In the Magazine Analysis

Can Fox News Survive the Trump Presidency? Embattled Network Faces Lawsuits, Aging Viewership, New Competitors

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Donald Trump is seen on a television screen in the media filing center as he speaks during the first Republican presidential debate at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio, on Aug. 6, 2015. Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg/Getty

Fox News is destroying America. Its anchors are humorless propagandists for President Donald Trump, lacking dignity and honesty, humility and heart. The cable news network is a spigot from which right-wing misinformation flows unceasingly, flooding the nation with untruth, making millions wonder whether Barack Obama was born in Hawaii, as he claims, or in Indonesia, behind a mosque where fanatics plotted the destruction of America and the National Football League.

Or...

Fox News is saving America by telling truths you won’t hear on CNN or read in The New York Times, where liberal pieties prevail. It speaks for the millions of forgotten Americans in small towns whose newspapers have died and whose factories have closed. Fox News is the bulwark that keeps at bay political correctness, socialism and soccer.

Or...

Fox News is America, glorious and exasperating, bellicose and enthralling. At battle with itself and outside forces, Fox News helped create the splendid turbulence of our political civic life—but is now threatened by it. You read Alexis de Tocqueville to understand the nation in its infancy. You watch Fox News commentator Sean Hannity to glimpse the nation in midlife crisis, mournful for past glories, a little despondent about present ills, but unfailingly optimistic about the future. For once, China and California are vanquished, and this flailing little century will belong to America, as did the glorious one before it.

“It’s just everywhere,” says Lauren Duca, a political columnist for Teen Vogue who has been a target of Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson. Like many progressives, she charges Fox News with feeding on “conservative paranoia” while also manufacturing it, a brutally effective and profitable feedback mechanism. Her parents watch it, she tells me. So do my mother and uncle, hooked long ago by its loathing for the Clintons and its love of Israel. It plays at Duca’s gym. It plays at mine too. Actually, a confession: I am the one who turns the television to Fox News. Because while I find much of Fox News objectionable, I also find much of Fox News irresistible.

‘A Vulgar Turn of Mind’

Visiting the young American republic in 1831, de Tocqueville marveled at the flourishing free press. In his native France, he would write in Democracy in America, “almost all [the press’s] power is centered in the same spot, and vested in the same hands.” He figured the diversity of American journalism resulted from the vastness of the nation. “The United States have no metropolis; the intelligence as well as the power of the country are dispersed abroad.”

The press was, like the country itself, decentralized and unruly. The typical American journalist had “a scanty education and a vulgar turn of mind,” he wrote, and made “an open and coarse appeal to the passions of the populace; and he habitually abandons the principles of political science to assail the characters of individuals, to track them into private life, and disclose all their weaknesses and errors.”

More than any other major media organization in modern American history, Fox News has found a way to appeal to those “passions of the populace.” The network represents a strain of populism that political scientist Richard Hofstadter described in Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, his classic 1963 study of demagoguery. Hofstadter wrote that modern American anti-intellectualism had its birth in the erosion of the agrarian society de Tocqueville had observed a little more than a century before. “As a consequence, the heartland of America, filled with people who are often fundamentalist in religion, nativist in prejudice, isolationist in foreign policy, and conservative in economics, has constantly rumbled with an underground revolt against all these tormenting manifestations of our modern predicament.”

In the approximately 185,000 hours of programming since its inception, Fox News has managed to turn that underground revolt into above-ground theater, a captivating spectacle of “homicide bombers” and “coastal elites,” of truth-telling patriots and politically correct traitors. In doing so, it has managed to convince people whose views may have been considered fringe or extreme that they are, in fact, part of a silent majority bound, above all, by its devotion to Fox News. The reward for that loyalty is a vision of America where the right’s deepest fantasies are realized: abortionists jailed, Muslims detained, Rosie O’Donnell deported to Antarctica.

FE_Fox_12_642429030 Fox News personality Sean Hannity at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. Benjamin Lowy/Getty

Fox News is often accused of trafficking in outrage, but it offers viewers something far more valuable than that: self-assurance. Outrage is rooted in certitude, a conviction that the other guy isn’t just wrong but flagrantly, offensively so. Take climate change. What a bummer, right? Not if you watch Fox News, where only about one in four references to global warming was truthful, according to a 2014 study by the Union of Concerned Scientists. “No one is dying from climate change,” Jesse Watters, lead host of The Five, said this past June, some three months before hurricanes devastated Houston, South Florida and Puerto Rico, killing about 200 people.

And let’s be honest, MSNBC peddles outrage as eagerly as Fox. Only Fox News did it first, and Fox News still does it better.

60 Percent Fake

Despite what its myriad detractors say, Fox News did not singlehandedly turn America into warring political factions that cannot agree on taxes, North Korea or when dinosaurs roamed the earth. Many point to 1994 as the year when the current-day political rift began to show, with an invigorated Republican Party, led by House Speaker Newt Gingrich, clashing with President Bill Clinton on many of the same issues that continue to animate the right: guns, abortion, welfare.

