As the main meal card prepares to leave office, Fox News grapples with an identity crisis.
Fox and Donald Trump have had a symbiotic relationship for almost five years. Trump's habitual observation of Fox and a willingness to see him and other administrative officials interviewed on Fox News and Fox Business took the network to unprecedented levels of relevance while Fox helped Trump by defending him through thick and thin.
But Trump's relationship with Fox wasn't all sunshine and rainbows. Though the vast majority of the network's programming programs have offered in one way or another, Trump has fought Fox repeatedly over the past few years for coverage he finds inadequate – and the one-sided feud has been around since his loss to Joe Biden increased dramatically.
"On a fundamental level, Fox worked as President Trump's propaganda arm, but the president was never really pleased with the level of submissiveness he sometimes sees when he turns on his television," said Matt Gertz, senior fellow at Media Matters for America, told me.
There was a boiling point in the days following the election. The Fox News "news site," as it is, was one of the first on Election Night to call Arizona about Joe Biden. The decision to do so enraged President Donald Trump. While the state wasn't the focus of most networks' decisions to call the race for Joe Biden, it was a symbolic turning point on a night that quickly went from hopeful to angry for the president. For the past six weeks, he has apparently been more focused on billing results with Fox News than on the coronavirus pandemic.
. @ FoxNews daily ratings have completely collapsed. Weekends worse during the day. Very sad to see this happening but they forgot what made them successful, what got them there. You forgot the golden goose. The biggest difference between the 2016 and 2020 election was @FoxNews!
– Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 12, 2020
Trump is apparently not the only one feeling betrayed. At his insistence, many of his supporters have switched off Fox News and are looking at Newsmax and One America News Network (OAN) – Trumpier alternatives to Fox News, which, at least during the day, still like to see themselves as news channels and not a Trump propaganda network.
. @ FoxNews day is not observable. In a class with CNN & MSDNC. Check out @OANN, @newsmax, and others who bridge the gap. Even a boring soccer game, kneeling and anything, is better!
– Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 6, 2020
To give you an idea of their programming, the OAN has refused to refer to President-elect Biden as "President-elect" based on lies about "voting fraud". Newsmax recently conducted an interview with former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn in which Flynn contemplated a military coup to keep Trump in office – shocking comments that were not pushed back by the host.
Here's Michael Flynn on Newsmax, who says Trump could command "military capabilities" to swing states and "re-run an election in each of those states."
"People out there talk about martial law like we've never done it before. Martial law has been introduced 64 times." pic.twitter.com/KNmiAGGiPF
– Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) December 18, 2020
Believe it or not, this coverage is resonant. While still lagging far behind Fox News overall, Newsmax and OAN ratings have risen since the elections, while Fox's have stagnated. In a key milestone earlier this month, Newsmax even beat Fox News for over an hour of programming time in a major demographic.
Fox, meanwhile, is also feeling pressure from the more sensible end of the spectrum. Post-election ratings on CNN have risen and at times have been better than Fox's. For the first time in 20 years, Fox News cannot boast that it is clearly the front runner in cable news.
Trump cannot shut down Fox News entirely, however. While lambasting the network's "news page", he still habitually lives live tweets from his favorites like Sean Hannity and Mark Levin. During an election morning interview with Fox & Friends, Trump even hit Fox News while on Fox News.
Brian Kilmeade gives Trump a chance to respond to Obama and instead sets out his grievances against Fox for sometimes broadcasting Biden speeches before listing all of the hosts he likes. pic.twitter.com/WSRlXDrQjL
– Matthew Gertz (@MattGertz) November 3, 2020
Similarly, Trump's first by-election was on Maria Bartiromo's Fox News Show on Sunday morning. And as so often, Bartiromo Trump left with impunity.
Trump's own lawyers admitted in court that the claim he's making here about election observers is a lie – but Maria Bartiromo lets Trump lie with impunity pic.twitter.com/5nyfc4XnsF
– Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) November 29, 2020
To unpack the tumultuous situation of right-wing cable news and the possible developments in a post-President Trump world, I spoke to Gertz, the Senior Fellow of Media Matters and a close observer of the right-wing news TV ecosystem.
During the Trump years, Gertz was named perhaps the greatest chronicler of the Fox News-to-Trump pipeline. He has tirelessly traced Trump's tweets back to the Fox News segments that inspire them – even when Trump watches and tweets programs that were aired hours or days earlier.
The President of the United States is so busy he watched a taping of a Fox Business Show that aired Sunday morning and tweeted about it.
Left, Fox Business Sunday Business Futures, at 10:24 a.m. yesterday
Right, Trump, 8:37 a.m. pic.twitter.com/e7YJA7zOcd
– Matthew Gertz (@MattGertz) January 6, 2020
When the president started watching more Newsmax and OAN, Gertz did too.
