politics

Opinion | Fox Doesn’t Need to Fear Trump’s Wrath

Our president-for-the-time-being’s move to buffalo his legions of supporters away from his historically loyal mouthpiece poses a central question about the media-politician axis. Who possesses the real power here? The politician? The audience? The network? And if the network, which one? The answers arrived on the heels of the collapse of Trump’s legal ploy to overturn the election.

Today, with the presidential election all but officially conceded, the Newsmax and OANN insurgency has faltered. But both networks had struck a chord in Trump country by reliably producing news that matches the priors of Trump supporters and leaving their political preconceptions unruffled. Reject the authority of the newsies, Trump commanded, and accept mine. And Newsmax and OANN bowed with enthusiasm that not even Fox in its toadiest moments ever mustered. Even after Michigan and Pennsylvania certified the Biden victory and Trump had allowed the GSA to fund the Biden transition, Newsmax and OANN were still hyping the election-fraud angle, stoking its audiences passions with Foxier than Fox, pro-Trump kindling. “Bypass the big media,” as one Newsmax on-air promo instructs viewers, taking a shot at not just CNN but Fox, too.

Both channels have historically drawn low viewership numbers, but that’s changed at Newsmax. One top Newsmax show, which usually hovers around the 58,000-viewer mark, recently attracted a record 1.1 million viewers, only a couple of million shy of a top-ranked Fox show running in the same time slot. The idea that Fox could be outflanked on the harder right was supported by a recent Wall Street Journal report that a Trump-friendly private equity company had approached Newsmax to buy or invest in it. Suddenly, the prospect of extra-Trumpie news networks competing with Fox and supplanting it for conservative primacy seemed possible.

Predictions of Fox’s diminution—however stirring they might be to liberals—must clear several obstacles before they can be taken seriously. Again and again, Fox has proved itself resourceful in replacing “star” show hosts like Megyn Kelly and Bill O’Reilly with new versions of the same thing, such as Ingraham and Carlson, and carrying on after the departure of network auteur Roger Ailes. For another example, when Fox’s favorite presidential candidates have underperformed—such as Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio in 2016—it’s been quick to dismount for a winning candidate like Trump and pretend that it always supported him. For another thing, viewership habits are extraordinarily hard to break. In many households, Fox burns like a winter hearth all day long, as background, diversion and even rapt viewing. Audiences have to search their cable dials for the alt-Fox networks or download the OTT apps. Even if they do in times of peak interest like the “election fraud” episode, how many will remain after the hubbub subsides? As Biden moves into the White House and the election fraud story turns to vapor, we can expect Fox to reclaim most of its defecting audience by going full-bore against Biden with its superior production values and much more talented news and opinion anchors.

The mismatch between the Newsmax and OANN pair and Fox cannot be exaggerated. As data published in the Financial Times shows, the contest isn’t really two Davids and one Goliath as much as it is between two dust motes and the burning sun. Fox is expected to reap $2.9 billion in revenue this year compared with Newsmax’s teensy $26 million and OANN’s only slightly less pitiful $48 million. More than half of those Fox revenues come from the affiliate fees that the cable operator pays to carry the channel, which means that if you’re a Democrat and your cable package includes Fox, you’re putting about $1.65 in Rupert’s piggy bank every month (96 cents for CNN and 29 cents for MSNBC). At Fox, they’ll probably say a prayer of thanks on Thursday as they carve the turkey, expressing joy that it is two underfunded, amateurish operations attacking them from the right instead of a repositioned-to-the-right CNN or MSNBC.

What of the argument that one of the alt-Fox networks could become competitive by adding Trump to the programming schedule? Good luck. The backers of Current TV and then Al Jazeera America poured millions into cable trying to launch viable, quasiliberal networks to compete directly with incumbents CNN and MSNBC. They failed. I suppose you could pay Trump $100 million a year to host a weekday show to swell ratings, but you can’t construct a network around a single tent pole. Besides, the Trump audience is already backed into the viewership of Newsmax and OANN. Without a doubt, given the right producers, Trump could put on a terrific tractor-pull of a show, but will his words convey the same valency as those spoken at his rallies or from the White House? But even a hit Trump show would leave competitors miles behind Fox. Also, the man is 74 years old, making him an old horse for any network to bet on let alone ride. On the plus side, the fact that nearly 74 million voted for him indicates the upside potential of the Trump audience. He was, after all, a better TV show host than he was a president. (Newsmax CEO Christopher Ruddy says he won’t turn his network into Trump TV but is willing to consider a weekly Trump show.)

Newsmax and OANN may have temporarily outflanked Fox by more perfectly echoing Trump’s contention that the election was stolen from him for days after Fox largely abandoned that line, but what special ingredient do they have now? The downside of news organization embracing disinformation, such as the stolen election story, is that reality has a way of interceding and eventually nullifying it. The easiest path is to devise or adopt another disinformation scramble, a technique Fox has already perfected. You may recall the heavy breathing Fox gave the Benghazi scandal, the Seth Rich murder conspiracy, Obama birtherism, and the hydroxychloroquine hype, just to name a few of its grand scoops that when pfft. If Newsmax and OANN think they can maneuver around the Murdoch empire by promoting grander crackpot stories than Fox, they can expect a surprise. Fox is the master of this type of coverage, and unlike Newsmax and OANN, it knows when to discard a news angle and find a new one.

Newsmax and OANN do have one thing going for them. Misinformation masquerading as news clots the Internet and the cable dial not so much because producers create it but because consumers demand it: It’s a demand-side problem, not a supply-side one. As long as viewers seek confirmation of every utterance by a prolific liar like Donald Trump, there will be a guaranteed place for outfits like Newsmax and OANN. But just as surely, if Fox doesn’t turn its back completely on that game, it will bestride the right-wing mediaverse for years to come.

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Send crackpot theories to [email protected]. My email alerts watch OANN. My Twitter feed views Newsmax on the app. My RSS feed, having killed its television in a previous column, abstains from the technology.





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