Fox News has played that polarization to its advantage more brilliantly than any other media outlet, offering itself as a refuge from the slings and arrows of outrageous bullshit slung by the mainstream media. Bill O’Reilly, the network’s first prime-time star, invited viewers into a “no spin zone.” Unlike the professionally sedate Peter Jennings or Dan Rather, he delivered his take on the news with unusual, irresistible passion. Everything outraged him. On any given night, he might have a heart attack. A man with that much feeling had to be telling the truth.

Liberals were slow to catch on to this shift from staid objectivity. MSNBC’s primetime lineup features smart progressives like Rachel Maddow and Chris Hayes, while CNN’s Jake Tapper may well be the best political journalist working in television today. Yet despite some recent ratings gains, competitors have never really caught up to Fox News. They wish they could engender the same ferocity of feeling, the fealty of viewership. But they can’t, because they are merely cable news networks. Fox News isn’t a network; it’s a worldview.

That worldview is shared by Donald Trump, who reportedly watches several hours of Fox News each day. There has never been a relationship this close between a sitting president and an American media organization. Trump and Rupert Murdoch, chairman of the network’s parent company, 21st Century Fox, are friends who reportedly talk regularly, perhaps more than once a week. Murdoch has offered the president advice on media strategy; last March, Trump fired the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara, who was conducting a federal investigation into how Fox News handled sexual misconduct claims.

A Los Angeles Times report has the leader of the free world frequently calling Hannity after the blustery pundit’s delivery of yet another nuclear payload of righteously enriched anger. Recently, Trump reportedly sought Hannity’s advice on immigration. That would be sort of like Obama reaching out to MSNBC’s Maddow about taxes, except that Trump’s relationship with Fox News is so long-standing and well known, nobody is surprised.

A recent analysis by Mark Knoller of CBS found that since becoming president, Trump has given 20 interviews to Fox News. He has given a combined 18 interviews to all other major American news organizations, and none to CNN. And why would he? Just to have his balls busted by Tapper once again? To have Don Lemon ask him if he is a white supremacist? Trump once needed CNN, but that’s no longer the case. Now he uses the bully pulpit of the presidency to taunt the supposedly “failing” network. (He may also use the Justice Department to block a merger between AT&T and Time Warner, the parent company of CNN, in what would be a truly Nixonian show of vengeance.)

One of Trump’s more recent interviews with Fox News was with Lou Dobbs, whose show airs on the Fox Business Network. Dobbs was once on CNN, but then his views on immigration got a little too extreme. So now he’s a Murdoch man.

Dobbs began the interview with a kiss: “You have accomplished so much.”

Trump said he watched Dobbs’s show “absolutely almost all the time,” and that while American journalism was rife with fake news—a term he falsely told Dobbs he invented—Fox News was singularly fair to him. Trump also insisted that Dobbs tell him who should be appointed the next chairperson of the Federal Reserve.

Dobbs smirked throughout, pleased with the president and himself. He said that while some on “the left” (in Fox News terminology, there are only Trump loyalists and “the left”) loathe Trump, he was “one of the most loved and respected” presidents in American history. Polls indicate that is not even remotely the case. Dobbs surely knows that, and just as surely doesn’t care. According to a 2015 analysis by PunditFact, 61 percent of what’s said on the network is either a partial misrepresentation or an outright lie.

Even though Trump and Fox News are waging most of the same battles, they are not in the same foxhole. Not even the man with the nuclear codes could save the network from a recent rash of high-profile sexual harassment and racial discrimination lawsuits that have reportedly sapped morale; an intense ratings battle with CNN and MSNBC; an audience well into senescence, as suggested by nightly advertisements for gold, mops and life insurance; and fears that when Murdoch hands his sons, Lachlan and James, control of the network, they will expurgate everything that has set Fox News apart from its competitors and made it phenomenally profitable.

"Every news organization faces new challenges because of Trump,” says Erik Wemple, media critic of The Washington Post. “It just so happens that Fox News’s new challenges are potentially catastrophic.”

Springtime for Nixon

When Rupert Murdoch announced the creation of the network that would come to be known as Fox News in 1996, New York Times television critic Bill Carter was not impressed. “With no name and no formal plan for distribution,” he wrote, “the promised channel inspired widespread doubts about its long-term survival among competitors and cable industry analysts.” But, he added, Murdoch did have one formidable asset: Roger E. Ailes.

For nearly three decades, Ailes had stood at the thrilling and dangerous intersection where television and politics meet. During the 1968 presidential campaign, he’d worked for Richard Nixon, helping the candidate understand the medium that had helped John F. Kennedy defeat the Republican eight years before. In an interview with U.S. News & World Report two years after Nixon defeated Hubert H. Humphrey in ’68, Ailes was asked if “TV experts can create misleadingly favorable images of politicians, who, in reality, might lack qualifications for high office.”

FE_Fox_06_76433954 Roger Ailes, former president of Fox News, with Brian Kilmeade, Fox host. Catrina Genovese/WireImage/Getty

“Television doesn't have that much control,” Ailes said. “Even if we tried to make something out of nothing, we couldn't get away with it.”

