Inside Story

Fox News’s pyrrhic victory

It seemed like a good year for Rupert Murdoch, but will Donald Trump’s victory come back to haunt Fox News?

Rodney Tiffen 26 December 2016 1842 words

Not all plain sailing: Bret Baier, Megyn Kelly and Chris Wallace of Fox News at the final debate before the Republican Party primaries, in January this year. Gage Skidmore/Flickr

If Rupert Murdoch were to die today, he would die – politically at least – a happy man. In June, Britain voted to leave the European Union, a course Murdoch has long urged, and new prime minister Theresa May seems keen to forget the phone-hacking and bribery scandals and restore Murdoch’s high-level access and special treatment. In Australia, the mogul’s preferred candidate, Tony Abbott, might no  longer be prime minister but Malcolm Turnbull seems a prisoner of the right-wing forces favoured by the Murdoch press. And just last month American voters elected Donald Trump president and gave the Republican Party majorities in both houses of Congress.

Murdoch’s network Fox News was the midwife to Trump’s presidential candidacy. Trump and Fox News CEO Roger Ailes were longstanding friends, and its two leading commentators, Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity, were also close to the president-elect. Trump’s first big political breakthrough came when he promoted, with Fox’s help, the lie that Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States. In the three months after Trump queried Obama’s birth certificate on Fox, the word “birther” was used on the network in more than eighty separate broadcasts.

Even after Obama produced his long-form birth certificate, Trump continued to raise doubts. As late as 2015 he told CNN that he didn’t know where Obama was born. Then, in September this year, he briefly acknowledged, without apology, that Obama was born in the United States, and blamed Hillary Clinton for starting rumours to the contrary.

During the Republican primaries, Trump was on Fox News far more than any of his Republican opponents, receiving twice as much airtime as chief rival Ted Cruz. Ailes had decided early on that Trump would be the party’s nominee, although there were rumours that Murdoch had doubts.

But the network’s implicit support for Trump was not all plain sailing. During the first live debate among the Republican contenders in August 2015, one of the network’s stars, Megyn Kelly, said to Trump: “You’ve called women you don’t like, ‘fat pigs,’ ‘dogs,’ ‘slobs’ and ‘disgusting animals’… You once told a contestant on Celebrity Apprentice it would be a pretty picture to see her on her knees. Does that sound to you like the temperament of a man we should elect as president?” Trump was visibly rocked by the exchange, and soon took his revenge. He told CNN, “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever.”

Fox was still giving Trump plenty of help. But in January 2016, when it was announced that Kelly would moderate Fox’s second debate, Trump refused to appear unless she was taken off. His boycott worked: the “Trump-less debate” was “a vanilla affair,” according to the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza, rating only about half the previous debate. Eventually Ailes brokered a peace between his star and his candidate, sealed by Kelly’s doing a soft one-on-one interview with Trump in May.

Despite, or perhaps because of, his outrages, his reckless rhetoric and his outright lies, Trump marched triumphantly to the Republican nomination. The Fox News coverage of the party convention in July promised to be the perfect blending of post-truth journalism with post-truth politics. But unexpectedly, reality intervened.

A few weeks earlier, one of the network’s correspondents, Gretchen Carlson, had filed a law suit against Ailes alleging she had been fired because she refused to have sex with him. The two Murdoch sons, Lachlan and James, immediately launched an independent legal inquiry, eliciting a rush of similar accusations. Ailes, the only chief executive Fox News had ever had, a man whose power had been unchallengeable for twenty years, resigned in the week of the convention. Yet Trump defended his friend and, at first, accused Carlson of being a fabulist. When he was asked how he would react if someone treated his daughter Ivanka the way Ailes treated these women, he said he hoped “she would find another career or find another company.”

Even with Ailes gone, the network’s skewed coverage didn’t miss a beat. At the Republican convention, many media outlets reported that Melania Trump’s speech was plagiarised from the speech Michelle Obama had given eight years earlier; the similarity was barely discussed on Fox. In August, the New York Times revealed that Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort, had received $12.7 million in undisclosed payments from pro-Russian political party in Ukraine. Before Manafort resigned a few days later, CNN had covered the story in several ways but Fox had made only one passing reference. Fox then covered the Democratic convention in Philadelphia without showing its emotional high point, the speech by Khizr Khan, the Muslim father of an American soldier who had died heroically in Iraq.