As Gertz explained to me, even in a post-Trump world, he expects Fox News to play a leading role in setting the conservative agenda because “it has the largest audience and the greatest propensity to produce dangerous misinformation that the public has Change discussion and the state of politics in this country. "
But Gertz sees signs that Fox News is bowing to pressure from Trump and his supporters.
"We're also seeing some kind of race to the bottom, in a way. I think Fox has really stepped up the coverage he did in support of President Trump's efforts to overthrow the elections because they're getting some heat from the competition." he said, "I think that's part of the real risk behind all of us – that Fox's need (increased) to become more and more conspiratorial in the years to come."
The following is a transcript of our conversation, which has been edited slightly for length and clarity.
I thought maybe a good place to start is with your cable news diet. I know you see a lot of it. What have you seen on a typical day in the past four years and has that changed from 2017 to today?
I've been with Media Matters since 2007 and have since immersed myself in this right-wing media world in one way or another. Much of my work during the Trump administration has been very specifically focused on Fox News and the way its hosts and shows are intertwined with President Trump and other members of his team.
Much of that has been focused on Fox & Friends, the President's favorite morning news show. I usually have this network all day from early in the morning. I'll be pulling up clips from shows later that night and reading the transcripts the next morning to make sure I have a good feel for what was going on on all of these primetime and later shows.
But Fox News has been the center of the conservative media infrastructure all along, and that's why it was my main focus.
Perhaps the biggest move in cable news since the elections has been the sudden rise of Newsmax and OAN as, in some ways, alternatives to Fox News that are further to the right. Amazingly, Newsmax's ratings even outperformed Fox News in a major demographic that was programmed for over an hour earlier this month.
Do you think this is all down to Trump and his fans feeling betrayed by Fox's infamous, somewhat early Arizona call for Biden? Or is there still something going on here?
Basically, Fox worked as President Trump's propaganda arm, but the president was never really pleased with the level of submissiveness he sometimes sees when he turns on his television.
He watches as much or more Fox as I do – and to a certain extent I do it for a living – and when he sees things on his television that he doesn't like, when he sees Democrats appear on the network, when he sees some of the so-called " News Side "shows, which showcase Fox polls showing that he is losing various states, when he sees the state of Arizona being called out for his opponent and Fox then acknowledging that Joe Biden is the president-elect, he gets angry .
This has happened throughout the administration. We have seen here and there that he will attack Fox for not going far enough in his favor, and he has even told his followers from time to time to watch OAN or Newsmax instead. But since the election, since his defeat, he has been ready to do so on a far more consistent basis. He has voiced criticism of Fox News much more often on his Twitter feed and even watches the other networks much more often than before.
Since October 2017 I've been following Trump's so-called “live tweets,” the cases in which he reacts in real time to what he sees on television with tweets. And he never tweeted about the network's competitors like he has for the past few weeks. He sent roughly the same number of tweets in response to OAN segments between November 15 and December 2 of this year as he did over a two-year period.
When I look back on Trump Live Tweets since Nov. 19, I count:
Fox News / Business: Nov.
Trump has only sent a total of 12 OAN live tweets in the past two years, compared to more than 1,200 Fox News / Business. https://t.co/UBNZMWCrUG
– Matthew Gertz (@MattGertz) December 2, 2020
So his own viewing habits are changing, and he's getting at least some of his supporters to change their viewing habits too.
Do you think it will be sustainable for Newsmax and OAN to continue to be Trump propaganda outlets after leaving office? I wonder if there will be the staying power to filter all news through a Trump prism a year or two after he left office.
I dont know. I think what seems pretty clear is that Fox is trying to forestall this by postponing its programming in certain ways.
I saw during the so-called "straight news" lessons that Fox had started broadcasting clips from its primetime hosts to set up different segments. They'll broadcast for 15 seconds when Tucker Carlson talks 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. In this way, they are trying to change things up a bit in order to push these competitors back.
We also see a kind of race to the bottom, in a way. I think Fox really stepped up the coverage he did in support of President Trump's efforts to overthrow the elections because they are feeling some heat from the competition. I think this is part of the real risk behind all of us – that there is (heightened) Fox's need to become more and more conspiratorial in the years to come.
There seems to be a gap between Fox's daytime programming, starring Neil Cavuto and Chris Wallace, and the prime time cast. I also noticed that they are now treating Hannity clips as if they were up to date and then doing panel discussions around them.
But I hear you say that the more Fox News has to choose, the more it shifts in which their daily content is more like their prime time content than the other way around.
Yeah, I think that's certainly the case. There's no movement in the opposite direction – there's no indication that the network is considering becoming a better source of information for its viewers.
