The Media Today

Fox News and the real insurrection

January 12, 2021

If there’s one thing that Fox News could use, it’s more right-wing opinion programming. Yesterday, Fox announced a scheduling reshuffle that, among other tweaks, will see Martha MacCallum’s news show replaced in the 7pm Eastern hour by a new opinion program with a rotating cast of hosts; Brian Kilmeade, of Fox & Friends, will go first, while MacCallum will take over the 3pm hour that once belonged to Shep Smith, prior to his dramatic walkout in 2019. Fox critics have long criticized the network’s designation of MacCallum as a “news” host; in October, Media Matters for America, a progressive watchdog group, accused her of pushing right-wing talking points “nearly every day.” Her successors in the evening time slot will be spared the pretense. CNN’s Brian Stelter called the schedule change “a further shift toward the incendiary programming that Fox viewers overwhelmingly prefer.” Matt Gertz, of Media Matters, wrote yesterday that the move constitutes Fox “throwing in the towel on its ‘news’ side.”

Fox said in October that it would introduce “new formats” after the election, and network staffing shake-ups are routine when there’s a change of administration—John Roberts, for instance, is leaving his role as Fox’s chief White House correspondent to take up a daytime co-anchor role. Still, the reshuffle comes against a backdrop of ratings challenges for Fox, especially in the all-important 25-54 age demographic. To its left, Fox has recently trailed CNN (and, late last week, MSNBC) among that group; to its right, Fox began, in the aftermath of the election, to lose viewers to even more rabid rivals including Newsmax—in general terms, Fox has remained far ahead of Newsmax, but the latter network scored a notable breakthrough on December 7, when it beat MacCallum’s show in the 7pm hour in the 25-54 demo. Stelter reported yesterday that the post-election growth of Newsmax caused “consternation” at Fox, and that Rupert Murdoch, the network’s owner, was “directly involved” in the new schedule; one source went so far as to tell Stelter that the changes reflect that “Newsmax won.” (Fox denied to Stelter that the changes stemmed from post-election competition and pointed to its October statement as evidence, though that statement did not go into specifics.)

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In the aftermath of the election, a narrative took hold, in some quarters, that Trump and Fox were at “war,” based, in part, on supposed instances of the network standing up to Trump’s deranged lies about the result. As I wrote in late November, this was overblown—it may have been true on Trump’s end, since he demands unbridled fealty of his boosters, but Fox propagandists and their guests, including Trump’s conspiracy-spraying election lawyers Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell, routinely indulged the fantasy. (Fox Business host Lou Dobbs on November 9: “Many are trying to steal this election from President Trump.”) In the nine days after the election was called for Joe Biden, Media Matters logged hundreds of instances of denialism on Fox’s air, with many of them coming on “news” programming. Last month, after Smartmatic, a voting-tech company smeared as part of the election conspiracy, threatened legal action, several Fox opinion shows aired a bizarre segment effectively fact-checking their own coverage. Last week, Dominion, another voting-tech firm, sued Powell for defamation, and asked Fox and other media companies that gave Powell a platform to retract her claims or preserve documents. “None of this would have been possible without other individuals and without other media outlets that have their own responsibility,” Thomas Clare, a lawyer for Dominion, told the Washington Post. “And we’re looking at all of them.”

Then came the Capitol insurrection, which has served as a belated wake-up call for many people, but not, it would seem, for many people on Fox. Personalities on the network have offered some condemnation of the attack—and even some criticism of Trump for stoking it—but viewers have also been subjected to a parade of rationalization and whataboutism. On the day of the insurrection, MacCallum, of news fame, compared it to the recent graffitiing of the Republican senator Josh Hawley’s home, and called it (the insurrection, not the graffiti) “a huge victory” for the mob, which, she said, had just “disrupted the system in an enormous way.” In the aftermath, Laura Ingraham suggested that the mob may have been infiltrated by left-wing activists (it was not), and Sean Hannity said that the insurrectionists were not “truly” Trump fans. On Friday, Hannity turned on the real villains of the week: Madonna and Kathy Griffin.