That was disingenuous. In an unsigned memorandum from 1970 uncovered by Gawker in 2011 and titled “A Plan for Putting the GOP on TV News," some unnamed official in the Nixon administration describes Fox News 26 years before the network’s birth: “Today television news is watched more often than people read newspapers, than people listen to the radio, than people read or gather any other form of communication,” the 15-page memo said. “The reason: People are lazy. With television you just sit—watch—listen. The thinking is done for you.” That gave the White House an opening "to provide pro-Administration, videotape, hard news actualities to the major cities of the United States."

There is a comment from Ailes in the margin: “Basically an excellent idea.”

Ailes’s first foray into cable news came in 1974. TVN (Television News Inc.) had been started the year before by Joseph Coors, the conservative beer magnate. It lasted just one more year. Ailes returned to politics, working on campaigns for Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, telling the latter that he looked like “a fucking faggot” when he wore short-sleeved shirts. During the 1988 campaign, Ailes worked with Lee Atwater, the GOP strategist who perfected the politics of grievance that have worked so well for Republicans ever since.

“Roger and I are soul brothers of sorts in terms of our approach to a campaign,” Atwater once said. Diagnosed with a brain tumor in 1990, Atwater apologized on his deathbed for fostering a vicious new breed of politics, evident in his evisceration of Bush’s Democratic challenger, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis. Ailes, who would outlive Atwater by a quarter century, never evinced any such regret.

After Bush’s victory over Dukakis, Ailes gravitated to television again. In 1994, as CNBC’s chief executive, he launched America’s Talking, an interview-heavy network whose on-air talent included Steve Doocy, now at Fox & Friends; Chris Matthews, who these days can be seen blowing his gasket on MSNBC; and Ailes himself, who hosted a show called Straight Forward. Sometimes, Straight Forward featured a guest host, a flinty Long Islander whose regular gig was at Inside Edition. His name was Bill O’Reilly.

Like TVN, America’s Talking had a life span of about two years. The network ceased programing on July 15, 1996. Two weeks later, The New York Times reported that Murdoch had hired Ailes.

Fox News is the deep resentments and paranoia of Nixon, crossed with the tabloid sensibilities of Murdoch, whose American media empire began with the purchase of the New York Post in 1976. The former explains the network’s overt appeal to the silent majority, an artfully coded phrase Nixon used in 1969 in reference to working-class whites dismayed by the Black Panthers, campus activists and the long-haired freaks of Haight-Ashbury. Fox News evinces a similar dismay at similar groups, only instead of the decidedly not-photogenic Nixon, you had an army of guys in power ties who look as if they hunt their own steaks, flanked by women mandated by Ailes to sit at glass tables and wear revealing clothing (some women at Fox News say that culture is changing).

Ailes created an alternate universe in which Nixon was still—and always would be—president.

‘Skinny Ghetto Crackhead’

Fox News, like Nixon, has a complicated relationship with the truth. Nixon told the truth plenty of times; he just happened to have lied about a burglary at a certain Washington office complex. Fox News, in that regard, is a block of cheese moldy on the outside, with a mostly edible interior. That interior is straightforward news programs like Happening Now and Special Report With Bret Baier, which can be relied upon to deliver the day’s news. At 3 p.m., you might find Shepard Smith debunking the Uranium One conspiracy theory, as he did earlier this week to liberals’ delight. Then it’s Neil Cavuto, who might leaven the day’s events with song from Joe Piscopo, the entertainer and sometime conservative pundit, or an interview with fitness impresario Richard Simmons. (“You look so handsome today, I can hardly deal with not climbing over this desk,” Simmons told him in 2013. “It’s good to see you too,” Cavuto answered.)

Things are still normal, more or less.

The small band of on-air non-ideologues at Fox News is led by Chris Wallace, the charmingly nasal son of legendary 60 Minutes host Mike Wallace; Wallace’s stepfather was the equally legendary CBS chairman William Leonard, who groomed Dan Rather as Walter Cronkite’s successor. Seemingly aware of this legacy, Wallace frequently does what he can to steer the network away from the political extremes. “Every time Chris Wallace tells the truth on Fox & Friends, it’s an important moment for conservative America,” says Brian Stelter, CNN’s media critic and host of its Sunday morning press review, Reliable Sources.

Wallace also hosts a talker, Fox News Sunday, but Stelter was presumably referring to moments such as the one in June when Wallace excoriated Pete Hegseth of Fox & Friends for calling the investigation into Russia’s election meddling a “nothing burger.” Or the moment in the spring of 2008 when he scolded Fox & Friends’s Brian Kilmeade: “Two hours of Obama bashing may be enough.”

"I don’t think it is state-run TV,” says Joe Concha, a media reporter for The Hill who regularly appears on the network. “I hear so many different opinions on one topic.”