And there really is a problem. Fox viewers rely to some extent on the network to provide them with credible information. So when I look back on the last 10 months of pandemic coverage that the network has produced, they lie to their viewers about the danger they are in from a deadly pandemic because they think this is better for President Trump and their ratings is than talking to your audience about the actual physical danger they are in.
December 8th: Laura Ingraham criticizes the "concerted campaign to slander, fire and humiliate the ineffectiveness of" hydroxychloroquine and to openly lie about it.
This alternate story, which Trump lets off the hook, will be a staple of right-wing commentary. pic.twitter.com/OXmsMRmkCc
– Matthew Gertz (@MattGertz) December 9, 2020
I think you are right to see what is in Trump's best interests to motivate many of the editorial decisions Fox has made over the past few years. But where do you see this in the coming months under President Biden? Do you expect Trump to stay loyal even if it is more about reassuring viewers?
I've noticed on some of their programs that it looks like they're repositioning themselves as these gadflies are punishing the media for stop reporting on Hunter Biden or calling out liberal hypocrisy.
To what extent do you think Trump's interests will influence editorial decisions in the future?
Fox News always takes on the character of the Republican Party of the era. I think they hope they can go back to how the network was in 2009 and 2010. Then it became the voice of the opposition to President Obama and they spent eight years fighting his administration on every possible front.
However, I think they fear that this competition from OAN and Newsmax will lock them into this current role as the Trump propaganda arm, that they cannot distance themselves, or even move away from talking about Trump all the time, once he does once is away from home.
I know Media Matters has been involved in campaigns for advertisers who do business with Fox News shows when hosts have said offensive things. How is the scene with Newsmax and OAN? Do they have robust ad content on these networks?
Not really. None of them, and the OAN in particular, don't have high ratings. And that's sure to keep them from getting blue-chip advertisers. In the past few weeks in particular, Newsmax has seen a lot more MyPillow ads. (MyPillow) has a conservative owner, they are trying very hard to own that particular demographic and so they have a ton of ads that really endorse Tucker Carlson's show especially at Fox.
But here they are different. Fox is a propaganda network that sometimes hypothesizes conspiracy but depends on the existence of this "news site," which they say is unbiased and like a regular network's, to bring blue chip advertisers on board with at least some of these shows hold. OAN is a conspiracy theory network that sometimes does propaganda. It's not on the Nielsen reviews because it doesn't reach a lot of people.
Newsmax is a little different. Newsmax is a grift. What you need to understand about Newsmax is that it is an unprofitable TV business that is linked to a very profitable digital and newsletter business. And the reason it's profitable is because it sells its older conservative audience to a number of scammers and snake oil sellers.
So you're taking advantage of Trump's current feud with Fox to attract a larger audience. You want to include these people in your ecosystem and then attract new viewers to nutritional supplements and the effectiveness of natural remedies for Alzheimer's, as well as financial products that protect your savings from the coming waves of hyperinflation – it's absolutely disgusting, but here comes your money.
There has been much speculation that after leaving office, Trump will in some way be involved in right wing television, be it with his own network or his own show on an existing network. At this point, he seems quite committed to aligning himself with OAN and Newsmax as he distances himself from Fox. But do you think there is a chance that one of these networks would give it its own show?
I am skeptical of many of these ideas until I see that they actually somehow evolve. Starting your own network from scratch is a large business undertaking that requires a lot of time and effort, money and relationships. So I really don't expect the legendary “Trump TV” connection to emerge. I might be wrong about that, but I'll be skeptical until I see actual movement on it.
I have a hard time imagining that Newsmax is offering him enough money to actually pay off. Or certainly OAN – I don't really see that either. The President wants to be able to speak to Fox & Friends about Sean Hannity and so he will do something to keep him doing that.
I continue to suspect that the best way to make money off of your post-presidency is through stage shows. Basically, Trump collects, but at a profit. That seems like one thing he could do that doesn't take a lot of work, and in all honesty I'm skeptical that he'll do anything in the media that takes a lot of work.
I mean his interviews are basically riffing. You can imagine that he might be doing some kind of digital streaming show in which he again doesn't have to do a lot but just sit in front of a camera and mug and make his stream of consciousness about the topics of the day. But I think the continuum goes from "things that don't happen because they are a lot of work" to "things that might happen because they are not a lot of work".
What will your post-Trump cable news diet look like to complete the loop? What does a new president mean for what you watch out for and maybe tweet live?
I think it could be broken a lot more. The media environment in general has become much more fragmented in recent years. If some of these cable messaging networks have a more footprint, you should adjust to that every now and then. There are also plenty of conservative digital outlets that I'll watch out for as they can feed into the rest of the discourse.
But I can imagine I'll still be paying a lot of attention to Fox News. They have the largest audiences and the greatest propensity to produce dangerous misinformation that is changing public debate and the state of politics in this country.
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