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Analysis: The end of the road for Lou Dobbs

Nothing unusual happened when Lou Dobbs hosted his Fox Business show on Thursday evening. His hour was full of Fox’s usual themes about “radical Dims” (Democrats) and Big Tech “abusing their power.”

“Join us here tomorrow,” he said at the end of the show. “See you then.”

But that, it turned out, was his final broadcast. Fox pulled the plug on Friday in a cancellation so swift that it surprised even Dobb’s detractors. A day later, TV insiders are still abuzz about why it happened and what the decision augurs about Fox.

Fox isn’t answering. But it seems to be an isolated incident, not a signal of a broader editorial change of direction by the company. It is certainly not the start of a shift to the center.

Instead, Fox may have soured on Dobbs long ago and used the post-election period to make a change. Thursday’s $2.7 billion lawsuit by Smartmatic may have been the final straw.

Employees at Fox are privately wondering if Dobbs had some sort of falling out with Rupert or Lachlan Murdoch, the father and son pair who control Fox Corporation.

The people who would know are not talking. Officially, Fox simply said that Dobbs’ banishment was part of a broader programming revamp. And Dobbs declined to comment. But he spent Friday night and Saturday retweeting messages from dozens of his fans, including some who criticized Fox for the change.

Tensions with management

Dobbs was once “respected as a business journalist,” former Fox News executive John Huddy said in an email message. But in recent years he had been “out of control, reckless and bad tempered,” Huddy said, articulating some of the factors that may have weighed on management’s decision.

Indeed, sources currently at the network said that tensions between Dobbs and management flared several times in 2019 and 2020. In one memorable episode, a husband and wife pair of pro-Trump attorneys who were regulars on Dobbs’ show suddenly seemed to be blacklisted by the network.

Dobbs employed the same sorts of insults, rhetorical techniques and right-wing embellishments as Fox’s other opinion hosts, but took it to an extreme. On what turned out to be his final show, he called the impending Senate trial of Trump a “venal and unconstitutional impeachment farcical fraud” led by a “sinister clown” in Congress.

This winter, Dobbs’ promotion of President Trump’s desperate bid to stay in power prompted legal threats from two voting technology companies, Dominion and Smartmatic. In December Dobbs’ show aired a surreal fact-check segment that refuted prior claims by his own guests.

As one insider put it, Dobbs’ ratings didn’t justify the headaches. While he was the highest-rated host on Fox Business, the network is relatively low-rated across the board. Dobbs averaged 300,000 viewers on a typical day at 5 p.m. ET. The show reached smaller audiences when it re-aired multiple times later in the day.

The insider said that Dobbs’ history of incendiary segments, and his show’s weak performance with advertisers, were factors in the decision.

But the same things could be said about “Tucker Carlson Tonight” and other right-wing opinion offerings.

So what does Carlson have that Dobbs doesn’t? The ear of the Murdochs, for one thing. Ten times the audience, for another.

Dobbs, 75, was named in Smartmatic’s blockbuster lawsuit against Fox. Two other Fox hosts, Jeanine Pirro and Maria Bartiromo, were named in the suit too, but their shows do not appear to be on the chopping block. Pirro confirmed on Twitter that she will be on the air Saturday night, as usual.

So that suggests that Dobbs was not a sacrificial lamb for the legal gods. In any case, the Smartmatic lawsuit will proceed as-is.

Dobbs’ removal was certainly swift. Fellow Fox Business host David Asman filled in for Dobbs on Friday and made no mention of the impending shakeup. He said “Lou will be back on Monday.”

Ten minutes later, the Los Angeles Times broke the news that Dobbs’ show had been canceled.

Dobbs still under contract to Fox

Trump, along with Dobbs’ biggest fans on social media, bemoaned the decision and said they hoped Dobbs would resurface soon.

Former Trump administration official Fred Fleitz, a regular on Dobbs’ show, tweeted that “I hope he finds a home on another network ASAP. Good luck Lou!”

But Dobbs is still under contract with Fox, and the network is opting to pay him rather than letting him leave right away. It is unclear when the contract expires, but it extends for at least several more months.

Starting Monday, Asman will be one of the interim hosts of the 5 p.m. hour. Jackie DeAngelis will be the other host.

Dobbs will be relegated to tweeting. On Saturday, several of his tweets and retweets raised eyebrows, suggesting he wasn’t in on the joke.

He shared a post from Asawin Suebsaeng, a reporter for The Daily Beast who occasionally posts in Trump’s voice as an inside-joke for his followers.

Suebsaeng, playing Trump, wrote, “Fox Business has abandoned great warrior @LouDobbs (like a dog). Cancel Culture has turned the once great net. into a wannabe MSDNC (terrible ratings, no clue!). Never would have happened on Roger’s, or ‘Trump’s’ for that matter, watch. That is why I now tune in to @OANN!”

Article Topic Follows: Money and Business

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