The best example of that is a clip from last summer of a monologue by Fox News host and legal analyst Eboni K. Williams. On the Monday after the bloody weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, Williams was in her Harlem apartment, just waking up. On the other side of Central Park, in midtown Manhattan, Fox & Friends was busy praising Trump for his moral clarity on race in America. Producer Rob Monaco had called to see if Williams wanted to do her “Eboni’s Docket” segment on The Fox News Specialists, an afternoon show. (It was canceled in early September, but Williams remains a contributor to the network.) Williams, a lawyer by training, uses “Eboni’s Docket” to discuss legal matters. She told Monaco there was nothing on her mind, but about an hour later, she called him back and said she wanted to do a segment about Charlottesville.

Plenty of people had already denounced Trump’s response to Charlottesville by then. Almost none of those denunciations went viral, as that day’s “Eboni’s Docket” did. However brief, the segment was a testament to what Fox News can be when it isn’t busy stoking fears about Shariah law and gender-neutral bathrooms. For all the legitimate concerns about Fox News churning out right-wing propaganda, it gave a young African-American woman raised by a single mother the platform to criticize a sitting president known to be close to the network’s most powerful figures. That doesn’t mean everything, but it does mean something.

"I was willing to give you the benefit of the doubt,” Williams said, looking directly into the camera. “I can no longer do that, Mr. President. No more benefit—all doubt.” She hoped that the president would address the misguided young men who’d descended on Charlottesville. “I am asking you to address their anger, address their misplaced fears,” Williams said. She concluded with a plea: “Let them know that this is America, land of opportunity, and there is indeed enough to go around,” she told Trump.

I met Williams at a Starbucks near Penn Station, on a rainy Manhattan morning. She had recently been in New Orleans for a meeting of the National Association of Black Journalists. There, she had been forced to defend her work on Fox News. It is something she has to do often, and for good reason: African-Americans make up only 1 percent of Fox News’s viewership, reflecting the belief that the network is largely for whites, that even someone like Williams, though seemingly an ally, is only there for the appearance of diversity.

Maybe they remember the time O’Reilly attacked the rapper Common (“a guy who sympathizes with a cop killer”) or the time he attacked the rapper Ludacris (“a thug”), or the time he attacked U.S. Representative Maxine Waters, a California Democrat (“James Brown wig”). There was also the time this past August when Watters, an O’Reilly protégé, said, “America is not a racist nation, it's time we stop acting like it is.” That is the very same Watters who was accused of racism for a 2016 segment in which he used the crudest stereotypes (“Am I supposed to bow to say hello?” and “Do you know karate?”) to depict the residents of New York’s Chinatown as ignorant about American politics and not really all that American. But he wasn’t the one who called Obama a “skinny ghetto crackhead.” That was family values zealot L. Brent Bozell III, speaking on Fox News in 2011.

Williams considers O’Reilly her “rabbi.” Despite the long history of sexual misconduct that drove him from the network earlier this year, Williams says she never witnessed inappropriate behavior by him. She also believes some of the attacks on Fox News are hypocritical, motivated by a liberal animus that ignores inconvenient facts.

“If you look at the cable news landscape, and if you want to point to a black woman hosting a show,” Williams says, “they don't exist on the other networks," particularly on weekdays. "CNN doesn’t have any black women.” That’s not entirely true: CNN has Isha Sesay, who hosts CNN Newsroom, while Joy-Ann Reid, an increasingly prominent figure in the anti-Trump resistance, has a weekend show on MSNBC. Fox News, however, has two prominent African-American women: Williams and Harris Faulkner of Outnumbered, which features mostly female hosts.

Williams recently helped Gianno Caldwell, an African-American political consultant who leans right, get hired as a Fox News contributor. Williams says the diversity on Fox News isn’t cosmetic. She gets emails from self-described far-right Republicans who tell her that she’s made them reconsider Black Lives Matter.

But there have also been death threats, in particular after the Charlottesville monologue. To her defense came Hannity, who rarely has an unkind word for Trump. “This is a national disgrace that people cannot accept differences,” Hannity said on Twitter. In a season of political ironies, Hannity lecturing about civility may have topped even a billionaire’s rhapsodies about the working class.

Donald? Duck!

If Fox News did not exist, it would have been necessary to invent it. In his seminal 2015 study of the effect of Fox News on the American politics, Bruce Bartlett, who served as an adviser to both Reagan and George H.W. Bush, admitted that, like many conservatives, he welcomed the arrival of Fox News to an overwhelmingly liberal mediascape. “Finally, conservatives did not have to seek out bits of news favorable to their point of view in liberal publications or in small magazines and newsletters,” Bartlett wrote. “Like someone dying of thirst in the desert, conservatives drank heavily from the Fox waters.”

But the water was tainted. Bartlett argues that the attacks of 9/11 “radicalized” the network, endowing it with an anti-Muslim slant it retains to this day. The election of Obama, though, may have been the best thing that happened to the network, allowing it to play the role of beleaguered outsider, the underdog taking on a globalist elite that cared nothing for the jobless miners of West Virginia.

