Media Matters protests as Fox News makes pitch to advertisers

Angelo Carusone addresses protestors on March 13, 2019. Photo courtesy of Media Matters.

By 11am on Wednesday, dozens of protesters had assembled outside the headquarters of Fox News, in midtown Manhattan. In the shadow of the glass and stone towers that line Avenue of the Americas, about 75 people were bundled up in hats and scarves. Their signs got right to the point: “DROP FOX,” one read. “FOX NEWS IS BAD FOR BUSINESS,” said another. “DON’T BE A SUCKER FOR TUCKER.”

“They have a strangely wide amount of space out here,” one of the demonstrators, Angelo Carusone, said of the open plaza at the entrance to the News Corp building. “It’s like it’s designed for protesting.” Carusone, who is 36 and wore a tweed jacket with brown wingtips, is the president of Media Matters for America, the progressive nonprofit responsible for organizing the rally. As he moved to address the crowd, over a hundred advertising executives were gathered inside, where network leaders and anchors beseeched them to continue their financial support of Fox News.

“There have to be meaningful consequences,” Carusone shouted as protesters and reporters craned to listen. “We have to deal with Fox News. They are a uniquely destructive voice, and the only way to do it, because they will not listen, is to go directly to the companies that are paying for what you hear every single night from Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham, and Sean Hannity!”

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It has been a busy week for Carusone, who is usually based at Media Matters’s headquarters in Washington, DC. On Sunday, his organization published audio of Carlson, host of Tucker Carlson Tonight, making misogynistic and hateful comments on a shock-jock radio program between 2006 and 2011. They followed Monday with another dump, this time of Carlson saying he wished the United States had an outwardly racist president and calling Iraqis “semiliterate primitive monkeys.”

Fox’s pitch to ad buyers—an “upfront,” the first of its kind for the network—was brought on by repeat controversies that have put Madison Avenue on edge. The meeting was scheduled in February, but today it seemed poorly timed; on top of the Carlson controversy, Fox is embroiled in two other scandals this week: racist on-air statements over the weekend by Jeanine Pirro, host of Judge Jeanine, and a blockbuster report in The New Yorker last week in which Jane Mayer, an investigative reporter, demonstrated the full extent to which Fox News has become a propaganda arm of Trump and the GOP. Nevertheless, Fox made its pitch: it is number one in every region of the country, regardless of political leaning, and its news content is appropriately quarantined from its opinion programming.

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“When I say toxic, you say racist!” an organizer shouted in the crowd outside. “Toxic!” RACIST! “Toxic!” RACIST! Box trucks hired by Media Matters circled the block, bearing messages of their own: “FOX NEWS IS BIGOTED,” one read as it drove by demonstrators.

Protestors outside the News Corp building. Photo by Andrew McCormick.

Lizz Winstead, a reproductive rights advocate and a co-creator of The Daily Show, explained to the crowd how Fox’s daily broadcasts put immigrants and women at risk of physical harm, because of their vitriolic and misleading rhetoric. “We are here today because advertisers need to ask themselves… ‘Do you want the bottom line of your investment in information to be that people are being put at risk?’” she said.

Passersby offered words of praise or admonition. There was some schoolyard chiding. “If Fox is so bad, why is Sean Hannity the number one show?!” a man wearing a leather jacket and jeans called out. “He is not!” a protester replied. “Actually, it’s Rachel Maddow!” (In fact, in February, Hannity had the top spot; in January, Maddow won out.)

A physician from Brooklyn, wearing a green bomber jacket over a shirt and sky-blue tie, waved an American flag. He had closed his office and cleared appointments to attend the protest. “This channel is an open wound in our democracy,” he said.

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Early this week, Fox News condemned Pirro’s comments, but network executives have remained silent on Carlson, who has held  defiant. “We will never bow to the mob,” he said on Monday night’s edition of his show. The bluster might play well with Carlson’s audience, but whether it will also impress ad buyers remains to be seen. According to Variety, some advertisers have already fled, or abandoned support for shows, in light of the latest controversies. A Fox spokesperson offered only a confirmation of the fact of the morning’s meeting.

Around 11:30, Carusone received a text message informing him that the meeting inside had concluded and that media buyers had been whisked away through a rear exit to avoid the protestors. The message came from a source inside Fox News who had reached out to Carusone last week, unsolicited, in the wake of the New Yorker piece. “This is a very frustrated person who apparently has decided there’s no other way to improve things,” Carusone explained. He surveyed the protesters, still shouting and waving signs, and said that he was happy with the turnout. “Really think about what we’re protesting here,” he said. “It’s not like Trump is inside. This is a business meeting. And if you’re a media buyer, you’re probably not the kind of person who is used to having your decisions protested against. I hope today was a unique experience for them.”

As the protesters disassembled, a small handful of security guards stood shoulder-to-shoulder between them and the building doors. “We’ve had worse than this,” said one with a crew cut and a heavy wool coat. Behind him, on the building’s wrap-around digital ticker, scrolled the network’s new slogan: “America is watching.”

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Andrew McCormick is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewMcCormck.