How to Think About Fox News

From a story on CJR’s The Media Today by Kyle Pope headlined “Fox and its friends”:

As the race for the presidency picks up steam—state primaries are a year away—the question of how to think about Fox News looms once ​​again.

On the one hand, the Murdoch cable TV empire remains as dominant as ever. It continues to reach more people than MSNBC and CNN, and ad revenue from the network helped generate more than $1 billion in net income for its parent company last year. Competitors once seen as conservative rivals to Fox have mostly faded into conspiratorial oblivion.

But Fox faces the next election conflicted, if not compromised. Its predicament mirrors the Republican Party it helped shape. Does it go all in for Donald Trump and his fantasies, or does it hang back and wait for more credible competitors to materialize? Will its audience (and voters) abandon it if it sits on the fence?

The internal schisms at Fox are, in part, what makes the network’s legal battle with Dominion Voting Systems so intriguing. Dominion is suing Fox for defamation after the network questioned Dominion’s voting machines after the 2020 vote, as part of the unsuccessful Trump effort to unwind the result of the election. As Bill Grueskin reported this week in a piece for CJR, Dominion has surfaced emails and texts detailing the tensions between Fox managers and talent over how far to run with the conspiracy-mongering.In the end, the network was seeking an impossible compromise, placating Trump and his followers while, somehow, trying to tell the story of the election truthfully. Grueskin writes:

In a more typical environment, when politicians adhere to basic democratic norms, Fox’s model can work spectacularly well. Even in 2016, when Trump first ran for president, Fox could massage his message into something that conservative viewers and voters could embrace, or at least tolerate. But the 2020 election, combined with the January 6 riot, irrevocably changed the formula. A large swath of Fox viewers expect these falsehoods to be served up, unexamined and unadulterated. But in doing so, Fox risks more legal battles and, perhaps, expensive verdicts. No one at the company seems able to thread that needle.

It is a needle-threading that Fox has attempted for the entirety of Trump’s run: cheerleading, even advising, the former president, while trying to retain some journalistic dignity and distance. (Or, in the case of Steve Doocy, just cheerleading and advising.) For a time, it led an entire echo-system of right-wing media that benefited from Trump. This week, the impossibility of the exercise surfaced again, with news that House Speaker Kevin McCarthy had turned over security footage from the US Capitol from the January 6 attack to Tucker Carlson, Fox’s prime-time star, who has promoted the conspiracy theory that January 6 was a false-flag operation of the deep state to humiliate Trump. In coming days, Carlson will air what will amount to a counter-narrative to the painstaking and legitimate work of the January 6 commission, and his news colleagues at Fox will have to decide where they stand. Seven years of precedent shows where they’ll likely land.

Like so much else of American life, Donald Trump tore a hole in American media, turning the most-watched television network in the country into a propaganda machine, and forcing its competitors to struggle to respond. CNN, under Chris Licht, is in the midst of trying to rewind the network’s approach to political coverage. News consumers are watching, with trust in the press once again in the balance.

Kyle Pope is the editor in chief and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review.

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