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Trump’s turn against Fox News, explained

The network sometimes engages with the reality that Biden won. For Trump, that’s an unforgivable sin.

Trump being interviewed by Sean Hannity during a Super Bowl pregame broadcast in February.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

President Donald Trump spent part of Thursday fixated on one of his favorite grievances: media coverage he perceives as being unfair to him. In this case, Trump’s target wasn’t the usual suspects on MSNBC or CNN. It was Fox News.

The string of tweets and retweets the president posted seemed tantamount to a declaration of war on a network that’s done so much to help him over the years.

Trump began the day otherwise dominated by coverage of record levels of coronavirus infections and hospitalizations by retweeting a string of random replies to a tweet posted by Fox News personality Greg Gutfeld promoting further-right alternatives to Fox — things like “#foxnews is dead,” “Left Fox 4 NewsMaxxxxx,” and “Newsmax and Oann are great alternatives.” He then offered a tweet of his own in which he referred to himself as “the Golden Goose” and lied about Fox News’s ratings. (The network still enjoys the best ratings in cable news.)

“.@FoxNews daytime ratings have completely collapsed. Weekend daytime even WORSE. Very sad to watch this happen, but they forgot what made them successful, what got them there. They forgot the Golden Goose. The biggest difference between the 2016 Election, and 2020, was @FoxNews!” Trump wrote.

Trump carefully exempted Fox News’s primetime lineup talent — Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, and Laura Ingraham — from his ire. Indeed, hours after attacking the network, Trump tweeted out clips from Sean Hannity’s show spreading baseless conspiracy theories about votes being switched from him to Joe Biden that were debunked just hours earlier by his own government.

Hannity’s segment was not an aberration. As Peter Kafka detailed for Recode in a post about how Fox News is helping Trump spread election fraud conspiracy theories, Hannity, Ingraham, and Carlson have all done segments — sometimes collaborating with Republican Party officials — in which they’ve suggested with no evidence that it’s plausible that Trump “is a victim of massive voter fraud that cost him the election while simultaneously defeating Democratic House and Senate candidates.”

For Trump, however, a little bit isn’t enough. He expects total loyalty from Fox News, and the fact that the network’s news side won’t give it to him is an unforgivable sin.

Fox News’s call of Arizona for Biden was a major turning point

Trump’s frustrations with Fox News have been building since at least the early days of the 2020 campaign. He’s routinely lashed out over Fox polls that showed Biden beating him and about the fact that the network would occasionally interview Democrats.

But a flashpoint in the Trump-Fox relationship came on election night, when Fox News’s call of Arizona put the first nail in the president’s political coffin.

As Annie Karni and Maggie Haberman of the New York Times reported, Fox’s call — which may have been premature but was ultimately vindicated by Biden’s victory in Arizona — sent Trump into a tailspin:

What ensued for Mr. Trump was a night of angry calls to Republican governors and advice from campaign aides that he ignored, leading to a middle-of-the-night presidential briefing in which he made a reckless and unsubstantiated string of remarks about the democratic process. Standing in the East Room at 2:30 a.m., he dismissed the election as a “fraud” and claimed he wanted to stop the counting of votes and leave the results to the Supreme Court.

Ultimately, Fox News’s call played no role in Trump’s eventual defeat — the votes that sealed Trump’s fate had already been cast by election night. But it has nonetheless become grist for a “stab in the back” narrative.


Along similar lines, when Fox News called the entire election for Biden last Saturday, network news anchors were quick to start referring to Biden as “president-elect” — a designation indicating they weren’t going to indulge Trump’s baseless claims about the election being stolen from him.

This isn’t to say that Fox News’s coverage of Trump’s defeat has been a model of journalistic integrity. Daytime anchors have allowed Trumpworld guests to spread conspiracy theories about election fraud without pushing back at all, and Fox News White House correspondent John Roberts has repeatedly given oxygen to Republican fantasies about the 2020 election playing out like 2000 or Trump invalidating the election results with help from GOP state legislatures.

If this all sounds a bit incoherent, that’s because it is. As CNN media reporter Brian Stelter told my colleague Sean Illing in a new Q&A, Fox’s coverage since the election was called has tried to thread the needle of acknowledging Biden’s victory while not alienating Trump supporters who buy baseless conspiracy theories about the election being stolen from him:

They are covering Biden, the president-elect, in one breath, and then they are imagining voter fraud in the next breath. And remember, Fox is a collection of shows that barely talk to each other. There’s some cross-pollination, but most of the opinion shows have awesome autonomy. News anchors like Neil Cavuto will keep doing reality-based journalism, and Sean Hannity or Mark Levin will keep doing what they do.

But “reality-based journalism” is an affront to the president when it engages with a reality he doesn’t like. And so Trump has turned to promoting outlets that fully indulge his MAGA fantasies.

Trump TV might still become a thing

While Trump refuses to publicly acknowledge that his days in the White House are now numbered, Mike Allen of Axios on Thursday reported that privately, he “has told friends he wants to start a digital media company to clobber Fox News and undermine the conservative-friendly network.” Maggie Haberman confirmed that reporting but added that Trump could ultimately “join forces with an existing property like OANN or Newsmax.”

Fox News’s occasionally reality-based post-election treatment of Trump has seemed to alienate some of the MAGA base. Ratings for Newsmax have been surging while that network refuses to even acknowledge that Biden is president-elect. My colleague Emily VanDerWerff immersed herself in two days of Newsmax coverage after the election and detailed how its emerging programming model is to position itself as an even Trumpier alternative to Fox News:

The race to win over the Trump diehards is the true battle Newsmax finds itself in. The network is unlikely to overtake Fox News in the ratings, but if it can chip away at the Fox News viewership, it could easily become a credible alternative among an audience who simply wants to hear more about how Trump is doing, with occasional check-ins on stock prices. (Covid-19 was barely mentioned at all in the Newsmax coverage I watched.)

On a deeper level, of course, it’s tragic that the president is spending his last days in the White House fixated on media grievances and his future plans instead of taking immediate action to confront the worsening coronavirus pandemic. But it’s extremely on brand for Trump.

It’s also extremely corrosive for democracy. By fanning the flames of the idea that the election was stolen from him, the president is delegitimizing US elections. And while enabling that effort might be a bridge too far for the Neil Cavutos and Chris Wallaces of Fox News, the most-watched personalities on the network, like Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity, remain in step with Trump.

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