The Media Today

Fox and its friends

February 24, 2023
The Fox News newsroom. Courtesy photo.

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.

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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.

Some news from the home front:
CJR is holding a forum to answer questions about the recent series by reporter Jeff Gerth on Russia and Trump. Here are the details:

A CJR Forum: The president and the press

It’s been a few weeks since CJR published a series by reporter Jeff Gerth critiquing the coverage of Russian attempts to intervene in the 2016 election and the subsequent Trump presidency. We knew at the time that the articles would elicit strong responses. But we also believe that CJR’s role is to air a range of views about the strengths, challenges, and failings of contemporary media. It is in that spirit that we are organizing this town hall. We will answer questions, respond to criticism, and explain our approach to these stories, applying to ourselves the same transparency and accountability that we seek from the institutions CJR covers. The content of the discussion will be guided entirely by the event’s outside, independent moderator. For more than 60 years, the Columbia Journalism Review has stood for clarity and integrity in news. We continue that tradition and invite you to participate in this discussion. —Jelani Cobb, dean, Columbia Journalism School


* Reporter Jeff Gerth

* CJR Editor and Publisher Kyle Pope

* Columbia Journalism School Dean Jelani Cobb

Moderated by Geeta Anand, dean, Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism


Monday, February 27, 12:45 pm – 2 pm ET via link

RSVPs required. Questions for the moderator can be submitted in advance via this link.

Other notable stories:

  • Dylan Lyons, a 24-year-old reporter with Spectrum News 13, a 24-hour news channel in Orlando, Florida, was shot and killed on Wednesday afternoon while working on a story about a previous shooting in which a woman and a 9-year-old girl were killed, the news channel reported. Jesse Walden, a photojournalist for Spectrum News 13 who was covering the shooting with Lyons, was also shot and was in critical condition in hospital.
  • Ozy Media CEO Carlos Watson was arrested Thursday and charged with conspiracy to commit securities fraud by lying to investors and lenders about the size of the company’s audience and other aspects of its business, the Wall Street Journal reported. According to the indictment that was unsealed Thursday, Watson falsified information about Ozy’s performance in an attempt to raise millions of dollars, the Journal said.
  • Florida’s Republican-dominated Legislature is trying to weaken state laws that protect journalists against defamation suits, at the urging of Governor Ron DeSantis, according to a report from Politico. The idea behind the proposed legislation, Politico says, is “to spark a larger legal battle with the goal of eventually overturning New York Times v. Sullivan, the landmark 1964 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that limits public officials’ ability to sue publishers for defamation.”
  • Henry Blodget, CEO of Insider, was seen earlier this month at the New York offices of The Daily Beast, according to the New York Post, “sparking rumors that Insider’s owner Axel Springer is in talks to buy the news site controlled by billionaire Barry Diller.” Sources told the newspaper that Blodget met with Daily Beast CEO Heather Dietrick and editor-in-chief Tracy Connor roughly two weeks ago.
  • And Google is blocking some Canadian users from viewing news content in a test run of a potential response to the government’s online news bill, the Canadian Press newswire reported. Known as Bill C-18, the Online News Act would require platforms such as Google and Meta (which owns Facebook) to negotiate deals that would compensate Canadian media companies for republishing their content.

ICYMI: Section 230 gets its day in court

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