What’s the future of conservative media after Trump?
For as long as most of us can remember, Fox News has been at the center of the right-wing media world. It’s hard to imagine that changing anytime soon, but there are early signs that a shake-up is afoot.
As a recent Washington Post story explained, the “long love affair between Fox News and Trump may be over,” mostly because the network hasn’t categorically embraced his false claims about voter fraud in the 2020 election. To be clear, much of the network’s coverage is still Trump-friendly, particularly its primetime lineup that has given oxygen to the baseless narrative that the election was stolen.
But there have been notable moments when some of the network’s journalists have challenged this storyline and inflamed the diehards. In the past week alone, hundreds of thousands of viewers have flocked to Newsmax, a new and decidedly more right-wing channel, looking for more biased coverage. For now, it’s too soon to say whether this trend will continue.
If a sizable share of Fox’s audience, which is basically Trump’s base at this point, does revolt against the network, where would they go? What other networks might challenge Fox for supremacy on the right? And how would that change the broader media landscape?
Brian Stelter is a longtime media reporter and the host of CNN’s Reliable Sources. He’s also the author of Hoax: Donald Trump, Fox News, and the Dangerous Distortion of Truth. I reached out to him to talk about where Fox might go after Trump and if he thinks the internal struggles at the network are reaching a boiling point. We also discuss whether Trump will launch his own right-wing media empire after he leaves office.
A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.
Has Trump changed conservative media in any significant way?
When you say conservative media, I think of a human body, with Fox News as the beating heart, but there are many other parts of conservative media as well. That body is complicated, right? There are some aspects of conservative media that are reality-based, and then there are resentment sites and full-blown conspiracy sites.
But if we’re talking about pro-Trump media, then that’s the big shift we’ve seen. Obviously there was no pro-Trump media before he ran for office, and now there’s a vibrant pro-Trump media that exists in opposition to the rest of the media. And this has evolved over the last few years, and it has hardened and become more loyal and more insular.
Well, it may be too much to say that Trump has been a tipping point for right-wing media, but his audacity has really dialed everything up in a way that forced everyone who supports him in the press to go all-in.
Yeah, but this may have been the direction that conservative media was already heading in, and Trump just sped up the travel. Certainly, I think Tucker Carlson’s famous call to arms, at [the 2009] CPAC, urging conservative media to do more reporting and to strengthen newsrooms — so much of that has been left by the wayside. That call has been forgotten. It’s now entirely about whether you’re with Trump or against him. Were we always heading in that direction? Maybe. I don’t know. I have a hard time remembering the pre-Trump years now.
People like you focus a lot on the media institutions — what they’re doing or not doing — but I wonder about the demand side of this. Audiences, especially on the right, have come to expect a certain style of journalism, which is all about affirmation and drama and high-stakes cultural conflict. Even Fox has lost some ability to control their own product because their consumers are demanding less news and more propaganda. The Trump years have definitely accelerated this dynamic.
In general, I think that’s right. There are obvious exceptions, but in reporting my book Hoax, staffers at Fox kept pointing to the audience as the overriding issue. I wrote toward the end of the book that the audience had been radicalized, and the anchors did whatever they could to keep up with their viewers’ demands for propaganda.
Again, there are exceptions to that rule, but it’s clear that Fox’s audience, at least the extremely online audience, will not tolerate any dissent. I don’t remember that in the Obama years. I’m sure it existed to some degree, but I’ve had many staffers at Fox tell me that their audience has been radicalized much more in the Trump years. In fact, I remember one veteran staffer said, “I feel like Fox is being held hostage by its audience.” I get that that implies that the network is the victim, and not the cause of this information environment, but that word “hostage” kept coming up in my reporting.
So I think you’re right — there’s a demand issue here. There are so many examples of Trump skeptics in Fox who felt they had to get aboard the train. For some it took longer than others, but it was about how, not whether, the hosts jumped on the bandwagon, because they could see that there was no market incentive for them to remain anti-Trump.
What even is Fox at this point? I mean, the center has kind of held up over the last couple weeks, but only barely and probably not for long.
I think of Fox as many things in one. It is a news operation. It is a propaganda operation. It is a virtual community. It is all these things at the same time, and the news side has been shrinking and the propaganda side has been growing.
I’m not sure if “tug-of-war” is the best way to describe what’s happened the past week at Fox. There is this dynamic where daytime Fox shows are calling Biden the president-elect, but many Fox nighttime shows undermine that very description. So you’ve even got opinion shows like Fox & Friends acknowledging the direction this is headed, and yet other shows are trying to destroy the Biden presidency before it begins.
What does that add up to in the minds of the viewers? Well, it adds up to this complicated place, and some Fox viewers are resisting right now and turning to places like Newsmax or OAN [One America News] instead, because their coverage is more satisfyingly pro-Trump.
That’s a big question now, right? Is the Fox base revolting, or are they just throwing a tantrum?
There are signs of revolt, but it’s hard to tell. As we’re talking now, I’m pulling up Monday’s cable news ratings. Before the election, I would look at Newsmax’s ratings and chuckle. Sean Spicer has a show over there and he would get 40,000 or 50,000 viewers a night, which isn’t even enough to fill a football stadium.
But I’m looking at Monday night’s ratings now and he had 600,000 viewers, and the next show had 800,000 on Newsmax, and the next show had 600,000. I hadn’t looked at the spreadsheet until now, but I’m gobsmacked. These shows are up 500 to 1,000 percent from their pre-election averages.
Now, obviously, ratings are up across the board because it’s an election, but something’s happening on the right. All of these networks are still small compared to Fox, and it’s not close, and yet there’s a real audience shift underway. Fox’s numbers right now are basically flat compared to what they normally are.