Fox’s biggest male stars, Hannity and O’Reilly, were predictably, vociferously and unrelentingly pro-Trump. Hannity was both covering Trump and advising him on strategy and messaging. “I never claimed to be a journalist,” was his response to the consequent criticism. He was Trump’s favourite for one-on-one interviews, which the rest of the media dutifully reported. O’Reilly’s behaviour was equally breathtaking. Michelle Obama’s Democratic convention speech, a eulogy to American progress, included a reference to the fact that generations of struggle since slaves built the house she was living in – the White House – had made America “the greatest country on earth.” O’Reilly’s response was to observe that the slaves “were well-fed and had decent lodgings provided by the government.” Later in the campaign, O’Reilly made the extraordinary claim that “at least three [media organisations]… have ordered their employees to destroy Donald Trump.” But he couldn’t say who they were, or provide any supporting evidence.

In the last week of the campaign, around the same time that FBI director James Comey finally admitted that the organisation’s highly publicised investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails had turned up nothing improper, Fox News anchor Bret Baier claimed that Clinton’s private email server had been hacked and that an investigation would lead to an indictment of Clinton after the election. A couple of days later, Baier apologised, having checked with his sources and finding no evidence for either statement.

The interplay between Fox News and the right-wing social media was exemplified in the last week of the campaign. In a TV interview, Obama had pointed out that only citizens could vote and he had affirmed the sanctity of the secret ballot. Amazingly, Fox Business host Stuart Varney interpreted this as encouragement for illegal immigrants to vote, and a promise of no repercussions if they did. Overlooking the practical difficulties a non-citizen would face at a voting place, right-wing social media picked up on the story, with one outlet headlining, “Criminal President Obama Encourages Illegal Aliens to Vote – Promises No Repercussions.”

Occasionally, though, independence broke out. The most publicised case came when Megyn Kelly charged that Trump was appearing only on Hannity’s program, implying that he knew he would get soft treatment there. Hannity retaliated by claiming that Kelly was a Clinton supporter. It was an “extraordinary public display of rancour between top-tier news personalities” of a kind that Ailes would never have permitted.

Kelly’s positioning during this period provoked considerable speculation. Being attacked by Trump and privately supporting the stories of Ailes’s sexual harassment had given new stature to a woman who was already the network’s leading female personality. New York magazine’s Gabriel Sherman observed that Kelly was so important to Fox that Lachlan Murdoch had personally approved “a reported $6 million book advance” from Murdoch-controlled publisher HarperCollins. Her Fox News contract is due for renewal in 2017, and she is in a very strong bargaining position. One report speculated that she already receives $15 million a year, and wants more than $20 million.

Kelly’s future is part of a larger question about Fox News’s direction. “Ms Kelly is viewed by some TV veterans as a vehicle for the network to turn from the hard right tone Mr Ailes established to a more centrist approach,” says Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin. In the background is Fox’s demographic problem: the average age of its prime-time audience is sixty-eight, while the figures for its two cable news competitors, MSNBC and CNN, are sixty-three and fifty-nine respectively. This audience isn’t attracted to mainstream news, and is loyal to Fox: “That was part of Roger’s brilliance: to identify a very large group that got badly underserved by mainstream TV news,” said former CBS News president Andrew Heyward. “Those people are not going anywhere.”

Any change to the current formula, then, carries great risks. Steve Bannon, the former head of the alt-right (read: racist) website Breitbart, once Trump’s campaign manager and now his senior counsellor, believes that Fox News is already drifting towards the centre, and that this will continue with James and Lachlan in charge. Rupert Murdoch disagrees: “We’re not changing direction… that would be business suicide.”

Even if it is commercially viable to continue the course that Roger Ailes set, is it possible to do it without him? Ailes was extremely well-connected politically, and had the authority of having built the network from its birth. His successors lack both his charisma and his status. Moreover, he had a taste for Machiavellian tactics that made his authority impossible to contest. One worried staffer told journalist Sarah Ellison that Fox News faces an existential crisis.

Even assuming the internal challenges are negotiated successfully, the new environment carries new threats for Fox. Potential alternatives exist to the network’s right, though none of them currently threatens to displace it. Trump is likely to favour Fox for interviews and dropping stories, which will force other media to pay attention to the network. But Fox has appealed most to viewers when it has been a vehicle of outrage. It first built its audience covering the Clinton scandals of the late 1990s, then captured and amplified the patriotic anger following 9/11 to become the highest-rating cable news channel.

As the Bush presidency fell out of public favour, so did Fox. It nurtured niche anger under Obama, which crystallised in the shape of the Tea Party. But under Trump it will be a vehicle for the new establishment rather than the disaffected. If Trump’s political fortunes fall, then so will Fox’s commercial prospects. •