Fox News Identity Crisis: Indulge Trump’s Election Conspiracy or Reject It … and Watch Its Audience Flee?

fox news channel building

Drew Angerer/Getty Images.

Viewers of Fox News can be forgiven if they are confused about the results of the 2020 election. The reason for their confusion is less defensible.

Fox News has projected Joe Biden to have won the election— well, its news division has.

Simultaneously, the network’s top-rated opinion hosts have continued to entertain the increasingly loony conspiracy theory that the election was stolen from Trump through widespread voter fraud. They have been careful in their words, but the near-constant amplification of baseless allegations of a rigged or stolen election has lent credibility to the InfoWars-esque conspiracy theories being touted by Trump. The same theories mocked behind closed doors are being laughed out of courtrooms.

The growing disconnect between the two sides of Fox News programming reveals its current identity crisis and raises a question about their immediate future. Do they want to be a news outlet where facts, as disappointing as they may be, are paramount? Or an information entertainment company that today solely acts as cheerleaders for outgoing President Donald Trump?

This dissonance was neatly illustrated last weekend when Maria Bartiromo, a Fox News anchor and ardent Trump booster, who had just given the platform of her Sunday morning show to Trump lawyers Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell. Both laid out wild and unproven conspiracy theories and claimed that Trump was the rightful winner of the election. Bartiromo seemed pleased to hear the news and never once challenged her guests on their claims, simply accepting their claim that they had evidence as evidence enough.

But just an hour or so later, Fox News NEWS reporter Eric Shawn filed a thorough report that effectively debunked every single claim that had been presented as real on Bartiromo’s show. It was yet another look at Fox News schizophrenia, and viewers who watched both segments surely endured intense whiplash.

A similar moment occurred when Fox News host Pete Hegseth reported on-air that “So far, state election officials have not reported serious irregularities with the vote that would affect the outcome of the race.” Immediately after, the Trump-boosting host added, “That was in the teleprompter. I read it. I don’t know if I even believe it.”

No wonder that a recent poll found 70% of Republicans believe President Donald Trump was cheated out of the election. Where do those Republicans get their news? Outlets like Newsmax are certainly a venue, but the top hosts at Fox — Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, and Laura Ingraham — remain the most prominent source for the president’s supporters.

Trump alone is not responsible for such vast indoctrination. His baseless claims of a stolen election are just unhinged musings in the absence of a pro-Trump media taking them seriously.

To get it out of the way: No serious person believes that Trump actually won the election until it was stolen from him through a mass conspiracy, as Trump’s legal team is arguing. These arguments are made mostly outside of court, since now nearly all of their 30-plus or so legal challenges have been dismissed. Nonetheless, the massive audience of Fox News prime time is being told, night after night, that there is reason to suspect foul play.

Why?

To put it simply: Fox News is in a very uncomfortable bed of its own making. Telling its viewers that Trump is full of it and that the insane conspiracy theories he is pushing are meritless could prove lethal to the bottom line. The news division’s efforts to dispel these increasingly loony conspiracies have enraged viewers, driving them to outlets like Newsmax and OANN, where Trump is the true victor of the 2020 election.

Trump transparently complained about Fox News forgetting the “Golden Goose,” forgetting that Fox News had long been the dominant network before he entered the political fray. In fact, Trump owes far more to Fox News promotion than the other way around. But It does seem that Fox’s opinion hosts are concerned that Trump’s supporters, like the president himself, are not willing to move on to the next administration, and are gritting their teeth as long as they can, with the hope that Trump gives up the farce before they anger too many of their viewers.

If you care about the country, and the truth, and not Fox’s ratings, all you can do is hope that it doesn’t go too far.

*****

Ratings are dipping at Fox News. The network is actually getting beaten in many metrics by CNN, which is enjoying a rating surge due to a confluence of TWO once-in-a-century news events: a global pandemic and a president unwilling to concede an election he has clearly lost.

There are several reasons for this. Election fatigue, certainly. And just like some sports fans don’t stay to the end of a game when their team has clearly lost, people turn the TV off, especially if that channel tells them the team has lost, when they want to believe otherwise.

The first stage of grief is denial, and many Trump fans are in denial that he lost the election. A few decisions by Fox News has turned that denial into anger.

There was the early call of Arizona, which seemed premature given how long it took for every other network to project the state for Biden (Though AP was close behind Fox News in making the call).

There was Neil Cavuto’s stunning decision to cut off Kayleigh McEnany’s press conference over what he — quite fairly — considered baseless and specious claims of voter fraud. “That was a total CNN move,” said one cable news insider. “Fox News has always aired press briefings and let their viewers decide for themselves.”

And then there was the leaked video of Sandra Smith’s shocked reaction, delivered off-camera when a guest claimed that the election wasn’t over.

“What is happening? We’ve called it,” Smith said incredulously in the video, which went viral and drew fury from pro-Trump viewers.

For a base of supporters angry that their candidate had lost and looking for a new entity to blame, all while being told by Trump himself to keep fighting, Fox News apparently caving to Biden along with the rest of the mainstream media was a stab in the back.

Shockingly, there are now channels out there that will tell people their favorite team is actually winning, regardless of the score. So viewers are not just turning off the TV; they’re actually migrating to smaller, Trumpier outlets like OANN and Newsmax — which reached an impressive 1 million viewers in one crack hour recently.

