As its main meal ticket prepares to leave office, Fox News is struggling through an identity crisis.
For the better part of five years, Fox and Donald Trump have enjoyed a symbiotic relationship. Trump’s habitual watching of Fox and the willingness both he and other administration officials have had to be interviewed on Fox News and Fox Business brought the network to unprecedented heights of relevance, while Fox has helped Trump by defending him through thick and thin.
But Trump’s relationship with Fox hasn’t been all sunshine and rainbows. Even while the vast majority of the network’s programming did his bidding in one way or another, Trump has repeatedly lashed out at Fox in recent years for coverage he deems insufficiently fawning — and the one-sided feud has escalated dramatically since his loss to Joe Biden.
“On a fundamental level Fox has been operating as a propaganda arm of President Trump, but the president has never really been satisfied with the level of obsequiousness he sometimes sees when he turns on his television,” Matt Gertz, senior fellow at Media Matters for America, told me.
Things came to a boiling point in the days following the election. Fox News’s “news side,” such as it is, was among the first on election night to call Arizona for Joe Biden. Its decision to do so sent President Donald Trump into a rage. Though the state didn’t end up being central to most networks’ decisions to call the race for Joe Biden, it was a symbolic turning point during a night that quickly went from hopeful to sour for the president. He’s spent the past six weeks seemingly more focused on settling scores with Fox News than he has been on the coronavirus pandemic.
.@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!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 12, 2020
Trump apparently isn’t alone in feeling betrayed. At his urging, many of his followers have turned off Fox News and are watching Newsmax and One America News Network (OAN) — Trumpier alternatives to Fox News, which at least during the daytime hours still likes to think of itself as a news channel and not a Trump propaganda network.
To give you a flavor for their programming, OAN is refusing to refer to President-elect Biden as “President-elect,” based on lies about there being “fraud in voting.” Newsmax, meanwhile, recently did an interview with former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn in which Flynn mused about a military coup to keep Trump in office — shocking comments that received no pushback from the host.
Here's Michael Flynn on Newsmax saying that Trump could order "military capabilities" to swing states and "rerun an election in each of those states."— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) December 18, 2020
"People out there talk about martial law like it's something that we've never done. Martial law has been instituted 64 times." pic.twitter.com/KNmiAGGiPF
Believe it or not, this coverage is resonating. While they still lag far behind Fox News overall, ratings for Newsmax and OAN have surged since the election while Fox’s have stagnated. In a major milestone, Newsmax earlier this month even bested Fox News in a key demographic over an hour of programming.
Fox, meanwhile, is also feeling pressure from the saner end of the spectrum. CNN’s post-election ratings are up and at times have been better than Fox. For the first time in 20 years, Fox News can no longer boast that it’s clearly the top dog in cable news.
Trump can’t totally quit Fox News, however. While he lambasts the network’s “news side,” he still habitually live tweets broadcasts hosted by his favorites, such as Sean Hannity and Mark Levin. During a Fox & Friends interview on election morning, Trump even bashed Fox News while on Fox News.
Brian Kilmeade gives Trump the opportunity to respond to Obama and instead he lays out his grievances against Fox for sometimes airing Biden speeches before listing all the hosts he likes. pic.twitter.com/WSRlXDrQjL— Matthew Gertz (@MattGertz) November 3, 2020
Along similar lines, Trump’s first post-election was on Maria Bartiromo’s Sunday morning Fox News show. And as is often the case, Bartiromo let Trump lie with impunity.
Trump's own lawyers conceded in court that the claim he makes here about poll watchers is a lie -- but Maria Bartiromo lets Trump lie with impunity pic.twitter.com/5nyfc4XnsF— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) November 29, 2020
To unpack right-wing cable news’s tumultuous situation and where things might go in a post-President Trump world, I talked to Gertz, the Media Matters senior fellow and close observer of the right-wing news TV ecosystem.
During the Trump years, Gertz has distinguished himself as perhaps the foremost chronicler of the Fox News-to-Trump pipeline. He’s tirelessly traced Trump’s tweets back to the Fox News segments that inspire them — even when Trump is watching and tweeting programming that aired hours or days earlier.
The president of the United States is so busy that he's watching a recording of a Fox Business show that aired Sunday morning and tweeting about it.— Matthew Gertz (@MattGertz) January 6, 2020
Left, Fox Business' Sunday Morning Futures, 10:24 a.m. yesterday
Right, Trump, 8:37 a.m. pic.twitter.com/e7YJA7zOcd
As the president has started watching more Newsmax and OAN, so has Gertz.
As Gertz explained to me, even in a post-Trump world, he still expects Fox News to play a leading role in setting the conservative agenda, since “they have the biggest audience and the biggest propensity to produce dangerous misinformation that shifts the public discussion, and the state of policy in this country.”
But Gertz sees signs that Fox News is bowing to the pressure Trump and his supporters are putting on it.
“We’re also seeing a sort of race to the bottom in certain ways. I think Fox has really kicked up the amount of coverage it’s done in support of President Trump’s effort to overturn the election because they’re feeling some heat from competitors,” he said. “So that, I think, is part of the real risk behind all of us — that it will [increase] Fox’s need to become ever more conspiracy-minded in years to come.”
A transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows.
I thought maybe a good place to start is with your cable news diet. I know you watch a lot of it. What have you on a typical day been watching over the past four years, and has that changed from 2017 to today?
I’ve been at Media Matters since 2007, so I’ve been in one way or another immersed in this right-wing media world ever since. A lot of my work has focused very specifically on Fox News during the Trump administration, and the way in which its hosts and its shows have become intertwined with President Trump and with other members of his team.
A lot of that has been focused on Fox & Friends, the president’s favorite morning news show. I generally have that network on from early in the morning throughout the day. I will catch clips from shows later that night and read the transcripts the next morning to make sure that I have a good sense of what was going on on all of those primetime and later shows.
But Fox News has been at the center of the conservative media infrastructure for that entire time, and so it’s been my main focus.
Perhaps the biggest development in cable news since the election has been the sudden rise of Newsmax and OAN as in some sense alternatives to Fox News that are further right. Shockingly, Newsmax’s ratings even beat Fox News in a key demographic over an hour of programming earlier this month.
Do you think this is all attributable to Trump and his fans feeling betrayed by Fox’s infamous somewhat early call of Arizona for Biden? Or is there something else going on here?
On a fundamental level, Fox has been operating as a propaganda arm of President Trump, but the president has never really been satisfied with the level of obsequiousness he sometimes sees when he turns on his television.
He’s watching as much as or more Fox as I am — and to some extent, I do that for a living — and so when he sees things on his television that he doesn’t like, when he sees Democrats appearing on the network, when he sees some of the more so-called “news side” shows presenting Fox polling that shows him losing various states, when he sees the state of Arizona getting called for his opponent and then Fox acknowledging Joe Biden is the president-elect, he becomes infuriated.
This has happened throughout the administration. We have seen here and there, he will lash out at Fox for not going far enough in his favor, and he’s even from time to time told his supporters that they should be watching OAN or Newsmax instead. But since the election, since his defeat, he has been willing to do that on a far more consistent basis. He has made the criticisms of Fox News much more frequently on his Twitter feed, and he’s actually watching the other networks much more than he used to as well.
I’ve been tracking Trump’s so-called “live tweets,” the cases where he responds in real time to what he’s seeing on the television with tweets, since October 2017. And he’s never sent tweets about that network’s competitors the way he has over the past few weeks. He’s sent about the same number of tweets between November 15 and December 2 of this year in response to OAN segments as he had over a two-year period.
Looking back at Trump live-tweets since Nov. 19, I count:— Matthew Gertz (@MattGertz) December 2, 2020
Fox News/Business: 11
Trump sent only 12 OAN live-tweets total over a recent two-year span, compared to more than 1,200 Fox News/Business. https://t.co/UBNZMWCrUG
So his own viewing habits are changing, and he is getting at least some slice of his supporters to change their viewing habits as well.
Do you think it’ll be sustainable for Newsmax and OAN to continue on as basically Trump propaganda outlets after he leaves office? I wonder if there’s going to be the staying power in terms of filtering all the news through a Trump prism a year or two after he leaves office.
I don’t know. I think what seems pretty clear is that Fox is trying to forestall that by shifting its programming in certain ways.
I have been seeing during the so-called “straight news” hours that Fox has started airing clips of its primetime hosts to set up various segments. They’ll air 15 seconds of Tucker Carlson talking about a topic before going into their own discussion about it, or playing a clip from Sean Hannity’s show and asking guests to respond. So that’s the way in which they’re trying to change things up a little bit to push back on these competitors.
Fox "straight news" broadcast America's Newsroom is increasingly a show about what happened in Fox prime-time the previous night. pic.twitter.com/unkNQIv3ll— Matthew Gertz (@MattGertz) November 19, 2020
We’re also seeing a sort of race to the bottom in certain ways. I think Fox has really kicked up the amount of coverage it’s done in support of President Trump’s effort to overturn the election because they’re feeling some heat from competitors. So that I think is part of the real risk behind all of this — that it will [increase] Fox’s need to become ever more conspiracy-minded in years to come.
It does seem there’s been a divide between Fox’s daytime programming with Neil Cavuto and Chris Wallace and the primetime lineup. I’ve noticed as well that they’re now treating Hannity clips as though they’re newsworthy, and then framing panel discussions around them.
But what I hear you saying is that to the extent that Fox News is going to have to choose, you see them shifting more in the direction of making their daytime content more like their primetime content than the other way around.
Yes, I think that is certainly the case. There is no movement in the opposite direction — there is no indication that the network is considering becoming a better source of information to its viewers.
And there’s really a problem there. Fox’s viewers to some extent are counting on the network to provide them with credible information, so when I look back on the past 10 months of pandemic coverage that the network has produced, they’re lying to their viewers about how much danger they are in from a deadly pandemic, because they think that’s better for President Trump and their ratings than leveling with their audience about the real physical danger they are in.