After Democrats said they planned to impeach Trump again, Fox opinionators echoed the risible Republican talking point that such a move would be provocative; after Twitter banned Trump, they pivoted to bash Big Tech. Yesterday morning, Jeanine Pirro compared Amazon’s decision to boot Parler, an app popular among right-wing extremists, from its web-hosting services to Kristallnacht—the night, in 1938, when Nazis in Germany killed around one hundred Jewish people and arrested tens of thousands more; last night, Tucker Carlson interviewed Hawley, a chief Trump enabler, and asked him, with quivering indignation, about Simon & Schuster scrapping Hawley’s book deal. Back on the “news” side, Bill Hemmer asked Hogan Gidley, a White House spokesperson, whether Trump felt “emasculated” by social media companies. The stupidity of Gidley’s response—that Trump is “the most masculine person, I think, to ever hold the White House”—risked obscuring the stupidity of Hemmer’s question.

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Michael M. Grynbaum, of the New York Times, wrote over the weekend that Fox’s insurrection coverage is revealing of the path forward for the network as Trump prepares to leave office—as a “MAGA safe space” for grieving Trump fans who feel threatened by the tyrannical leftism of the *checks notes* Biden administration. Grynbaum also noted that Carlson, during his show on Friday, slammed Twitter while only mentioning Trump’s name twice. That nugget reminded me of a point Stelter made repeatedly in the fall, when he was promoting his book about Fox: that, as he told Vox, the network’s “brand has been built on the years when it is against Democrats, and they’re pretty open about this. This is not something they hide from. It’s something they acknowledge to advertisers. It’s something they sell to cable operators.” The Biden era, in this light, could, if anything, be an opportunity for the network: the millstone of Trump’s frequently indefensible presidency will be lifted from around its propagandists’ necks (even if they wore it lightly), with oppositional outrage—aimed at the real fascists in the White House, not to mention the media, the academy, Silicon Valley, and so on—as the undiluted order of the day.

It’s worth briefly stating the obvious here: this is all a choice. For all the talk of ratings pressure and Newsmax “winning,” Fox remains a behemoth in a way that its right-wing TV rivals are not, endowed with huge financial and moral power. Baseless outrage sells, but it isn’t inevitable—it dominates Fox’s air because Fox’s management, from Murdoch down, wants it to. The new programming changes are just another reminder of that. We’ve all seen the consequences.

Below, more on right-wing media:

  • Dark clouds: Since the insurrection, media-watchers including CNN’s Stelter and Oliver Darcy have argued that companies that carry right-wing TV and radio channels—which are generally not household names compared to the big social media platforms—should feature more prominently in the public reckoning around the platforming of lies and extremism. Yesterday, we learned that one such corporation—Cumulus Media, one of America’s biggest talk-radio providers—ordered its right-wing hosts, including Mark Levin and Dan Bongino, to stop with the election lies or face being fired. Darcy noted, however, that Levin, at least, doesn’t appear to have backed down, and that Premiere Networks—a different firm that distributes the shows of Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, and Glenn Beck—is not known to have issued a similar edict.
  • The State of it: Yesterday, RedState, a right-wing website, published an op-ed by Mike Ford headlined, “Enough! There Was No Riot, Insurrection or ‘Storming!’” The site later retracted the article and said it regretted publishing it; “Many details, opinions, and analysis contained in the piece were either incorrect or inappropriate,” the site wrote, in an editor’s note. Ford declined to comment on the retraction, telling The Wrap that it’s his policy not to “badmouth my own team because of an internal disagreement.”
  • Epoch win: According to Lachlan Markay, who recently joined Axios from the Daily Beast, the nonprofit group that publishes the Epoch Times—an aggressively pro-Trump news outlet tied to Falun Gong, a spiritual community that wants to take down China’s government—nearly quadrupled its revenue across Trump’s first three years in office. Its success, Markay writes, shows “how lucrative news coverage catering to the president’s most fervent supporters could be—and will likely remain even after he leaves office.”
  • Other TV-news news: CNN also announced some programming changes yesterday: Jake Tapper will anchor two hours on weekday afternoons, rather than one, eating into Wolf Blitzer’s current timeslot; Tapper will also split his Sunday-morning hosting duties with Dana Bash, and Abby Phillip, who was widely lauded for her election coverage last year, will take over the Sunday edition of Inside Politics from John King. Kaitlan Collins will be the network’s chief White House correspondent, replacing Jim Acosta, who will become a weekend anchor and chief domestic correspondent. Elsewhere, CBS named Shawna Thomas as executive producer of CBS This Morning.

