” election in Pennsylvania after it became apparent that Trump was headed for defeat (he has since gone after Republican officials who allowed election results to stand in states Trump lost). Prime-time host Laura Ingraham promoted the idea that perhaps the Supreme Court could simply overturn the election in Trump’s favor. And Tucker Carlson falsely claimed that votes were being cast on behalf of dead people and made the ridiculous argument that “no honest person” would say the election was fair.
Since its inception, Fox News has been a cesspool of lies and right-wing propaganda. This remains true today, even as the network’s success in radicalizing conservatives has left it open to attacks from its own pro-Trump audience.
Right-wing arguments that Fox isn’t conservative enough have been a hallmark of the Trump era.
Trump has always had something of a love-hate relationship with Fox.
“[Fox News] has been treating me very unfairly & I have therefore decided that I won’t be doing any more Fox shows for the foreseeable future,” then-candidate Trump tweeted in September 2015. Days earlier, he criticized the channel for hosting “Trump haters.”
This marked Trump’s second clash with Fox, following the August 2015 brouhaha with then-Fox anchor Megyn Kelly over a debate question about some of his past sexist remarks.
In January 2016, Trump called for Kelly to be removed as a moderator for another Fox Republican primary debate, citing a “conflict of interest and bias” on her part. Trump ended up skipping that debate entirely, deciding instead to hold his own event.
On Twitter, Trump has taken aim at Fox news-side anchors Shannon Bream, Neil Cavuto, Shepard Smith, and Chris Wallace. He’s slammed Fox’s weekend programming, Fox’s polling operation, and even Fox’s decision to interview Democrats. He’s lamented that Fox was “doing nothing to help Republicans, and me, get re-elected on November 3rd” and written that the channel “doesn’t deliver for US anymore.”
Trump’s view on the network seems to be that he likes it when Fox says nice things about him, and he doesn’t like it when anyone on the channel criticizes him in any way. His attacks on Fox were echoed by dozens of sycophantic conservative media personalities. Right-wing TV network The First, National Pulse Editor-in-Chief and co-host of Steve Bannon’s War Room podcast Raheem Kassam, TheBlaze’s Glenn Beck, and right-wing radio hosts Sebastian Gorka, Steven Crowder, Wayne Dupree, and Darrell Scott all got in some post-election digs in at Fox News. The same goes for extremely online right-wing commentators Mike Cernovich and Ian Miles Cheong.
Fox has become a victim of its own success, turning its audience on the pro-Trump fringe against the network during the rare times it failed to provide the media safe space he expects — and which Newsmax and OAN are eager to provide.
Newsmax and OAN know what Trump and his followers want to hear. They’re going to provide it, and Fox will likely follow.
Fox News and talk radio have served as proof that there’s a big market for media meant to reassure conservatives that their preexisting worldview is correct. Hyperpartisan sites like Gateway Pundit, Breitbart, and The Daily Caller have paved the way for an even larger right-wing media landscape built around a tenuous attachment to reality. The fragmentation of media has incentivized one-upmanship for bubble dwellers, and that’s exactly the strategy newer right-wing outlets are trying to use to topple Fox.
If you want to hear that Trump was the real winner of the election, see stories about why police were justified in attacking an elderly protester, or watch an anchor call Democrats Nazis, you can tune into OAN. Newsmax is a one-stop shop for segments that blame the victims of police violence for their own deaths or feature altered videos meant to make Biden appear lost, hosted by people who tried to profit from phony COVID-19 cures and who sympathize with white nationalists.
Most of these examples are things you could also see on Fox News, especially in recent years, but Newsmax and OAN are leaning into them harder and with less journalistic pretense. This is the far-right bubble Trump and many of his supporters have chosen in response to a reality where Trump is less like a Ben Garrison cartoon and more, well, like Trump.
In a recent interview with The New Yorker, Newsmax CEO Chris Ruddy explained why the media outlet entertains fringe, far-right conspiracy theories. “At the end of the day, it’s great for news. The news cycle is red-hot, and Newsmax is getting one million people per minute, according to Nielsen, tuning into Newsmax TV. I think it’s good,” he said. Additionally, according to Ruddy, Newsmax has an editorial policy of supporting Trump and his policies, which isn’t exactly something any reputable media company would do.
But the pro-Trump media civil war is forcing Fox News to embrace this right-wing chaos spiral, and it won’t end well.
After the election, Fox began running a promo featuring pro-Trump opinion hosts Hannity, Carlson, Steve Doocy, Greg Gutfeld, and Laura Ingraham casting doubt on the election results. Additionally, Fox has taken to including Carlson’s commentary in the channel’s “straight news” programs. This follows an announcement Carlson made during the November 16 edition of Tucker Carlson Tonight that the network was “working on a project to expand the amount of reporting and analysis we do in this hour across other parts of the company."
While it’s not out of the ordinary for Fox to promote pro-Trump coverage from its opinion hosts, it seems likely the recent right-wing criticism of Fox spurred the network to more aggressively emphasize its role in the right-wing media bubble. This can be seen in some of Fox Business host Maria Bartiromo’s post-election coverage.
What other right-wing outlets are doing to Fox News is what Fox has spent decades doing to legitimate news organizations.
One of the most consistent strategies in all of conservative media has been to accuse mainstream news outlets of having a liberal bias and frame conservative outlets as either an unbiased alternative or a necessary counterweight to the mainstream. In 1969, then-Vice President Spiro Agnew delivered a speech attacking TV newscasters for supposed bias against President Richard Nixon. In 1996, former Nixon adviser Roger Ailes became CEO of Fox News at its launch. Under the banner of being “fair and balanced,” a slogan it used until 2017 when the tagline was ditched as a way to distance the company from Ailes, Fox News was a safe space for conservatives.
Fox’s journey to becoming a cable news powerhouse has relied on the cultivation of a fiercely loyal audience of people who have been conditioned to distrust other outlets. Fox spent years pandering directly to conservatives, making it the primary source of political and election news for 45% of conservative Republicans, according to a 2019 Pew Research survey. The level of distrust Fox viewers have for mainstream media outlets is remarkable: 65% of Fox viewers distrust MSNBC, 57% distrust The New York Times, and 55% distrust ABC News. The non-Fox sources of news trusted by the network’s viewers tend to be on the far right, such as The Rush Limbaugh Show and Breitbart. This may help explain how and why Fox News manages to stave off mainstream outlets like CNN and NPR while leaving itself susceptible to audience poaching from the fringe right.
Now, Newsmax and OAN are trying to peel away some of Fox’s viewers by indulging the election fantasies of Trump supporters. To counter this, as the increase in Carlson’s content demonstrates, Fox is clearly recalibrating how it operates as a source of conservative propaganda. It’s safe to assume that in the coming months we’ll see Fox become more like Newsmax and OAN, not less, as the rival networks compete for viewers among the Trump bubble dwellers who believe a satanic cabal run by Democratic leaders drinks the blood of babies. The right-wing outlets vying for that audience are locked in a race to the bottom, and we’re all worse off for it.