‘Walked a fine line’: how Fox News found itself in an existential crisis

It was about 11.20pm on election night when Fox News made the call. The Democratic candidate had clinched a key swing state, a win that could set them on a path to be president of the United States.

In the Fox News studio, Karl Rove, conservative panelist and longtime Republican strategist, was apoplectic. Around the country, Republican supporters were bereft. Fox News launched an immediate inquisition into its own decision, but the network stood by the call.

Barack Obama had won Ohio, defeating Mitt Romney. Obama would be sworn in as president, for the second time, on 20 January 2013.

Fast forward eight years, and Fox News found itself in a strikingly similar position on 3 November 2020. The rightwing news channel was the first to call Arizona, which has gone blue once in the past 72 years, for Joe Biden.

Donald Trump and his campaign were furious, barraging the network with a series of phone calls in an attempt to get the decision overturned. The president’s supporters were upset too.

At protests outside a vote counting center in Phoenix, Arizona, a crowd chanted: “Fox News sucks!”, turning their ire on a channel whose hosts Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity have spent the past four years praising Trump’s almost every move or utterance.

Now, in the tumultuous week following that Arizona call, Fox News, the most-watched cable news channel in America, has found itself in a sort of existential crisis.

A demonstrator holds a ‘Count every vote’ sign outside Fox News in New York, New York, on 22 October.
A demonstrator holds a ‘Count every vote’ sign outside Fox News in New York, New York, on 22 October. Photograph: Erik McGregor/LightRocket/Getty Images

Trump remains furious. On Wednesday he posted a series of messages on Twitter criticizing Fox News, even suggesting alternatives.

But despite Trump’s flurry of fury, he then went on to direct people to Sean Hannity’s Fox News show. The reality is that the inconsistency from the president is matched by Fox News’ content right now, which swings from relatively straight news to the outrageous.

Depending on which anchor is on air, the network has either rubbished, or backed to the hilt, Trump’s unfounded claims of election fraud, while the perceived lack of constant support for the president has viewers claiming they will never watch Fox News again.

“Fox News has always walked a fine line between trying to look like an independent news organization and supporting conservative politics,” said Eric Deggans, TV critic for NPR and media analyst for NBC News and MSNBC.

“There have to be moments where they act like an actual news organization in order to maintain their veneer of being an independent news organization.”

The channel has not hit on a seamless way to maintain that balance. On-screen on Fox News, the days since the election have seen a dizzying swing from reality to fantasy.

In the middle of the day, more traditional journalists rule. On Monday, the channel cut away from a press conference by the White House press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, when she made a series of unsubstantiated claims about voter fraud. “I can’t in good countenance continue to show you this,” the Fox News anchor Neil Cavuto told the audience.

However, at night, Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson, Fox News’ most popular anchors, come out to play, and the network enters an alternate universe, where Democrats have, depending on the state, either suppressed the number of ballots or inflated the number of ballots. Either way, Trump won.

That makes the effort to look like a news organization increasingly difficult.

“What’s happening now is the Republican party is getting more strained, and there’s more and more of a sense among Fox News viewership that anything that contradicts a worldview that is supportive of conservatives is wrong,” Deggans said.

“I think it’s getting harder and harder for Fox News to ride that balance.”

It’s enough to make one wonder why they bother.

Sean Hannity broadcasts from the Republican national convention in Baltimore, Maryland, on 26 August.
Sean Hannity broadcasts from the Republican national convention in Baltimore, Maryland, on 26 August. Photograph: Bloomberg/Getty Images

The most-viewed shows on Fox News are the propaganda hours provided by Carlson and Hannity. In the second quarter of 2020, Carlson’s Tucker Carlson Tonight set a record high for the number of viewers, with 4.331m, while Hannity’s show Hannity drew the second best ever figures, with 4.311m.

So why doesn’t Fox News just stick with the rightwing conspiracy theories, with the denigrating of Black Lives Matter activists, and with the Dear Leader-style coverage of Trump?

“Ultimately their power comes from their audience size,” said Angelo Carusone, president and CEO of Media Matters, a progressive media watchdog.

“Not just the size of their audience, but the engagement of the audience – and that relationship that they’ve then leveraged, as well as some hard-edged negotiating tactics, to extract obscenely high cable fees.

“[Fox News is] actually renegotiating a lot of their cable contracts right now, and if they’re seen as a sort of extremist, fringey thing, and they don’t have this veneer of journalism, then it actually affects their ability to negotiate effectively.”

Worryingly for Fox News, on Trump-supporting Facebook pages and groups, people are incandescent.

“Time to switch to Newsmax or One America News,” is just one example of posts suggesting a Fox News abandonment.

“Fox News has officially joined the corrupt media.”

Another post declared that viewers should “F FOX News”.

“They have sold their souls and lost the respect of millions of loyal viewers , [thinking emoji] [crying emoji].Boycott and show them the power of the almighty [money bag emoji] dollar.”

So, could Fox News be in jeopardy? Clearly, it has survived criticism from its own before. But in 2020, there are fledgling competitors.

“What didn’t exist in the past, does now,” Carusone said.

“Which is that you have entities like Newsmax and One America News Network that can actually gather a bit of an audience.”

Both Newsmax and One America News Network are more rightwing than Fox News, and each has pushed zany conspiracy theories, including that there was a deep state or Democrat-led plot to infect Trump with coronavirus, and that Anthony Fauci, the head of the CDC, funded the creation of the coronavirus.

Over the summer, Newsmax TV was recording about 25,000 viewers a day, according to CNN’s Brian Stelter. In election week, that jumped up to 182,000 viewers. But the channel has experienced a real surge since the election, after Fox News came under fire, and Newsmax’s nightly shows have drawn 700-800,000 viewers, according to Nielsen.

Fox News reach far outstrips both these upstarts. But it could be that Trump’s promotion of Newsmax is having an effect.

Trump retweeted five different posts praising Newsmax on Thursday, and laid into Fox News, claiming the channel’s daytime ratings – where Trump is treated relatively evenly – have “completely collapsed” and that Fox News “forgot the Golden Goose”.

Sean Hannity speaks with then press secretary Sean Spicer at the White House on 24 January 2017.
Sean Hannity speaks with the then press secretary, Sean Spicer, at the White House on 24 January 2017. Photograph: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

If the rift is permanent, it could be damaging for Fox News. But given Trump’s need for attention, the president is going to have to find a network that will indulge him.

A Trump TV network could be another contender for the rightwing, Trump loving crowd.

It has been mooted in the past – although this may be less likely given Trump is in debt, and is likely to find himself confronted by legal battles once he leaves the presidency, said Heather Hendershot, a professor of film and media at MIT who studies conservative and rightwing media.

OANN and Newsmax, which lack funding compared with Fox News, would be options for Trump, but perhaps the president, who has flitted in and out of grievances with Fox News in the past, could still turn to the established network.

“I would speculate Trump continuing to develop the Trump brand, which has always been his thing, and finding a platform that wants to host him, like Fox News or OANN,” Hendershot said.

“But who is going to pay him more to appear on their network? Fox News. OANN is really underfunded, they’re really low-budget, and they’re not in enough cable packages.”

Fox News survived 2012, clearly, and Hendershot thinks the channel is in no risk of disappearing. With a Democratic president, it might even give Fox News a chance to return to its strengths.

“Having Biden in the White House certainly could help Fox,” Hendershot said.

“They do well when they are oppositional. They did very well when Obama was in office because they had a clear enemy to fight against.”


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