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‘We are lost:’ Fox News suffers ratings slump while staffers fret about post-Trump future

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A version of this article first appeared in the “Reliable Sources” newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.

“We are lost,” a Fox News insider remarked to me recently, and there are lots of data points to back up the assertion.

Nielsen numbers for the month of January were released on Tuesday, and Fox ranked third in the three-horse cable news race for the first time since 2001. Furthermore, CNN was the No. 1 channel across all of cable.

Think about it this way: January was one of the biggest months of political news in a generation, yet Fox couldn’t capitalize. Instead of competing by promoting correspondents and putting news coverage front and center, the network prioritized ever more outrageous, ever more extreme opinion. “Tucker Carlson Tonight” essentially expanded to “Tucker Carlson Day and Night.”

That may very well prove to be Fox’s best bet from a business POV. “Win back a base audience that disdains the news by ignoring the news and affirming their views 24/7” makes sense from an economic, if not ethical, standpoint. But for the time being Fox is floundering in third place, and it’s shocking to see. The lack of editorial leadership is palpable, according to numerous sources at the network. And even in its weakened ratings state, Fox is reflecting and propelling the radicalization of the GOP…

Reporting over pontificating

Here’s how The Daily Beast’s team described Fox’s “nosedive” on Tuesday: “Signaling a seismic shift in the media landscape as defeated former president Donald Trump hibernates in strangely silent exile at Mar-a-Lago, Fox News’ two-decade-long winning streak came to an abrupt end Tuesday while rivals CNN and MSNBC claimed the No. 1 and No. 2 rankings, respectively, in all of cable television. Fox News’ embarrassing third-place showing is the continuation of a downward trend in which the right-leaning outlet lost 2020’s fourth quarter to CNN and alienated Trump-supporting loyal viewers by calling Arizona early for Joe Biden during its election-night coverage.”

Certainly, there are many reasons for these trendlines. The Fox base’s frustration in the election outcome is one. The availability of Newsmax as a Fox alternative is another. The scrambled politics of this moment, with President Biden visibly trying to work with Republicans, is yet another.

The public’s demand for news is another big reason. Between the pandemic, the transition of power, and the insurrection, many people want reporting ahead of pontificating, and CNN is built for that. Fox is not. (Just count the number of CNN bureaus versus Fox.) Fox is actively avoiding the news when producers believe bluster will rate better — on Tuesday night, for example, CNN and MSNBC showed the US Capitol ceremony for police officer Brian Sicknick while Fox stuck with Sean Hannity’s screech fest. Laura Ingraham only briefly showed the ceremony when Biden visited the Capitol to pay his respects…

Is this Trump’s fault?

President Trump helped the network in the short term — but ultimately the network hurt Trump and he wounded them too. “Never before had a network been so closely affiliated with a commander in chief,” WaPo’s Sarah Ellison and Jeremy Barr wrote Tuesday. Now Fox is experiencing “something of an identity crisis.”

Now, according to many Fox sources, Rupert Murdoch is reasserting himself at the network and is fixated on turning around the ratings. Ellison and Barr reported that Rupert “has been fielding a steady stream of callers with advice about how to handle Trump’s political posture, which is cleaving the Republican Party.”

“A work in progress”

Rupert Murdoch has gotten into the habit of replying to reporter emails on the record. It’s a habit I strongly support.

In response to WaPo, specifically the outlet’s reporting that Fox News president Jay Wallace is under scrutiny, Rupert wrote that “Lachlan, myself and Suzanne Scott have complete confidence in Jay Wallace.” His other quotes:

— “Chris Stirewalt’s leaving had nothing to do with the correct Arizona call by the Fox decision desk.”

— “The new daytime lineup is the work of Ms. Scott and [new managing editor for news] Tom Lowell, and to some extent is still a work in progress.”

The big unknowns

— Bill Keveney’s headline for USA Today asks the big Q: “CNN moves to No. 1, Fox drops in post-election ratings shake-up: Will it last?

— What schedule changes are in store at CNN? What about MSNBC?

— Will the beginning of the Biden presidency cause a broader decline in news interest and viewership?

— Fox’s schedule revamp in January was just the beginning. What’s next?

— What do the Fox ratings trends, including a strong preference for sinister talk over straight forward news, say about the right-wing audience?

— Certain Fox narratives (think Benghazi and “Obamagate”) make viewers feel like they’re part of a campaign; what will the next campaign be?

— Newsmax has come down off its post-election highs but is still a painful thorn in Fox’s side. Will the insurgent network find ways to grow?

Newsmax segment flies off the rails

Oliver Darcy writes: “Have you seen this viral video yet? It’s what happens when a network faces massive legal exposure. On Tuesday Newsmax invited MyPillow head honcho Mike Lindell on its air for a discussion about cancel culture and Big Tech ‘censorship’ — and it ironically ended with the hosts effectively ‘canceling’ Lindell and ‘censoring’ his speech. The discussion went off the rails when Lindell started promoting discredited conspiracy theories about voting machines. Host Bob Sellers, who was clearly prepared for this possibility, jumped in and rejected the fraud allegations. But Lindell kept pushing the claims, so Sellers asked producers if they could move on: ‘Can we get out of here, please?’ I thought this was odd; at CNN, anchors are empowered to end segments rather than plea for help from the control room. Moments later, Sellers gave up and walked out of camera range, while co-anchor Heather Childers kept going with Lindell…”

>> The context: Newsmax has not been sued by Smartmatic or Dominion yet. But the legal threats from the companies have clearly spooked the network…

>> Naturally, some Newsmax fans took Lindell’s side over the network’s side…

It’s not an “all the channels” problem

Oliver Darcy writes: “Nicolle Wallace asked former Sen. Bob Corker on Tuesday whether Fox deserves responsibility for all of the disinfo surging through the Republican Party. It was a good question (and the answer is, obviously, yes) but Corker dodged by blaming ‘all of the channels’ for opinion programming. However, it must be stressed: opinion programming based on a shared set of facts and delivering outright propaganda to millions each night are two entirely different things and should not be conflated…”

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