Therein lies the Fox News dilemma: Appease or embrace reality.

*****

Jonah Goldberg earned attention on Friday when he pushed back on The Federalist’s Mollie Hemingway, flatly stating that Trump is trying to steal an election by falsely claiming the election was stolen. He is absolutely right, yet much of Fox News programming is willfully playing along.

Exhibit A is Sunday’s Fox & Friends Weekend, where co-host Will Cain offered three clear courses of action that the Trump administration is undertaking to change the election results. The first two are allegations of local and widespread fraud, neither of which are making any headway in the courts since they have failed to provide evidence to back them up. Numerous judges, including some appointed by Trump himself, had methodically dissected and discarded the various argument President Trump pronounced before election day that if he lost, the election would have been rigged. And now he is looking to find something, anything, to back up that prediction. In the courts, it works the other way around where you start with the evidence and go from there.

The third course of action that Cain suggested is a political one, that is to say, the White House needs to convince enough people that there was something nefarious afoot—despite any evidence beyond isolated errors—and encourage state legislators to disregard the actual results and appoint their electors that will literally ignore the will of the people. In the same segment, Hegseth pointed out a Rasmussen poll that showed that 50% of Americans don’t feel like this election was above-board.

The only way that Trump can change the election results is a political, not legal, maneuver that is entirely built upon the deliberate misinformation from people like Cain, Hegseth, and Hemingway, and virtually every other opinion host on Fox News that spends precious airtime giving rise to what is truly a propaganda-based attempt at stealing the election. And Fox News opinion hosts, though not directly advocating for the cause, are willingly doing their part to foster doubt, or just “asking questions” about an election that had remarkably few issues compared to others.

*****

Fox News’s recent dip in ratings would have any media executive worried, and frankly, it’s not good news. That said, their network has been through worse, and this current dip most likely just a short-term reaction — not a long-term problem.

Fox News senior management team has long eschewed the sort of programming micromanagement one sees at other outlets, allowing the network’s top talent and showrunners to make their own editorial and programming decisions. This is far from the micromanagement style that Fox News founder Roger Ailes was notorious for, but it hasn’t interfered with profits.

On-air talent and producers will privately admit that they enjoy autonomy. But the lack of a cohesive editorial vision — or even an agreed set of facts on which to report — can sometimes lead to awkward and dissonant moments like what we saw between Bartiromo and Shawn. The current disconnect between top-rated opinion programming is a problematic divide for the President & Executive Editor of Fox News Media Jay Wallace to bridge.

To be clear, Fox News ratings are still dominant. Since Memorial Day, it has been the highest-rated network in all of television for primetime viewers. A historic milestone, no other cable network in the history of television has ever surpassed broadcast primetime for a season, let alone a six month period. And Fox News ratings are often 10 to 20 times greater than that of NewsmaxTV.

Fox News has dominated for most of the last two decades by playing the long game, so they will probably ignore some of the short term hyperventilating. But the trend line since the night of the election is going in the wrong way, and that’s something they need to address.

*****

As goes Fox News prime time, so goes half the nation. It’s reasonable to assume that the 2020 election won’t be over until Tucker, Sean, Laura, and The Five, and Fox & Friends all deem it so. Yes, there will be fringe members of the Trump base that will now lump Fox into the lamestream media set, but Fox News’s footprint is big enough to take that hit.

So when will Fox News start to pivot to the post-Trump presidency? It is impossible to know, and the answer might be never. A reasonable person might predict that it would take a week or two, that there is no set date or schedule. Top voices at the network cannot get ahead of Trump. They’ve already made several decisions that pissed off viewers (calling Arizona so early being the Original Sin) and will likely follow Trump’s lead.

But viewers of Tucker Carlson on Thursday night saw one of the first cracks in the Trump-Fox wall.

Carlson announced that he had invited Sidney Powell on his show to provide evidence of her wild claim that the election rigging scheme was communist in flavor, with roots in the scheming of late Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez. When Powell refused, Carlson called her out on air, drawing fire from Powell, who called him “rude” (on Maria Bartiromo’s show Friday morning, naturally.)

So Carlson pointed out that Powell has not provided evidence to support her conspiracy theories and was duly rewarded with bile. His mentions on Twitter are filled with MAGA and QAnon users declaring him a traitor or sell-out. A considerable quotient of MAGA Twitter has deemed him a sleeper agent for all-powerful Democrats.

This perfectly illustrates the dangerous tightrope walk being indelicately pursued by Fox. If Trump refuses to step down or ever accept that he lost the election fairly and squarely, and Fox News hosts continue to cower in the face of his conspiracies, a large subset of the more than 70 million Americans who voted for Trump will always believe 2020 to have been a stolen election.

That’s a remarkably dangerous position to be in, with tensions on either side.

The lucrative approach for Fox News is to continue to draw in viewers with more conspiracy theories, which is what a free market system, devoid of any journalistic responsibility, would suggest being the profitable path. But the responsible and the journalistically sound decision is to call facts as facts.

In other words, Fox News executives have to make the fundamental decision that they are staying in the news business.

Have a tip we should know? [email protected]