Other notable stories:

  • Breaking this morning: Sheldon Adelson, the Republican megadonor and owner of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, has died. He was eighty-seven. As the Times writes in an obituary, Adelson acquired the Review-Journal in 2015, and used a shell company to hide his involvement in the transaction. His ownership “brought financial muscle to the Review-Journal, enabling it to hire personnel and upgrade equipment. But the newsroom was roiled by tensions between top editors on the one hand who saw it as part of their job to review coverage of Adelson and his family and business affairs, and news staff members on the other who chafed at what they regarded as inappropriate interference.”
  • Since the attack on the Capitol, reporters have had to piece together what happened without much help from law enforcement; the top officials at the FBI, Justice Department, and Department of Homeland Security have yet to hold a single news conference on the insurrection. (Yesterday, Chad Wolf, the acting DHS secretary, resigned.) “They were more than happy over the summer to come out and talk about rioting,” Adam Goldman, a national security reporter at the Times, told Vanity Fair’s Joe Pompeo, “but here we have an attack on the nation’s capital and there’s almost silence.” Reporters have instead had to rely on leaks and briefings from lawmakers, which, CNN’s Stelter notes, is “obviously problematic, as anyone who’s ever played a game of Telephone knows.”
  • Yesterday, Voice of America—a government-funded, yet editorially-independent, news outlet—hosted and broadcast a speech by Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, over the strong objections of many staffers; Pompeo accused VOA of “demeaning America,” and said, “it is not fake news for you to broadcast that this is the greatest nation in the history of the world.” VOA journalists were barred from asking questions of Pompeo. After Patsy Widakuswara, a VOA White House reporter, tried to do so, management reassigned her to a different beat. (I wrote about the political interference at VOA before Christmas.)
  • For CJR, Kim Kelly writes that her experience covering black metal—“a subgenre of heavy metal music distinguished by its aggression, over-the-top theatricality, and affinity for the occult”—has honed her “Nazi-hunting skills,” given that a subset of the genre is riddled with racism, anti-Semitism, and other forms of bigotry. “The web of connection between black metal and fascism is astonishingly vast,” Kelly writes. “What I didn’t realize was how it would lead, ultimately, to an attack on the Capitol.”
  • For The Nation, David Klion reviews the new book Twilight of Democracy, in which Anne Applebaum, of The Atlantic, explores how her centrist friends drifted to the far right. Her portraits of others, Klion writes, are compelling, but Applebaum does not interrogate how her own “past and present worldview—one supportive of neoliberal economics, military adventurism, and elite meritocracy—might also have created the room for the far right.”
  • Fewer than three years after vacating the historic Tribune Tower, the Chicago Tribune is moving offices again; the paper is quitting downtown Chicago and will move staff into a printing facility to the north. Last year, Tribune Publishing—the paper’s owner, whose largest shareholder is now the cost-slashing hedge fund Alden Global Capital—outright shuttered the newsrooms of titles including the New York Daily News and the Hartford Courant. (For CJR’s latest magazine, Ruth Margalit explored the future of office work.)
  • The Kansas City Star updated its print design and website to remove images and quotes honoring William Rockhill Nelson, the paper’s founder, in light of his support for racial segregation in the city in the early 1900s. Last month, the Star published a series of pieces—including a profile of Nelson—investigating its past failures in covering race, and Mike Fannin, the paper’s president and editor, issued an apology to readers.
  • The Appeal, a nonprofit newsroom covering criminal justice among other beats, is expanding; it’s launching a daily news show with NowThis, and hiring six new editors, including Chris Geidner, formerly of BuzzFeed, as director of editorial strategy and senior legal analyst. Elsewhere, Defector, a worker-owned media company that was founded last year by former employees of Deadspin, is staffing up, too.
  • And “Ken Burns wrote Politico’s Playbook newsletter” is not a sentence I ever expected to write, but he did this morning. Burns believes that we are living through the fourth great crisis in US history. The insurrection, he argues, is neither a beginning nor an end, but “a moment when we each get to decide how we want to proceed.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.