The Media Today

Fox, Newsmax, and the danger of low expectations

November 23, 2020

On Thursday night—in the hours after President Trump’s lawyers Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell convened a press conference and laundered spectacularly-deranged voter-fraud conspiracy theories involving Hugo Chávez, George Soros, and the Clintons—Tucker Carlson, the Fox News host, said on air that he’d asked Powell for evidence, and that she hadn’t been able to provide any. “When we kept pressing she got angry and told us to stop contacting her,” Carlson said, affecting the air of the dogged reporter. “We’re telling you this because it’s true, and in the end, that’s all that matters.” His words were quickly clipped and circulated online, where some mainstream journalists and observers hailed them as a damning, unexpected rebuke of Trump’s election lies, and many right-wingers excoriated his supposed treachery.

Neither response was really justified: Carlson’s monologue cleared only an exceedingly low bar of reality acceptance, and the language he used to couch his call for evidence veered between the credulous (“We took Sidney Powell seriously, with no intention of fighting with her”; “We invited Sidney Powell on the show… we would have given her the entire week, actually, and listened quietly the whole time at rapt attention”) and the downright bizarre. (“The louder the Yale political science department and the staff of The Atlantic magazine scream ‘conspiracy theory,’ the more interested we tend to be”; “We literally do UFO segments—not because we’re crazy or even interested in the subject, but because there is evidence that UFOs are real and everyone lies about it.”) Still, both responses were reflective of a broader post-election trend when it comes to Fox’s coverage. Trump and his supporters have treated even the slightest deviations from the president’s agenda as heresy. And a narrative has formed, among some media-watchers, that Trump and Fox are at war, or at least litigating a messy divorce. “It’s time to grab the popcorn and enjoy the Trump vs. Fox show,” Dean Obeidallah wrote in a column for CNN last week. “After four years of Trump, his opponents have earned this moment of joy.”

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As with the Carlson clip, various supposed instances of Fox turning on Trump—the anchor Neil Cavuto cutting away from a lie-fest fronted by Kayleigh McEnany, the (sometime) White House press secretary; the hosts of Fox & Friends referring to Joe Biden as the “president-elect”; Fox journalists dismissing Trump’s election claims as unevidenced and litigation as “lawsuits schmawsuits”—have spun around social media and been written up by media reporters. (During election week, Fox’s early call of Arizona for Biden was wrongly held up in a similar vein, even though it came from the network’s number-crunchers, who, like their counterparts at other outlets, work independently of on-air talent and are guided by math, not punditry.) Yet elsewhere on Fox, Trump’s lies have continued to be given a platform. Media Matters for America, a liberal watchdog group, calculated that between November 7, the day that outlets including Fox called the election for Biden, and November 16, Fox personalities and guests cast doubt on, or pushed conspiracies about, Biden’s win hundreds of times. Sometimes, opinion hosts including Carlson and Sean Hannity have attempted to hide behind the facade of just asking questions; other times, they’ve been overt. (“Let’s be very direct,” Lou Dobbs, a host on Fox Business, said two days after the Biden call, “many are trying to steal this election from President Trump.”) Fox News even cut such commentary into a commercial, with the rubric “the voices America trusts.” On Thursday, the network aired the Giuliani-Powell conspiracy marathon in its entirety; the next day, Maria Bartiromo, of Fox Business, had Powell on her show, and Giuliani and Powell were reportedly booked for Jeanine Pirro’s show on Saturday, but bailed. (Last night, Trump’s legal team cut Powell loose after she implicated Republican officials in the fraud conspiracy.)

So why the narrative that Fox is at war with Trump? It may just reflect the typical journalistic impulse to seek out stories of conflict—an impulse Trump has buttressed with his anti-Fox rhetoric, even if Fox hasn’t reciprocated. It likely also reflects the growing relevance of right-wing outlets that are prepared to be even more craven in their fealty to the president. (As the never-Trump conservative Charlie Sykes wrote over the weekend, it turns out that “Fox News was only the first circle of right-wing media hell.”) Foremost in this conversation have been One America News Network, long a Trump favorite, and Newsmax, which is owned by Trump’s pal Christopher Ruddy. (Newsmax did have Powell on on Saturday, prior to her dumping. “Georgia’s probably going to be the first state I’m gonna blow up,” she said. “It will be biblical.”) Ruddy has openly been wooing Trump, telling seemingly anyone who will listen that the president is increasingly appreciative of Newsmax.

