“We’re bleeding eyeballs,” a Fox producer remarked in December. “And we’re scared.”
To fix the problem, Fox ran even further to the right. And here’s the thing: It worked. It was toxic for the American political system, but it was profitable for Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch.
“Fox is a really different place than it was pre-election,” a commentator said to me, with regret, after Biden took office.
And because Fox News is the primary trusted source of information for millions of Americans, including Republican elected officials and party activists, the changes affect everyone.
Trump’s loss was a pivot point.
Fox’s ratings declined in the immediate aftermath of Mitt Romney’s loss in 2012, so the slump after the networks projected Biden as president-elect was no surprise. But the precipitousness was a shock. Fox’s afternoon and evening hours fell off by 20, 25, 30 percent, even though the news cycle was nothing short of epic. For people at Fox who were used to winning for years, this was disorienting, and for some downright terrifying.
“Our audience hates this,” one executive said to me in a moment of candor. “This” was Biden as president-elect and Kamala Harris as VP-elect. “They’re pissed,” said a second source. “Seething,” said another.
I granted anonymity to these sources because they weren’t allowed to speak with outside reporters on the record, and because I wanted them to freely offer blunt assessments of the situation.
Staffers mostly worked from home due to the pandemic — even many of the hosts went live from converted garages and attics and spare bedrooms. So there wasn’t real watercooler-type gossip at its Manhattan headquarters, but there was still plenty of secondhand speculation about what the bosses were thinking and doing.
“Rupert is not happy” was the prevailing impression Fox insiders had; even if they never heard from him directly, they felt media tycoon Rupert Murdoch’s influence everywhere. His son Lachlan boasted on Election Day that “we love competition,” but that flex was looking worse and worse by the day. Fox News Media CEO Suzanne Scott and the management team needed to find a way to lure the Fox audience back home.
They did it by giving the viewers what they wanted: False hope. On Fox, Trump was treated as a political genius, not a lame duck who failed to win reelection. Some of the network’s key shows waded deeper into the voter fraud depths, eventually spurring massive defamation lawsuits by voting machine companies Dominion and Smartmatic.
“It’s really emotionally taxing,” a dissident Fox contributor told me as the Covid-19 case count exploded and Trump’s legal challenges imploded. “We denied the pandemic and now we’re denying the election outcome.”
The next step was to silence those dissenters.
Fox’s tagline that had sounded like a boast in 2020, “America is Watching,” registered more like a plea, “America is Watching,” in January 2021. It sounded like the announcer needed to convince viewers that they weren’t alone.
In the immediate aftermath of the Capitol attack, Fox announced what it trumpeted as a “new daytime lineup.” But the biggest change was at night: Martha MacCallum was booted from the 7 p.m. hour because the executives decided that her show, while clearly right of center, was not far enough right to satisfy the base. In MacCallum’s place, they said, would be a new talk show led by opinion talent To Be Determined. Brian Kilmeade and Maria Bartiromo were the first two hosts to try out in the time slot.
MacCallum was moved to the much lower-rated 3 p.m. time slot. She played along with the shift in public, but she was disappointed that she wasn’t given more time at 7 to prove herself. A source threw up their hands when I asked about the 7 p.m. revamp, saying, “The viewers want opinion. That’s their opinion.”
The man ultimately in charge of this menu was Rupert, the Fox Corporation patriarch. “These were all Murdoch’s calls,” a Fox anchor said on the day of the big announcement, summing up the internal consensus. Because MacCallum moved to 3, Bill Hemmer had to move back to a morning co-anchor shift, only a year after he was finally given his own newscast. He was paired with Dana Perino, who also lost her own solo hour. Harris Faulkner’s 1 p.m. show moved to 11 a.m., leading into “Outnumbered,” which was prodded even further rightward by booking liberal panelists less and less often.
Talk shows like “Hannity” spun off radical ideas like it was a game of bingo, portraying the new president as almost senile one day, and a tyrant the next. Producers fought with each other to book the subset of conservative guests that viewers loved — media bashers like Mollie Hemingway and shouters like Dan Bongino — while ignoring more moderate Fox contributors like Jonah Goldberg and Stephen Hayes.
The dynamic reminded me of a drunken night out with an empty pint glass in hand. Do you settle your tab, call an Uber home, and sober up? That’s what the responsible voice in your head tells you to do. But the booze beckons you to order another round. Fox heeded the alcohol’s advice. Fox ordered shots for the entire bar.
“We turned so far right we went crazy,” said one commentator, sounding hung over.
The Murdochs renewed Suzanne Scott’s contract despite all of the turbulence. The CEO positioned herself as an expansionist, leading Fox into new lines of businesses like lifestyle (they produced a Christmas movie!) and live-streamed weather coverage. But these experiments belied the fact that Fox was more dependent than ever on its propaganda players, Tucker Carlson in particular.
Carlson’s top ally, Lachlan Murdoch, sometimes sounded like he didn’t know the company he is leading. “We believe where we’re targeted, to the center-right, is exactly where we should be targeted,” he told investors in February. “We don’t need to go further right. We don’t believe America is further right, and we’re obviously not going to pivot left. All of our significant competitors are to the far left.”
His dismissive attitude toward Newsmax and OAN was mixed with denialism about what Fox was becoming — mirroring what the GOP was becoming. Every move was further to the right: Fewer straight news reports, even though historic news was unfolding. More chat segments about “cancel culture.” Fewer Democratic guests on talk shows, even though Democrats were taking charge of the government. More clips of Carlson’s prime time rants all day long.
On the weekdays, Shannon Bream saw her 11 p.m. hour, billed as a newscast, bumped to midnight in favor of Greg Gutfeld, a comedian who ranted about the “Russia hoax” and knocked his own news-side colleagues. Fox would now have its own late-night comedy show because, Scott said, “people need a reason to laugh.” On the weekends, Bongino and former GOP congressman Trey Gowdy would get their own talk shows.
“The ongoing power of the ‘Big Lie’ is fed daily with conspiracy talk and misinformation by social media, talk radio and cable opinion shows,” he wrote.
Williams remains a political analyst at Fox, but he has only been on the network a few times since leaving “The Five.” The Fox base doesn’t seem to miss him. “The Five” bounced back in the ratings, like much of the rest of the network, because the rightward run worked. While cable news ratings are down across the board right now, compared with last spring’s pandemic- and protest-triggered highs, Fox News is back in first place.