Is this temporary or permanent? I have no idea. It’s too soon to say, but it does seem that Fox has alienated part of its base.
Is it conceivable that one of these Fox competitors, like Newsmax or OAN, eventually supplants Fox News as the tone-setter on the right, especially if these outlets are even less constrained by journalistic standards?
It’s a real risk to Fox’s bottom line in a way that it was not two weeks ago. In the last year or so, when I asked Fox staffers about OAN or Newsmax, the response was usually laughter and mockery. These channels barely registered on the Nielsen ratings.
The difference now is that we’re in a post-Biden-election world and some Fox viewers feel betrayed by the network. They feel betrayed by Fox’s reporting, by Fox’s reality-based observation that Biden is the president-elect, and so maybe for the first time some Fox viewers will finally flip their cable dial to another channel.
What are you hearing now from all your sources over at Fox? Is there a civil war going on inside the building?
It’s really hard to know what’s happening inside these companies right now because of the pandemic — most people aren’t at the office talking to each other. But that said, I think there are different constituency groups within Fox News. There are journalists who have felt suffocated by the Trump years. There are executives who are focused on the profits. There are opinion hosts and commentators and producers who are focused on advancing the agenda. There are definitely internal skirmishes between the hardcore partisans and the journalists, and we see this playing out in front of the cameras.
Fox, as a business, makes billions of dollars in profit and it has to be somewhat reality-based. I know that some folks don’t believe it when I say that, but in order to appeal to advertisers and strike deals with cable operators, they cannot put on a broadcast that says Biden lost. There are just certain tenets of reality that can’t be denied, but that creates tension with some of these right-wing commentators who are under pressure from their audiences to deny reality.
I’m not sure they can maintain this tension between reality and unreality. A recent poll shows that 70 percent of Republicans think the election was stolen — 70 percent! That’s a crazy number, Brian, and Fox, to keep its customers happy, will have to indulge that fantasy moving forward.
But even as I say that now, I realize I’m probably underestimating the extent to which Fox has always done this and there’s no reason why they can’t keep doing it.
My impression this week is that they are taking Trump’s lawsuits a lot more seriously than other media outlets. They are leaning heavily into the possibility of mass voter fraud, where none exists. They are bringing on so-called whistleblowers who imply that [the election] was rigged, while also covering the transition.
I mean, I have a hard time even describing this, because it makes no sense when I say it out loud, but it’s true. It’s what they’re doing. 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.
I’d also say that Fox’s brand has been built on the years when it is against Democrats, and they’re pretty open about this. This is not something they hide from. It’s something they acknowledge to advertisers. It’s something they sell to cable operators. They are the voice of the opposition, and you cannot drop Fox from your cable lineup because the audience will rebel, because Fox is the only voice of the opposition. That’s always been the brand.
My working theory before the election was that Fox will have four very profitable years as the preeminent anti-Biden channel. The question now is, will enough Fox viewers feel betrayed and look elsewhere?
All good points, and maybe the operation keeps humming along like it always has, but for all the demand reasons we discussed earlier, I think they’re going to have to keep dialing it up and up and up.
Neil Cavuto has 1.5 million viewers at 4 pm, because Fox’s viewers generally don’t want to hear him report the news. Then at 5 pm, the ratings shoot up to 3 million viewers with the show The Five, which is a pro-Trump talk show with one liberal. The audience doubles when the opinion guys come on, and then the audience turns away for a while and comes back in massive numbers for Tucker Carlson.
So the trends are obvious. Fox sees these numbers every day. They know exactly what their audience wants. This is why they keep pushing in a Trumpier and Trumpier direction. There’s no reason to think this will change.
Before you go, I have to ask you about the possibility of Trump launching his own TV network to counter Fox. This is something people have speculated about for years — do you buy it at all?
I don’t buy Trump TV because of my belief that Fox is bigger than Trump, and because of my knowledge that launching a network from scratch is incredibly difficult and almost impossible in the year 2020. There are some caveats to that, and some reasons why I could be wrong. Fox seems to have a stranglehold on Trump’s audience, so maybe Trump ends up with a show on Fox. He bitterly tweets against Fox from time to time, but he cares deeply about the programming. He’s obsessed with the programming, and he has lots of friends there.
I’ll put it this way: Why would Trump try to build and open his own mall when there’s a hyper-successful mall right across the street and he could have prime real estate right inside it? Why not go where the shoppers already are?
Because he loves to put his name on shit! Fox News will always be Fox News, but Trump TV — that’s the good stuff, baby.
It’s possible that Newsmax or OAN would give him what he wants and put his name on the network, but those channels have a lot less distribution than Fox News. Even though Newsmax is doing really well right now, they are not available in nearly as many homes. Which gets to the root of why it’ll be so hard to launch a network. Cable and satellite operators are not in the business of adding channels right now. They’re in the business of subtracting channels. They want to be carrying fewer channels, as the cable business goes through this really tumultuous period.
Would a channel from a former president be appealing? Maybe to some operators in some red states, but I think it would be very hard to get Comcast or AT&T or Charter to carry a new Trump-branded channel, especially knowing how more than half the country would react to the existence of that channel.
It also costs an enormous amount of money; you’d have to have programming, you’d have to have producers. There are all these challenges associated with launching a channel from scratch, but putting his name on something that already exists would be way easier.
He could also turn the Trump campaign webcasts into a streaming platform and ask people to sign up. Could he go the Netflix route? He might actually make a lot more money trying to get people to sign up for his streaming platform than he would with a traditional cable or satellite channel.
All of this takes an enormous amount of work. Does he want to put in the effort? Honestly, if I wanted to launch Trump TV and I just lost an election, I would be out there on camera every day after the election. But we’ve barely seen him for a week.