As is usually the case with right-wing media (and much media in general), ratings—and money—are central to the story here: since the election, Newsmax has been growing its viewership (it drew its biggest ever audience on Thursday, topping one million viewers in the 7pm hour), whereas Fox’s ratings are down on their pre-election levels. While Fox remains comfortably ahead of Newsmax, Michael M. Grynbaum and John Koblin, of the New York Times, reported yesterday that the loss of viewers “has set off alarm bells” inside Fox. Hanging over the dynamic is uncertainty as to what Trump will do next, amid rampant speculation that he intends, variously, to start his own TV network or digital media property or lend his brand to an existing one. The Washington Post reported over the weekend that the former approach is now looking less likely; sources close to the president noted that starting a new outlet from scratch would be “an arduous undertaking without guaranteed success.” If that bears out, can we expect to see Trump on Newsmax going forward? Will he forgive Fox and take on a show—or regular call-in berth—there? Or will he do something else entirely?

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An interesting media-business story is unfolding here, and we don’t yet know how it will work out. (I, personally, am skeptical of both “Trump TV” and a pronounced, long-term Newsmax bounce, and the Murdochs have wriggled out of much tighter spots than this in the past; whatever happens, I’ll chronicle it here.) In the meantime, we should be careful that useful reporting on the maneuvers of Fox, Newsmax, and others doesn’t spill into rationalization, and an attendant lowering of expectations; on-air personalities and executives at Fox, in particular, do not deserve any credit for stating basic facts, and deserve to be called out each and every time they give a platform to lies and empty doubt—regardless of motive. Right-wing outlets bear immense long-term responsibility for the conspiracy-rich media ecosystem that is now facilitating Trump’s attack on democracy. That ecosystem is often discussed in terms of silos and “competing realities.” That language gets at a real problem, but risks eliding the fact that we all have to live in the one, true reality and deal with the actions of those who would warp it, whether we consume their product or not. There is only one standard for election denialism: zero tolerance.

Below, more on Trump and right-wing media:

  • What the reality-based press can do: Margaret Sullivan, media columnist at the Washington Post, outlines three ways that the reality-based press might counter the disinformation ecosystem: mainstream outlets should “be bolder and more direct than ever in telling it like it is,” and avoid “pussyfooting or punch-pulling”; should “unapologetically stand for something”; and should get much more involved in media-literacy programs. Sullivan writes that she has “serious doubts” as to whether these things will happen or would even work, but also believes that “we have to try.”
  • The coup stage:  On Friday, Masha Gessen, of the New Yorker, explored whether Trump is trying to execute a coup or a con or both. “Across a reassuringly wide political spectrum, observers hold that Trump’s refusal to concede the election results is not tantamount to a coup attempt,” Gessen wrote. “They are probably right. Then again, we in the media don’t have a great record for recognizing coups when they are staring us in the face.” (Gessen recently discussed Trumpian autocracy on our podcast, The Kicker.)
  • Bannon wagon: Amy Qin, Vivian Wang, and Danny Hakim, of the Times, explore how Steve Bannon and Guo Wengui, a fugitive Chinese billionaire (on whose yacht Bannon was arrested in August), have worked together to inject unsubstantiated claims about the origins of the pandemic into the right-wing media ecosystem. Their efforts form part of a wider “collaboration between two separate but increasingly allied groups that peddle misinformation: a small but active corner of the Chinese diaspora and the highly influential far right in the US,” both of which want to attack China’s government.
  • ‘American Gnosticism’: On WNYC’s On the Media, Bob Garfield and Jeff Sharlet, a journalist and English professor at Dartmouth, discussed the parallels between Gnosticism, an ancient religious heresy emphasizing spiritual knowledge as a counterpoint to expertise, and Trumpian conspiracy theories. Within Trump’s version of Gnosticism, members of the press are seen as “laboring in the veil of delusion,” Sharlet said, “both promulgating the conspiracy but also sort of trapped in the conspiracy.”

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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.