At an investor conference in early March, Lachlan Murdoch predicted a glowing 5-year revenue future for Fox News. Murdoch oversees this tarnished crown of the Murdoch empire under the hands-on tutelage of Rupert, his 90-year-old daddy. Fox News rivals MSNBC and CNN thrived during Donald Trump’s reign because they were “the loyal opposition,” Rupert’s eldest son told the Morgan Stanley Technology, Media and Telecom Conference. “That’s what our job is now with the Biden administration. You’ll see our ratings improve for the next four years.”
Murdoch The Younger was pitching conventional TV wisdom, as well as dropping all pretense that Fox News was somehow the “fair and balanced” news organization its slogan claims it to be. Instead he was acknowledging that it yearns to remain the Ministry of Video Propaganda for the Trumpian GOP. Lachlan’s boast also helped explain his loud-and-proud defense of Fox News’ definitive slime-time star Tucker Carlson’s noisy embrace of “white replacement theory.” That unseemly strategy has won kudos from the Daily Stormer, Proud Boys and Oath Keepers crowd. Meanwhile, Carlson’s racist rants have drawn fire on the editorial pages of The New York Times and The Washington Post as well as from various civil rights groups, including a loud public call for Carlson’s firing from the Anti-Defamation League.
No doubt Rupert’s stalwart scion sees ratcheting up race-baiting commentary from Carlson and fellow ranters Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham as the secret sauce of success. After all, that playbook made Fox News an invincible adversary in the cable news wars during the Obama years, as well as being key to catapulting the Trump Reality Show into the Oval Office.
But we’re three months into Joe Biden’s presidency now, and Fox News has yet to prove it can dominate with primetime hate the way it once did. That big audience bump predicted by Lachlan Murdoch has yet to appear.
Since Biden trounced the twice-impeached ex-president by 7 million votes, Trump Fatigue seems to have set in with the Fox audience, much the way it did with The Apprentice after too many seasons. Recent Trump pop-in calls on Fox News have not created any titillating ratings either, with the single exception of the first on-camera so-called interview with Sean Hannity since leaving the White House. As The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi noted, Fox News’ ratings were down about 6% in the first quarter compared to the same period last year.
Naysayers would be right to point out that this doesn’t compare to the deep double-digit drop CNN and MSNBC had in primetime compared to the first quarter of 2020. But that kind of falloff was to be expected, when a year ago the nation was in the beginnings of a full-on pandemic and everyone was mandated indoors and glued to the news on the tube.
So yes, Fox News has taken much less of a comparative hit, but it’s clear that nobody inside the Murdoch News Machine is breaking out the bubbly. Along with that first quarter ratings slide there are other signs of weakness; notably, online, where FoxNews.com traffic has been declining in double digits for months, according to an analysis of Comscore data by The Righting, a daily newsletter that monitors right wing media.
Fox News is in a bind. Clinging to news and commentary from a Mar-A-Lago perspective means stories that may resonate across party lines—such as the gripping trial of Derek Chauvin—are largely ignored. But then the Minneapolis police officer was found guilty on three counts of the murder of George Floyd. Unable to ignore this historic verdict, Tucker Carlson and company had to scramble for the right white whine spin. “The jurors in the Derek Chauvin trial came to a unanimous and unequivocal verdict this afternoon: ‘Please don’t hurt us,’” Carlson said on “Tucker Carlson Tonight.” Carlson added, “Everyone understood perfectly well the consequences of an acquittal in this case. After nearly a year of burning and looting and murder by BLM, that was never in doubt.” Claiming the jury acted out of such fear is a tough sell, when so many even on the right, including Fox News commentator and former Republican Congressman Trey Gowdy applauded the verdict.
So, what exactly is going wrong? It appears a significant part of the audience that flocked to Fox News during the Trump era has lost interest in nightly, predictable whingeing against all things Biden from Carlson and crew. The right wing’s favorite tropes about cancel culture, political correctness, and painting President Biden as a senile, socialist tool ain’t exactly heating up the Nielsens or creating a flood of online traffic. (Indeed, Fox News has to tread lightly on the doddering Uncle Joe narrative, given that much of its audience is in the same demo.) Hoping to rally the faithful, ultra-right radio host Dan Bongino complained to Business Insider that Biden was a “boring” leader who made it tough to create compelling commentary. To quote one of the Twitter-banished 45th president’s favorite Tweets, “SAD.”
Taking issue with Biden’s $1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill has strong support among a significant group of Republican voters; meanwhile, his push for a multibillion-dollar infrastructure bill is favored by a big majority of all voters. It turns out that calling into question the efficacy of masks and vaccines, as well as continuing to push lies about mass voter fraud in support of new Jim Crow voter suppression legislation a la the recent law passed in Georgia, doesn’t resonate much beyond Fox News’ hardcore Trumpian base.
Oh, and here’s another rub: Fox News, like CNN and MSNBC, loves to go all-in when politicians are embroiled in sex scandals. That’s the steamy stuff that sends cable news ratings soaring and births clickbait-worthy headlines. Yet, the mounting Matt Gaetz imbroglio has been unmentionable. The GOP Florida congressman, once a go-to Fox News talking head guaranteed to spew Trump talking points, has basically been disappeared since he mounted an unhinged defense on Tucker Carlson Tonight, which even the host himself called among “the weirdest interviews” he’d ever done.
The Righting’s publisher Howard Polskin suggests part of the Fox News ratings malaise may be that its primetime stars are selling “manufactured outrage” and that there’s “not much power behind their punches.” Noting that relatively moderate conservative websites, such as the Washington Examiner and the National Review, have also seen declines in web traffic, while more far right-friendly sites such as NewsMax have seen gains, Polskin expects Fox News “will tack even farther to the right.”
I agree. However, that strategy could backfire badly. Touting lunatic fringe voter conspiracy theories has made Fox News vulnerable to multibillion-dollar lawsuits. Going farther down the QAnon anti-vax road could prompt advertiser boycotts, as well as pressure cable systems that carry Fox News as part of their basic offerings to make it a premium channel, threatening an important revenue stream. And a Federal Communications Commission dominated by activist Democrats might mean more oversight. Wait—is there a chance this could bring the occasional kernel of truth to a “fair and balanced” Fox News?” Now that would be one wild ratings gambit.