Obama was worldly, sophisticated, rational, deliberate. Fox News was none of those. But it was American, unlike the new president (right?). Trump started appearing on the network, touting his investigation into Obama’s supposedly faked birth certificate. A 2010 survey found that 31 percent of Fox News viewers didn’t think Obama was born in the United States.

Rick Wilson, a top Republican strategist, blames Fox News for the dissolution of the principled conservatism that was his party’s core. “As the country has devolved into increasingly hermetic ideological silos, Fox has constantly reassured the GOP base that their support of Trump still makes them conservatives, even though he's an authoritarian statist with poor impulse control and lacks a conservative bone in his body,” he says. “It's made them billions and cost the GOP its soul.”

Now, the embrace is too tight to be broken. “Pro-Trump viewers want a safe space,” Republican apostate Charles Sykes, author of the recent book How the Right Lost Its Mind, told Politico. “They want a reliable outlet that will defend the president and attack his critics, and Fox has apparently decided that it's going to give them that."

But even though the network is now identified with electing Trump and bolstering his presidency the way Yoko Ono is identified with breaking up the Beatles, Fox News wasn’t a Trump booster until well into the Republican primary. “During the election, it felt like Fox News was keeping Trump at arm's length—at first,” says Joe Muto, a former associate producer for O’Reilly who wrote revealingly about working at Fox News in a 2012 series of Gawker dispatches. The Hill’s Concha concurs. “Drudge had more to do with electing Donald Trump president,” he says, referring to the Drudge Report, a clearinghouse for conservative news that, in the midst of the election, recorded 1.47 billion monthly visitors. Those visitors were offered a cavalcade of anti-Hillary Clinton calumny.

Concha also points out that CNN gave Trump disproportionate coverage in the crucial early days of his campaign, when it was easiest to dismiss it as a stunt. During the primary season, 78 percent of CNN’s coverage of Republican candidates was focused on Trump, according to the Media Research Center; former Florida Governor Jeb Bush was second, at an anemic 12 percent. After he was fired by Trump in June 2016, campaign manager Corey Lewandowski quickly found a home on CNN as a paid contributor, where he defended Trump with snarling loyalty. Several months later, it was revealed that Lewandowski was still on the Trump payroll.

Casting all the blame for Trump on Fox News removes responsibility from the rest of the media. CBS chief Leslie Moonves said it best: “It may not be good for America,” he said of Trump’s run for office, “but it’s damn good for CBS.”

Witch Hunt Is Which?

There are approximately 1,400 steps separating the House of Murdoch from the House of Trump. I took the walk between Manhattan’s 1211 Sixth Avenue, where the Fox News newsroom is currently being renovated, to Trump’s fortified residence on Fifth Avenue on a gray Monday afternoon in August, as televisions played images of the weekend’s violence in Charlottesville.

Trump was being criticized by Democrats and Republicans alike for saying that “many sides” were to blame for the violence that claimed three lives. Yet if you were one of the 1.6 million Americans who tuned into Fox & Friends that morning, you would have no clue the president was embattled once again.

The most watched morning program in the nation, Fox & Friends opened that Monday as it always does, with an attractive woman in a short, bright skirt—in this case, Abby Huntsman, daughter of former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman Jr.—seated on a couch between two generically handsome men in conservative suits and primary-color ties (Doocy and Hegseth). There was no outrage on Fox & Friends, and there was no despair, of the sort you would have found on MSNBC’s flagship Morning Joe, where contributor Donny Deutsch, an advertising executive, was blasting Trump as a “pathetic, sniveling little man.”

The mood on Fox & Friends that morning after Charlottesville was of gently perturbed optimism as Doocy read a White House statement that had to be issued on Sunday because the president’s statement on Saturday did not condemn white supremacists with nearly enough force. Hannity is the network’s dark heart, but Fox & Friends is the sunny smile Fox News offers to the world. It manages to hold that smile for five full hours.

On that Monday in August, there followed a segment with an African-American professor from Vanderbilt, Carol M. Swain, who blamed what happened in Charlottesville on “identity politics and multiculturalism.” She urged a restoration of “American national identity,” without explaining what that was.

More recently, there was what Teen Vogue ’s Duca calls “the cheeseburger incident.” On the late October morning that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III handed down his first indictments in the federal investigation into the Trump campaign’s collusion with Russia, Fox & Friends decided to investigate differences in cheeseburger emoji. Fox News is genius at this kind of misdirection, guiding viewers away from news that doesn’t fit with its political agenda. “We report. You decide,” runs the Fox News motto. But it’s impossible to have any credible opinions on the Mueller investigation if it is discussed in passing, and dismissed as a “witch hunt.” And then it’s back to the cheeseburger emoji, the War on Christmas, the War on Cops, the War on Coal, Obama’s birth certificate, something stupid a liberal in Santa Monica said.

The master of such misdirection is Hannity, who recently moved into the coveted 9 p.m. slot once occupied by O’Reilly, his fellow Long Islander. I write this on November 8. Hannity has devoted his past several monologues to the Clintons, “America’s most corrupt political family” (11/6); the “ruthless political machine that mowed down anyone” who’d stop Hillary Clinton from becoming president (11/3); the sale of uranium to Russia and the “painful steps” Clinton, as secretary of state, took along with Obama to “cover it up.”

