That didn’t last long: Fox News is back — to its old ways

The right-wing news channel’s flirtation with honest reporting was short-lived after ratings and profits declined. Center Director Jeffrey Cole explains.

By Jeffrey Cole

That didn’t last long!

Starting on Election Day and for the next several weeks after, Fox News began to put some distance between itself and Donald Trump. The marriage that had served both parties so well for years finally unraveled and then broke.

That all was not well in the relationship had been clear for months.

It was a marriage of great convenience. Trump found Fox News to be a readily available and sympathetic channel for his ideas dating back to the unfounded birther theories, through the racist origins of his campaign, and then through the chaos of his four years in office.

With a push of his speed-dial, Trump could get on Fox News within seconds and spin his version of events with himself as the hero taking on leftists, fake news, or the villain of the day (Meryl Streep, Taylor Swift, low-flow showers). Some days he hogged a show for a full hour. Careful viewers could detect the hosts on Fox & Friends looking awkwardly at each other, wondering when he would finally hang up the phone.

Surely, he had more important things to do as President than stay on Fox News all day!

Fox News was Trump’s personal channel. The hosts of the opinion programs never pushed back or challenged his shaky relationship with the truth. No wonder he was stunned and then bitter when they began to show stiffening spines.

For the Murdochs and Fox News, it was an even better deal. By going all in with Trump, they profited mightily. Although a force in cable news, during the four years of the Trump Presidency, Fox News was the highest rated channel — news or entertainment — on television.

Trump was the channel’s best promoter. At rallies, the President of the United States would talk about what happened on Fox News programs the night before. Referring to Fox News personalities as Tucker, Sean, Laura, or Judge Jeanine, Trump fostered the feeling that everyone — the President, the hosts and the viewers — were all part of a family. It was great for ratings and great for profits.

Then the cracks began to show. While the opinion hosts never pushed back, the news hosts (Chris Wallace, Brett Baier) did. Trump began to complain that Fox News had changed, that it wasn’t what it used to be (an unquestioning sycophant), and that things would not have changed if the late Roger Ailes were still running the show. By that time in Trump’s tweets, Fox News was right up there with AOC, Biden, and Antifa as enemies of the state.

In a recent column, “Kudos to Fox News,” I described how the cracks turned into a break on Election Day. Fox News was the first to call Arizona for Biden. It was days ahead of the other news organizations (except A.P.). The call outraged the Trump campaign, which saw it interfering with its rigged election narrative. Even Jared Kushner could not talk Rupert Murdoch into rescinding the decision.

Over the next few days, Fox News journalists accurately reported Biden’s lead refuting claims it was a stolen election. And they joined other media organizations on November 7 in declaring Joe Biden the winner and President-Elect.

For the first time, Fox News was getting modest praise by reporting honestly.

It’s difficult to know what went through Murdoch’s mind. Perhaps he felt truth and self-respect were too high a price to pay for high ratings and profits? Did he tire of Trump’s antics and long for a traditional Republican Party divorced from Trump that was more to his own liking? Or could he see the rejected President becoming a shrunken figure no longer able to bring his followers to Fox News? Whatever the reason, Fox News (although not the opinion hosts) made the break.

However, this bold new commitment to truth did not last long.

In the days after the election, Trump urged his supporters to move to the more conservative and even more obsequious Newsmax and One America News Network (OAN), where nothing Trump said was ever questioned. His fans listened.

The ratings for Fox News plummeted.

Fox News has doubled down on the old ways. To bring back its missing viewers, the channel fills its time with stories of stolen elections, conservatives being muzzled, false Democratic efforts at unity, and a return to conspiracy theories.  Both Fox News and Mitch McConnell really did know better, but doing the right thing came with too steep a price tag.

In the period between the election and inauguration, Fox News fell to number three in cable news behind CNN and MSNBC, a position it had not held since its earliest days. Although not surprising that the traditional Fox News viewers did not want to watch the Biden swearing in, the decline in ratings was still startling. While 8.8 million people watched Trump’s inauguration in 2017, four years later those numbers were down 75% to 2.2 million.

The price tag

The Murdochs, along with Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, wanted to make a break with Trump and dislodge his ownership of the Republican Party. They looked to a future without recklessness and chaos.

McConnell permanently severed his relationship with the defeated President on December 15 by calling Biden the President-Elect. Weeks later, he went further by placing the blame for the insurrection at the Capitol on Trump. Unlike in early 2020, McConnell did not stand in the way of impeachment. He even said his mind was not made up about a Senate trial, and that he might vote to convict.

McConnell and Murdoch sent unmistakable signals they wanted change. Both were willing to take a moral stand and lead in a different direction.

Just so long as they didn’t have to pay a price!

Neither Murdoch nor McConnell were willing to take a principled position that came with pain.

McConnell, devastated at losing two Senate seats in Georgia and the Republican majority, put all the blame on Trump. Although his typical stone-face rarely reflected his true thoughts, McConnell was angry and lashed out at the departing President.

But after the red-hot anger following the storming of the capitol faded, McConnell was not able to sustain the support of his fellow Republicans. They reverted to their visceral fear of Trump and his base and the revenge that might be extracted in their next election. McConnell had no choice but to put away his anger and keep his party from openly splitting (it still might). He joined all but five Republican senators and ten representatives in opposing impeachment.

Those fifteen were willing to take a moral stand, even if it came with a heavy cost.

Murdoch was not willing to sustain his break when he saw the damage to the bottom line. He wanted back in. He took over control of Fox News. The independent Decision Desk that called Arizona for Biden was purged of two of its members. One of its prime-time news anchors, Martha MacCallum, was moved to a less-watched daytime slot in order to make room for even more opinion.

In the newly opened 7pm slot, Fox News will rotate opinion hosts including former business reporter and current Trump groupie, Maria Bartiromo. Her broadcasts have been so pro-election steal that to help ward off a billion-dollar lawsuit from voting machine manufacturer, Dominion Voting Systems, Bartiromo along with fellow Fox News opinion hosts, Lou Dobbs and Jeanine Pirro, had to issue much-hated retractions.

Fox News has doubled down on the old ways. To bring back its missing viewers, the channel fills its time with stories of stolen elections, conservatives being muzzled, false Democratic efforts at unity, and a return to conspiracy theories.

Both Fox News and Mitch McConnell really did know better, but doing the right thing came with too steep a price tag.


Jeffrey Cole is the founder and director of The Center for the Digital Future at USC Annenberg.



See all columns from the center.

February 2, 2021