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For two decades, Fox News has reigned supreme as America’s number one cable news channel. Until January, that is, when the network dropped to a once unthinkable third place in the ratings.
The response from Fox News has not been a period of sombre self-reflection. Instead, the network seems to have made a chaotic lunge towards the right wing in recent weeks as hosts have dabbled in conspiracy theories and aggressively attacked the Joe Biden administration.
Adding to the sense of crisis, Fox News laid off multiple staff in January – including the political editor who backed the network’s early decision that Biden had won Arizona – while on Thursday Smartmatic, an election technology company, filed a $2.7bn lawsuit against Fox News’ parent company, over allegations it participated in election fraud.
As CNN and MSNBC, with their more liberal audiences rose to the top spots in January’s ratings, Americans who believe in the nonsensical QAnon conspiracy theory, or who harbor white nationalist beliefs, or who don’t trust vaccines, have all found themselves pandered to by Fox News, as it attempts to shore up its viewership.
Nielsen numbers, published this week, found that Fox News ranked third out of the three main cable news channels in January. It was the first time since 2001 that Fox News found itself in third place, and continued a pattern from the end of 2020, when Donald Trump urged his supporters to abandon Fox News in favor of even more rightwing rivals like NewsMax and One America News.
“Fox News has led in the ratings for two decades. They have historically been unrivaled in attracting an audience,” said Matthew Gertz, a senior fellow at the progressive media watchdog Media Matters.
Gertz said he had detected a shift at Fox as the network attempts to win back “the most hard-edge” Trump supporters.
“The network really needs to win them back. It’s of great concern for Fox if they’re no longer in first place. It’s not going to be possible for them to command the same ad rates, it’s not going to be possible for them to demand the same fees from cable carriers,” he said.
Gertz added: “Their business model really rests on them being number one, in a big way, and it appears they’re going to do anything they can to win that status back.”
The plan to boost viewership so far seems to be based on an extremist push, led by its most prominent opinion hosts.
Tucker Carlson, whose show is the most watched in cable news, is among those leading the charge. After Democrats called for a crackdown on white nationalists and domestic terrorism following a wave of extremist attacks, Carson had an interesting, and revealing, take for his audience.
“They’re talking about you,” Carson told his viewers on 26 January.
Tucker Carlson just straight up defending white supremacists pic.twitter.com/7LEjaTbpxH
— Andrew Lawrence (@ndrew_lawrence) January 27, 2021
A day earlier, Carlson had defended QAnon, a racist and antisemitic conspiracy theory linked to multiple violent acts, including alleged kidnappings, the derailing of a train and arrests over threats to politicians.
Carlson played a series of clips from left-leaning networks, in which analysts described QAnon as a dangerous, “frightening” conspiracy theory. The FBI has agreed with that sentiment, and warned of its dangers.
Carlson, however, was having none of it. He proceeded to stand up for QAnon supporters, as he claimed that believing in and espousing QAnon ideas is an issue of free speech.
“No democratic government can ever tell you what to think. Your mind belongs to you. It is yours and yours alone,” Carlson said.
Carlson’s colleagues Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham, Fox News’s two other biggest stars, have waded into similar waters.
Ingraham noted that the government was looking into radicalization of some members of the military. She played a clip from a rival news channel where a commentator noted: “We can’t stand by idly and see people in uniform whether its law enforcement or military have QAnon patches on.”
Ingraham’s take? “This is absolutely poisonous for the country,” she said.
It’s not just white nationalism and QAnon that are getting airtime on Fox News. Hannity has been accused of dabbling in anti-vaxx ideas, after he hemmed and hawed over whether he would get vaccinated – citing skeptical friends of his in what seemed like an effort to appeal to anti-vaxxers watching.
“I don’t know when my number gets called, I’m actually beginning to have doubts,” Hannity told his audience on 26 January. “I’ve been telling my friends I’m gonna get the vaccine,” he said. “Half of them agree and the other half think I’m absolutely nuts. They wouldn’t take it in a million years.”
Hannity added: “I don’t know who to listen to.”
Fox News has been floundering since earning the animus of many viewers on election night. It was the first news outlet to announce Biden had won Arizona – it would be days before most TV channels and newspapers made that call – and Trump was furious.
So were his supporters. “Fox News Sucks!” Trump voters chanted at a vote-counting center in Arizona, and conservative social media were rife with people saying they were turning off Fox News. Trump even demanded on his now defunct Twitter account that people ditch Fox News and instead watch NewsMax and OAN.
The trend to the hard right hasn’t just come from the primetime stars. In January, CNN’s media correspondent, Brian Stelter, noted: “Tucker Carlson Tonight essentially expanded to Tucker Carlson Day and Night.”
“Part of their strategy in the wake of losing parts of audience has been to de-emphasise the news side and really start bringing opinion side voices into the news hours,” Gertz said. “You see Fox opinion hosts being guests on those news programs as well.”
Some of the moves Fox News has made in recent weeks seem to illustrate a de-emphasis on “straight news”. On 19 January, the day before Biden’s inauguration, the network fired Chris Stirewalt, the Fox News political editor who was the public face of the Arizona call. A Fox News spokesperson declined to comment on the Stirewalt decision, citing employee confidentiality.
The same day, Fox News laid off more than a dozen digital reporters – seen as relatively non-partisan journalists. A spokesperson for the network said it had “realigned its business and reporting structure to meet the demands of this new era”.
Even Fox News’s less firebrand, daytime news anchors have courted controversy.
After it emerged that Marjorie Taylor Greene, the extremist Republican congresswoman who has expressed QAnon beliefs, had also suggested the Parkland, Florida, school shooting was a false flag and claimed that California forest fires had been started by Jewish space lasers, she found a defender in the Fox News anchor Bill Hemmer, who claimed a false equivalence between Greene and the Democrat Ilhan Omar.
In the long term, Fox News isn’t likely to go anywhere – even despite the Smartmatic lawsuit.
“Fox News Media is committed to providing the full context of every story with in-depth reporting and clear opinion. We are proud of our 2020 election coverage and will vigorously defend this meritless lawsuit in court,” a spokesperson said.
In terms of viewers, Newsmax, Fox News’s most ideologically similar competitor, averaged 247,000 daily viewers in January, far lower than its bigger rival. Fox News has also experienced dips in viewership following previous inaugurations – although during those dips it never fell behind CNN or MSNBC.
Still, a Fox News spokesperson pointed to Nielsen ratings which showed Fox News outperformed CNN and MSNBC during primetime hours in the last week of January, while internal research conducted by Fox News, which was shared with the Guardian, suggests viewers seemed to be taking a break from news altogether in January – although several programs on CNN and MSNBC experienced their best ratings ever during the same time period.
Overall, there’s a sense that it didn’t have to be this way.
After Trump lost the election, media experts predicted Fox News could do well “financially and politically”, as a sea of agitated viewers seek a network that will mirror, and augment, their anger at Biden. CNN, MSNBC and other leftwing or centrist news organizations made huge audience gains during Trump’s presidency, but the same isn’t yet working for Fox News.
Ultimately, the struggles at Fox News to represent radical elements of the right wing mirrors a problem facing the Republican party itself – where Trumpist politicians like Greene and more establishment figures like Liz Cheney or Mitch McConnell wrestle for its future.
“Rupert Murdoch and Fox News generally sees itself as mouthpiece of Republican party. They were moving away from conspiracy theorists, they were moving away from Trump and hoping to turn the page,” Jonathan Kaufman, professor and director of the school of journalism at Northeastern University, said.
“But like the Republican party, Fox is discovering that Trumpism, and conspiracy theories, have taken deep root in the Republican party and in their viewers.”