FE_Fox_11_530406756 Sean Hannity and former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski at Fox News Channel on May 10, 2016 in New York. John Lamparski/Getty

The deal involving Uranium One, a Canadian mining company, was covered on the front page of The New York Times in 2015, but each night, Hannity treats the entirely legal transaction like a fresh Watergate. Then there are Hillary’s email servers. Hannity loves talking about those servers. There were also hard drives scrubbed with BleachBit, a product he mentioned so frequently, I became convinced he was a paid spokesman for the stuff.

Hannity’s blatant advocacy of pro-Trump conspiracy theories, as well as his support (now seemingly in wane) for Roy Moore, the alleged child molester who is a Republican candidate for the Senate from Alabama, had led to several rounds of social-media campaigns pressuring corporations to drop sponsorship of his show. Democratic activist Nate Lerner, who has been one of the leaders of the campaign, told me that “despite the network's blatantly biased and often radical views, most of its advertisers are mainstream name brands.” Shaming these brands out of an affiliation with Hannity, Lerner believes, “is the only way we can influence Fox New’s content without violating its First Amendment rights.” The strategy appears to be working, with Hannity losing five corporate sponsors over the last several days over what some see as his overly gentle treatment of the sexual assault allegations against Moore.

Despite such efforts, Hannity is now the prime-time leader in cable news ratings. Second is his colleague Tucker Carlson. Unlike Hannity, who makes no overtures to people who don’t agree with him, Carlson presents himself as a principled, considerate conservative, which may be why he has received some fawning coverage in the mainstream media. Earlier this year, for example, The Atlantic’s Peter Beinart declared that Carlson was “offering a glimpse into what Fox News would look like as an intellectually interesting network.” Several days later, Carlson devoted a long segment to how some Roma who’d recently arrived in the United States defecated in a public park.

“Tucker Carlson is what happens when you leave William F. Buckley Jr., in the microwave for too long,” says Teen Vogue’s Duca, referring to the National Review founder, who remains the embodiment of establishment conservatism. Carlson has something of an obsession with Duca, likely because she bested him in an appearance on his show last December. Duca had recently become famous for an essay about Trump’s “gaslighting” of the nation, and Carlson brought her on to be “another lamb to slaughter,” as she put it to me. But while he is usually able to laugh and frown his liberal guests into submission, Duca proved smarter, wittier and quicker than Carlson.

This is an exception, as Duca well knows. YouTube is full of clips in which Carlson “destroys” some enemy, including but certainly not limited to CNN’s Jim Acosta, a feminist, “the antifa-loving professor,” a “First Amendment hater,” “a silly Democrat,” a Black Lives Matter “rabid racist,” the actress Lena Dunham, an “abortion apologist,” a “millennial climate activist moron.”

Usually, he isn’t so much destroying as he is humiliating. The climate activist “moron,” for example, was California activist Erin Schrode. After she began to express her concern with Trump’s presumed nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, Carlson cut her off. “It doesn’t sound like you know a ton about this,” he said, when the opposite was obviously true. Schrode then calmly listed the ways in which Pruitt, as Oklahoma’s attorney general, had attempted to stifle federal regulations at the behest of energy companies. In response, Carlson noted that she had studied liberal arts at New York University. “Do you have a degree in the hard sciences?” he asked.

Carlson didn’t debate Schrode or offer reasons why regulation isn’t the most effective way to protect the environment. He denigrated and dismissed the young woman. The point wasn’t to show that she was wrong—it was to show that she was a fool, as is everyone who believes in environmental regulation.

What he did was trolling. The trolling of the left, of course, has been President Trump’s signature accomplishment. It may, in fact, be the defining principle of Trumpism.

The Red, White and Gray

When the network launched 21 years ago, the right-wing media consisted pretty much of Rush Limbaugh’s radio program and National Review. What was a scrubland two decades ago is today a teeming jungle, from The Daily Caller and Breitbart News to the One America News Network and Infowars. Yes, they are all much smaller than Fox News, but they collectively shorten the network’s reach, with young people in particular.

The average Fox News viewer is a 65-year-old white male, according to Nielsen, which tracks television viewership. He may be a loyal viewer, but he doesn’t have much company in other demographics. Doug Creutz, a media expert for the financial company Cowen and Co. in San Francisco, wonders, “Do they have a strategy for bringing in younger viewers?" He says the network appears to be “hoping that as people get older, they gravitate” toward Fox News. (Fox News declined to make its executives available to Newsweek for interviews, despite repeated requests.)

Changes in how we watch television pose as much of a threat as demography. Cable packages are losing out to “cord-cutting” services like Netflix and Hulu. Variety estimates that 22 million Americans will cancel cable television subscriptions in favor of streaming this year, a trend that is only growing. Moreover, while older people may continue to watch cable, a 2015 Pew Research Center study found that 61 percent millennials—who make up a good part of the demographic most coveted by advertisers—get their news from social media sites like Facebook.

