Can Fox News survive?

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Donald Trump and Fox News.

Donald Trump and Fox News. Illustrated | Gettyimages

Former President Donald Trump recently unleashed a particularly vicious broadside against Fox News, after court documents came to light showing network owner Rupert Murdoch and other Fox officials privately admitting that their broadcasts, which claimed the 2020 election had been stolen, were fundamentally untrue.

“If Rupert Murdoch honestly believes that the Presidential Election of 2020, despite MASSIVE amounts of proof to the contrary, was not Rigged & Stolen,” Trump raged on his Truth Social network, “then he & his group of MAGA Hating Globalist RINOS should get out of the News Business as soon as possible.”

Trump punctuated his rant by claiming that, absent a few select Fox personalities who seemed to have genuinely bought into his “stolen election” conspiracy theorizing, the company was “aiding & abetting the DESTRUCTION OF AMERICA with FAKE NEWS.”

The former president’s invective against Murdoch and his media empire comes at a particularly fraught time for the conservative network: Not only is it fending off a serious $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit from Dominion Voting Systems for promulgating Trump’s election claims, but it does so in the context of a broader conservative movement fractured along generational, ideological, and — perhaps most significantly — personality-based lines, as the GOP grapples with what, if any, role Trump should have in a party he has so successfully remolded in his own image.

As the undisputed heavyweight champion of conservative media (and, arguably, of cable news at large) Fox’s perch in both broadcasting and politics is unlike that of any other network in the country — and so are its challenges. So where does Fox go from here?

‘Rupert Murdoch should apologize’

Fox’s biggest immediate concern is likely the Dominion lawsuit, and the significant financial peril it represents. The revelation that the company seems to know broadcast election lies opens it up to any number of subsequent actions, including shareholder lawsuits, government investigations, and beyond.

The revelations have reportedly frightened “sources inside Fox in the C-Suite level” who think it is likely that Fox will lose this case, according to Axios‘ Sara Fischer. “They might say there was newsworthiness in covering what Donald Trump was saying,” Fischer told CNN after the documents were released, “but there is a clear difference in newsworthiness versus peddling and having people peddling those lies on your show.”

The network faces not only financial damage, but reputational damage. Fox finds itself contending with two groups of viewers: one burned by the undeniable proof that they’ve been repeatedly and deliberately lied to; another being encouraged to design much of the media conglomerate’s output as insufficiently differential to the man it so recently championed as the sine qua non of American conservatism.

“Rupert Murdoch should apologize to his viewers and readers for his ridiculous defense of the 2020 Presidential Election,” Trump wrote in one of his recent screeds against Fox. “How many forms of cheating and rigging did he have to see? He should also apologize to those anchors who got it right, and fire the ones who got it wrong, or were afraid to speak up (of which there were many!). It’s time to get rid of Fake News, and call it like it is!”

But the Dominion lawsuit, and accompanying fallout from Fox’s decision to back Trump’s false election claims, have only exacerbated a pre-existing rift between the two. Murdoch was “pretty sick of Trump after Nov. 3, 2020” and wanted the network to detach itself from him, long time New York Times Trump reporter Maggie Haberman shared during a podcast taping in November of last year. Sean Hannity, perhaps the networks’ most enthusiastic Trump-booster, had been “privately disgusted by Trump for weeks, but was scared to lose viewers,” in the wake of the Jan. 6 insurrection, according to texts between Murdoch and Fox Corporation board member Paul Ryan.

Therein lies the trap for Fox: By provoking Trump’s ire, the network risks being deserted by one of its core audiences: the former president’s most dedicated followers. “As it became evident that some of Fox’s audience was turning against it after it projected President Biden’s victory, and viewers started switching to hard-right alternatives like Newsmax, people inside the network scrambled to stanch the bleeding,” The New York Times reported. “Even as executives raised concerns about Mr. Trump to one another, they came down hard on those seen as too tough on him.”

Fox’s next move

If the Fox board “does not act properly” and remove officials for proven misconduct, Yale School of Management Associate Dean Jeffrey Sonnenfeld told CNN, “it shows a failure of management oversight and jeopardizes their own directors and officers insurance protection with such gross conscious failure of diligent management oversight.”

Broadly though, Fox’s larger challenges will require even more seismic shifts for the massive media juggernaut, which is currently paralyzed internally. Its biggest stars (and, as a result, moneymakers) are unable or unwilling to completely abandon Trump, despite the urgings of their corporate bosses.

There are some indications the network may be at least experimenting with a more substantive break from the former president. “Everyone knows that there’s this ‘soft ban’ or ‘silent ban,'” one of four Trump associates who spoke recently with Semaphore explained. “It’s certainly — however you want to say, quiet ban, soft ban, whatever it is — indicative of how the Murdochs feel about Trump at this particular moment.” Semaphore also noted that other 2024 candidates, or presumptive candidates, such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, have been given extensive Fox airtime henceforth.

In this, however, Fox risks exacerbating further it’s semi-separation from Trump, who has taken the networks’ fawning over his rival as yet another opportunity to bash his onetime media home. “I call FoxNews the RINO Network, and their DOWN BIG Ratings accurately reflect the name,” Trump wrote after the network covered DeSantis’ recent visit to New York.

The former president has been allowed to feature prominently on the network’s website, where Semaphore points out he’s been the subject of a number of exclusive articles. It’s a half-step which, in part, represents the awkward timing of all this: Murdoch can’t fully commit to moving Fox away from Trump (or, conversely, to wholly embracing DeSantis, or someone else) while the extremely plausible possibility that Trump will become the GOP nominee still looming.

Despite his angry social media missives, Trump “has yet to go full bore against” Murdoch and Fox, Politico‘s Jack Shafer wrote. “Who among us would preclude a reunion in 2024, with Trump pulling Murdoch’s strings once more if Trump wins the presidential nomination?” he asked.

Of course, 2024 is a long way off. And Fox is no mere bystander, simply observing the world as it passes in and out of camera-frame — it could always commit more fully to the process it’s already half-heartedly begun; it could settle the Dominion suit, and endorse another candidate, and simply brace itself for the blowback. It will likely come down to an ethos of Murdoch himself voiced in the now-public Dominion lawsuit documents. Asked why he continued to allow election deniers prime slots on his network, Murdoch replied, simply: “It’s not red or blue, it’s green.”

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