Dec. 8: Laura Ingraham criticizes the "concerted campaign to vilify and dismiss and demean, and frankly lie about it, the ineffectiveness of" hydroxychloroquine.— Matthew Gertz (@MattGertz) December 9, 2020
This alternative history that lets Trump off the hook will be a permanent feature of right-wing commentary. pic.twitter.com/OXmsMRmkCc
I think you’re right to identify what’s in Trump’s interest as motivating a lot of the editorial choices that Fox has made in recent years, but where do you see that going in the months to come under a President Biden? Do you anticipate that there will be fealty to Trump, even if it’s more about appeasing their viewers?
I’ve noticed in some of their programming it seems like they’re repositioning themselves as these gadflies chastising the media for not covering Hunter Biden more, or calling out liberal hypocrisy.
lots of tears being shed on Fox News' Outnumbered Overtime today pic.twitter.com/B8jGwbDdcB— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) December 17, 2020
How much do you think Trump’s interests will drive editorial choices going forward?
Fox News always takes on the character of the Republican Party of the era. I think their hope is that they can make a return to what the network was like in 2009, 2010. That’s when it emerged as the voice of opposition to President Obama, and they spent eight years fighting his administration on every front possible.
I think their fear, though, is that this competition from OAN and Newsmax will lock them into this current role as a Trump propaganda arm, that they won’t be able to establish any distance or even move away from constantly talking about Trump once he’s out of office.
I know Media Matters has been involved in campaigns targeting advertisers who are doing business with Fox News shows when hosts have said offensive things. What’s the scene like with Newsmax and OAN? Do they have robust ad content on those networks?
Not really. Neither of them, and OAN in particular, don’t have large ratings. And that keeps them from, certainly, getting blue-chip advertisers. We’re seeing a lot more MyPillow ads on Newsmax in particular over the last several weeks. [MyPillow] has a conservative owner, they very much try to own that particular demographic, and so they have a ton of ads really propping up Tucker Carlson’s show in particular on Fox.
Four different My Pillow ads for four different products, all of which ran on Tucker Carlson's show tonight. pic.twitter.com/byIG9W7xfr— Matthew Gertz (@MattGertz) July 14, 2020
But this is where they are different. Fox is a propaganda network that sometimes does conspiracy theories but depends on the existence of this “news side” that they say is unbiased and like a normal network’s, in order to keep blue-chip advertisers on board with at least some of those shows. OAN is a conspiracy theory network that sometimes does propaganda. It’s not in the Nielsen ratings because it doesn’t reach a lot of people.
Newsmax is a little bit different. Newsmax is a grift. The thing you have to understand about Newsmax is that it’s an unprofitable TV business that’s welded onto a very profitable digital and newsletter business. And the reason it’s profitable is that it sells out its audience of older conservatives to an assortment of scammers and snake oil salesmen.
So they’re using Trump’s current feud with Fox to build a bigger audience for themselves. They want to pull those people into their ecosystem and then pitch new viewers on nutritional supplements and the efficacy of natural cures for Alzheimer’s, and financial products that protect your savings from the coming waves of hyperinflation — it’s absolutely disgusting, but that’s where their money comes.
There’s been a lot of speculation that after he leaves office, Trump will get involved in right-wing TV in some capacity, whether it’s with his own network or his own show on an existing network. He seems pretty committed at this point to aligning himself with OAN and Newsmax while distancing himself from Fox, but do you think there’s a chance any of those networks would give him his own show?
I’m skeptical about a lot of these ideas until I see them actually move forward in some way. Starting your own network from scratch is a huge business endeavor that requires a lot of time and effort and money and relationships, and so I really am not expecting to see the fabled “Trump TV” outlet emerge. I could be wrong about that, but I’ll be skeptical until I see some actual movement on it.
It’s hard for me to imagine Newsmax offering him enough money to make it actually worthwhile. Or certainly OAN — I don’t really see that happening either. The president wants to be able to go on Fox & Friends and talk with Sean Hannity, and so he’s gonna do something that lets him keep doing that.
My guess has continued to be that the best way he can make money off his post-presidency is stage shows. Basically Trump rallies, but for profit. That seems like a thing he could do that doesn’t involve a lot of work, and frankly I’m skeptical he will do anything in the media that does require a lot of work.
I mean, his interviews are basically riffing. You could imagine him maybe doing some sort of digital streaming show where, again, he doesn’t need to do much but sit in front of a camera and mug and do his stream of consciousness about the issues of the day. But my thing on this is that the continuum is from “things that won’t happen because they are a lot of work” to “things that could happen because they are not a lot of work.”
To bring things full circle, what do you anticipate your cable news diet will look like post-Trump? What does a new president mean for what you’ll be paying attention to and perhaps live-tweeting?
I think it could end up being a lot more fractured. The media environment in general has become a lot more fractured over the past several years, and if some of these cable news networks do get more of a footprint, they’ll be worth tuning in to now and again. There are also plenty of conservative digital outlets I’ll be paying attention to, since they can feed into the rest of the discourse.
But I imagine I’ll still be paying a lot of attention to Fox News. They have the biggest audience and the biggest propensity to produce dangerous misinformation that shifts the public discussion and the state of policy in this country.