Despite that, Fox News has maintained impressively high ratings, even as it has stuck by a steadfastly unpopular president (perhaps because of it, in fact). It has been the most-watched cable news network for the past 15 years; it has not been bested in prime time in 190 months. The list of the most-watched cable news programs is essentially the Fox News roster. Yet Maddow has, on occasion, bested her Fox News competitors. On August 16, MSNBC edged out both CNN and Fox News for total viewership, the first time it had done so in its history. Trump’s rise may have been lucrative to Fox News; Trump’s presidency is proving immensely profitable to his detractors.

Something Rotten in Midtown?

On May 16, FoxNews.com reporter Malia Zimmerman published an article that ran with the following headline: “Seth Rich, slain DNC staffer, had contact with WikiLeaks, say multiple sources.” Zimmerman said Rich, who’d been killed in an unsolved shooting the previous summer as he walked home from a bar in Washington, D.C., was the source of the Democratic National Committee emails that soon after the shooting appeared on WikiLeaks. Zimmerman cited “law enforcement sources,” as well as the work of Rod Wheeler, a private investigator who sometimes appears on Fox News.

Zimmerman’s story became a favorite of Hannity’s. He had Wheeler on his show and kept insinuating that his own “investigation” would soon prove it was Rich, not the Russians, who gave Democratic emails to WikiLeaks. This came a day before the Department of Justice appointed Mueller as the special counsel for the federal Russia investigation. The efforts of Zimmerman and Hannity offered a counter-narrative that exculpated Trump while suggesting a crime on the Democrats’ part.

A week after Zimmerman published her story, Fox News retracted it. In its place there is now a statement declaring that the piece “was not initially subjected to the high degree of editorial scrutiny we require for all our reporting,” Hannity also indicated he’d put the Seth Rich story aside.

In July, Wheeler filed a lawsuit alleging that the Rich story, as reported by Zimmerman, was an invention concocted with the direct knowledge of the White House. The lawsuit includes a text message sent to Wheeler by Ed Butowsky, the prominent Republican donor who’d hired him to figure out who killed Rich. The article published by Fox, Wheeler alleges, included conspiratorial conclusions he had not reached. Which appears to have been the point. “The president just read the article,” Butowsky’s message said, effectively casting Trump as an impatient Fox News editor. “He wants the article out immediately.”

Wheeler’s lawsuit is one of many against Fox News in recent years, and if they haven’t yet depressed the network’s viewership, they collectively suggest a level of corporate malaise that can’t be sustained for long.

The first sexual harassment lawsuit against Bill O’Reilly, for example, was filed in 2004, 13 years before he was forced off the network, a fall from prominence that played out in public (and continues to, with recent revelations in The New York Times that he paid $32 million to a Fox News contributor who accused him of sexual misconduct). By that time, O’Reilly and Fox News had settled with five other women because of the sexual misconduct claims they’d made against him; 20 women made similar accusations against Ailes, the network’s powerful chairman, who died earlier this year. Trump defended both men, aware of how he much owed them.

FE_Fox_04_528783548 Bill O'Reilly on the set of his former show "The O'Reilly Factor" at Fox News headquarters in New York. James Leynse/Corbis/Getty

Last spring, about two dozen current and former Fox News employees filed sexual and racial discrimination lawsuits against Fox News. “Despite public relations efforts to the contrary, business at 21st Century Fox continues to operate more akin to 18th Century Fox,” says the plaintiffs’ lawyer, Douglas H. Wigdor, who is also representing Wheeler.

I recently spoke with several of the plaintiffs Wigdor is representing. “It was like a chauvinistic dictatorship,” said Jessica Golloher, a Fox News Radio correspondent who told me she was “treated like a vapid 10-year-old.”

Earlier this summer, Fox News declined to settle the various lawsuits by Wigdor’s clients for $60 million. Meanwhile, the number of on-air personalities who’ve left the network or been fired or suspended over sexual misconduct continues to grow. These include Eric Bolling of Fox News Specialists, fired for sexting female co-workers; Charles Payne of the Fox Business Network, suspended for misconduct relating to an extramarital affair with a female colleague (his return to the network was recently announced, though questions about his behavior continue); and Bob Beckel of The Five, for addressing an African-American employee of Fox News with what the network called an “insensitive remark.”

Someone plainly needs to save Fox News from itself. Many place their hope in James Murdoch, the 21st Century Fox executive who will likely succeed his father as the company’s leader. Young and urbane, James apparently has a couple of liberal bones in his body. After the deadly violence in Charlottesville, he pledged $1 million to the Anti-Defamation League, expressing “concern” about Trump’s reaction.

Among the many lurid details in the New York Times story about O’Reilly’s $32 million settlement, the most astonishing may have been that, despite knowledge of the settlement, Fox News still gave O’Reilly a four-year contract extension worth $100 million. The revelation singlehandedly dispelled all talk of a network that had finally expelled the rank ghost of Roger Ailes.

