On air, Fox News personalities have been endlessly attacking so-called “woke corporations.” But now, Fox News finds itself in the right’s cultural crosshairs — with conservatives accusing it of promoting “trans ideology” in its own workplace.
The inciting incident is a Monday morning story in the Daily Signal, the media arm of the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank. In the story, reporter Mary Margaret Olohan writes that Fox’s employee handbook allows employees to use “bathrooms that align with their gender identity, rather than their biological sex,” permits them to “dress in alignment with their preferred gender,” and requires that their coworkers use “their preferred name and pronouns in the workplace.”
Many of Fox’s rules in this area appear to be in line with state law: The company’s headquarters are in New York, where state law explicitly prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender identity (something Olohan notes in passing but doesn’t dwell on). Fox told me in a written statement, “FOX News Media is compliant with all Human Rights laws mandated by the cities and states in which we operate, including New York and California.”
That there’s less to the Daily Signal’s exclusive than meets the eye didn’t stop many on the culture war right from blasting Fox as a sellout.
Matt Walsh, an influential anti-trans podcaster at the Daily Wire, led the charge. According to Walsh, Fox is “actively working to suppress conservative voices” — an apparent reference to the network’s ouster of Tucker Carlson — “while promoting leftism in its most radical form” and thus “needs to get the full Bud Light treatment.” (Bud Light has been targeted by a boycott campaign on the right after partnering with trans influencer Dylan Mulvaney.)
Geoffrey Ingersoll, the editor-in-chief of the Daily Caller, tweeted that he “personally [knew] several employees, some very senior, who hate their [house] style going along with far-left activists and their propaganda terms.” You can find several other popular conservative Twitter accounts saying similar things.
These tweets crystallize a backlash against Fox that has been growing on the right ever since Carlson’s unceremonious firing about a month ago. In fact, there’s some speculation that this was the intended result of the Daily Signal story.
This leak is coming one month after "Tucker Carlson Tonight" was cancelled. It's not a coincidence. https://t.co/n2Jk5xlg3o— Brian Stelter (@brianstelter) May 22, 2023
In her story, Olohan cites “a former producer for ‘Tucker Carlson Tonight’” as one of her key sources. She also reports on behind-the-scenes drama from the now-canceled show to support her theory that Fox is quietly pro-trans.
“A source who still works at Fox News told The Daily Signal that after Carlson’s show was canceled in April, producers for the new 8 p.m. ‘Fox News Tonight’ program were told not to bash [trans Bud Light spokesperson Dylan] Mulvaney. That directive came from high-level executives,” Olohan reports.
Whether or not Tucker himself is behind the handbook leak, or it’s merely the work of some of his allies and former employees, one thing is for certain: The network is continuing to suffer from parting ways with its biggest star. And what matters for Fox matters for the conservative movement writ large.
What the latest controversy tells us about Fox’s future
Whether it be the Bud Light boycott, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s war on Disney, or rising fury at the investment giant BlackRock’s “woke investing,” anti-corporate politics has become increasingly prominent in the messaging and agenda of the Republican Party. The post-Trump populist turn among conservatives has led to a rising sense that corporations are staffed by members of the socially liberal elite, graduates of fancy colleges who may like lower taxes but will sell the right out where it counts: the culture war, in which trans issues have become an especially heated front.
You’d think Fox, of all places, would be exempt from this critique of corporate America. But there is actually some history of conservatives, especially on the populist right, being suspicious that Fox isn’t fully on their side — and not without a little justification, as Fox’s editorial line was fairly hostile to Trump in 2016 before his victory presented a fait accompli.
Of all of Fox’s recent programming, Carlson’s show did the most to convince more populist conservatives that Fox News wasn’t purely an outpost of the dreaded GOP establishment. Profoundly obsessed with gluing eyeballs to sets, Carlson had cracked the code on winning the hardcore right’s allegiance: incessant, baseless, and nonstop cultural fearmongering about immigrants, Blacks, Democrats, and the LGBT community. The conservatives angriest about the Daily Signal story are, not coincidentally, big Carlson fans.
Walsh claimed that he’s “been personally blacklisted from appearing on the network because of my stance on the [trans] issue,” and tweeted, “Tucker fought behind the scenes against my blacklisting, and even managed to have me on a few times over the past year. But now that he’s gone, there’s no stopping Fox’s march leftward.”
It’s far from clear if these claims are true (Fox did not respond to my queries on this particular point). But the idea behind them — that Carlson was the conservative populist bulwark against squishy corporate executives — is not an uncommon view among people on the hard right. And this sentiment makes Fox vulnerable to attacks from the Carlson camp and other conservative outlets like the Daily Signal designed to reinforce the post-Carlson discontent with Fox.
The restiveness on the right has been reflected in the numbers. Carlson’s firing has proven to be a major ratings disaster. Data from Nielsen shows that Fox’s ratings at the 8 pm weeknight slot fell by fully half after Carlson’s dismissal, from an average of 3 million for his show to a mere 1.5 million for the various temporary hosts Fox has tried out during his former slot. Perhaps the numbers will tick back up after a permanent replacement is chosen, but right now it seems the network is sorely missing its star.
The big question is what Fox does in response to its post-Tucker woes. If the backlash from pro-Tucker forces on the right keeps going, and its ratings keep suffering, how does it try to make up with the alienated far-right base?
Fox plays an outsized role in American public life, a more important one than any other media outlet with the possible exception of the New York Times. Where it decides to go from here could have a consequential impact on the course of American conservatism — and the 2024 campaign.