An interviewer confronted James Murdoch about O’Reilly’s contract. “That was news to me,” he answered. “I can’t make sure that everyone in the business doesn’t behave badly at times, right?”

That has led some to conclude that hopes in the younger Murdochs are misplaced (21st Century Fox would not make James Murdoch available for an interview). “I don’t have any faith that James Murdoch cares about what Fox News does," Wemple of The Washington Post told me.

A Reader Writes

One of Trump’s 20 Fox News interviews came on September 28, as he was introducing the Republicans’ plan to cut taxes. It was with Hegseth of Fox & Friends, conducted right before a rally in Indianapolis about the tax plan. For the most part, the interview was not about taxes. Trump said he thought NFL franchise owners were “afraid” of their players, which is why the national anthem protests were continuing. He blamed the failure to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act on a hospitalized Republican senator. There were no senators, Republican or otherwise, in the hospital at the time. Even Kilmeade, as eager a Trump booster as Fox News has, seemed rattled by the exchange.

This was the headline on a story I filed the next morning about the interview: “What the Hell Was Trump Talking About on Fox & Friends?”

A few hours later, I got an email from a reader: “You consider this newsworthy? Seriously, do you actually do any substantial reporting, or do you just sit in front of your laptop fabricating worthless pieces of reporting?” The writer asserted that “America needs an honest, viable press. It's what has kept us from becoming a North Korea, or Venezuela. We don't have that now.”

A few days later, a shooter in Las Vegas killed 59 people, and I wrote about how the far right was doing its best to pretend the murderer was not a white male of Christian background. Again, the reader who’d been upset by my take on the Fox News interview wrote to me: “Certainly you’re better than this.”

I emailed back, probably out of irritation. He emailed back, I sent him some links, and soon enough, we were in an exchange largely free of vitriol. But largely free of agreement too. In the days that followed the Vegas shooting, we had a civil discussion in which we outlined divergent realities.

He told me I could call him John and reveal the following personal details: He’s 56, lives in New Hampshire, works in sales.

FE_Fox_13_513862154 Rupert Murdoch, center, arrives at St. Bride's Church in London accompanied by his sons James, right, and Lachlan on March 5, 2016. Karwai Tang/WireImage/Getty

It was obvious that John was well informed. “I voraciously read most mainstream news,” he said, name-checking Newsweek, Yahoo, CBS, NBC. Still, there was something elusive and frustrating about the exchange. We were shouting at each other underwater, and in the place of cogent arguments, there were only gurgling noises.

I asked John if he watched Fox News.

“Less than 2-3 hours a week,” he said. “Mostly Tucker.”

I’d been watching Carlson too. In the days before John and I’d exchanged emails, Carlson had railed against the liberals who, in his eyes, enabled the sexual predations of Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein. He defended Trump’s tough new immigration stance and condemned those who wanted to tear down statues of Christopher Columbus for the explorer’s treatment of indigenous Americans. He defended gun rights, over and over, even as Las Vegas remained a blood-soaked crime scene.

Watching even a couple of hours of this stuff would have tainted the news John read, heard and saw elsewhere. I speak from experience. Having spent the last several months watching a rather disturbing amount of Fox News, I find that the voices of Hannity and Carlson have wormed into my brain like prehistoric jungle worms, gnawing away at once-solid neural links. I fully expect, one day soon, to come home from work and tell my wife that I’m tired of the left maligning the Confederacy and destroying our collective heritage. I hope it doesn’t happen, but it probably will.

“If you are focusing on Fox News as the reason why Trump won, you still don't understand why he won,” John warned in an email.

With all due respect, John, focusing on Fox News is a pretty good way to understand the reasons Trump won. There was, at the very least, a correlation between watching Fox and voting for Trump. In January, the Pew Research Center found that “Americans who say they voted for Trump in the general election relied heavily on Fox News as their main source of election news,” with some 40 percent of Trump voters turning to Fox News as their main source of news.

And earlier this fall, a study out of Stanford—“Bias in Cable News: Persuasion and Polarization ”—confirmed the power of Fox News to sway hearts and minds. And votes. It found that, for presidential elections, “Fox News increases Republican vote shares by 0.3 points among viewers induced into watching 2.5 additional minutes per week.” Conversely, watching MSNBC an additional 2.5 minutes per week had no impact on electoral outcomes.

But in another sense, John is right. Fox News has given powerful voice to a segment of the American population. The people who watch Fox News are not going away. Nor is their despair about the digital economy, their suspicion of immigrants and their discomfort about race. As for the nation de Tocqueville glimpsed nearly two centuries ago, of sun-soaked gentlemen farmers and intrepid woodsmen heading into the yet-unexplored interior, a nation untamed and untameable, estranged from Europe, in love with liberty—we were already hooked on Fox News, even if we didn’t know it just yet.

 

This article has been updated to more accurately reflect the treatment of women by Roger E. Ailes. After the article was published, a Fox News representative sent data showing the median viewer age for the network was 65, not 68, as originally published. 

 

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