By Sarah Ellison, Jeremy Barr, MSN
Spend a couple hours with Fox News on a typical weeknight, and you may come to see the potential election of Joe Biden as a cataclysm in the making.
Prime-time host Laura Ingraham recently warned her viewers of the “Bolsheviks and billionaires” she said were propelling his candidacy. Frequent contributor Dan Bongino called Biden’s campaign “the biggest con job in presidential election history.” Just last week, Sean Hannity sent a camera crew to stake out Biden’s house to demand answers about the alleged contents of his son’s laptop. Even the network’s senior political analyst, Brit Hume, has repeatedly called the Democratic presidential candidate “senile” on air.
But behind the scenes, a strange calm prevails. The man who helped create Fox News as the most influential platform for conservative politics in America fully expects that Biden will win — and frankly isn’t too bothered by that.
Rupert Murdoch, the 89-year-old billionaire whose family controls Fox News’s parent company, has told associates that he is resigned to a Trump loss in November. And he has complained that the president’s current low polling numbers are due to repeated “unforced errors” that could have been avoided if he had followed Murdoch’s advice about how to weather the coronavirus pandemic, according to associates who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations.
A political conservative, Murdoch has always been a pragmatist when it comes to his relationships with politicians, backing liberal candidates, such as former British prime minister Tony Blair, when it suits him. He had known Trump for decades as a frequent source and subject for his New York Post tabloid, and he was not initially thrilled with the idea of a Trump presidency. “When is Donald Trump going to stop embarrassing his friends, let alone the whole country?” he tweeted in July 2015. Murdoch even flirted with endorsing Hillary Clinton’s 2016 candidacy and invited her to meet. She declined, according to two people familiar with the exchange.
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When Trump’s candidacy surged, Murdoch followed and was rewarded with a direct line to the White House. Last year, the mogul sold most of his company to Disney for $71 billion, a deal that ended up facing few federal regulatory hurdles despite its size. Trump called Murdoch the day the deal was announced to congratulate him. (Murdoch still retains a controlling interest in Fox Corp., which owns Fox News, Fox Television Stations, and Fox Sports; as well as News Corp., which owns Murdoch’s newspapers and other digital properties.)
But the coronavirus pandemic altered the relationship. Murdoch watched with concern as Trump downplayed the crisis and dispatched one of his closest aides, News Corp. CEO Robert Thomson, to speak to the president about the risks of the virus back in March, in a previously undisclosed meeting. Tucker Carlson, a prominent Fox News host who had sounded the alarm on the virus back in late January, visited Mar-a-Lago in early March to urge the president to take the virus more seriously, also at Murdoch’s encouragement.
But around the same time, Ingraham made two trips to the Oval Office — one to promote hydroxychloroquine, a controversial and unproven treatment for the virus that enraptured the president, and another to urge him to reopen businesses across the country, in both cases echoing arguments she would make during her hour of prime-time punditry. Hannity likened the novel coronavirus to a “new hoax” that the Democrats and the media could use to attack the president. And Carlson, after a period of urging viewers to take the virus seriously, soon pivoted to skepticism, comparing those worried about it to “the many ghouls in Washington who forced our military to wage pointless wars.”
Their on-air rhetoric stood in contrast to the company’s reaction, as Fox News executives implemented serious protocols to protect employees from a growing pandemic. But the incongruent reactions did not hurt ratings. In April, a month when the coronavirus killed about 60,000 Americans, Fox News recorded the then-largest prime-time audience in network history, according to Nielsen Media Research. The threat of advertiser boycotts — driven by activists furious about the pandemic-dismissive punditry — led some analysts to anticipate a revenue drop for Fox. But in an election year with blockbuster ratings, the channel has surged; S&P Global Market Intelligence projects that Fox ad revenue could reach $1.15 billion, an increase over last year. Murdoch’s son Lachlan, the CEO of Fox Corp., told investors in May that Fox had nearly doubled its audience with the younger viewers who appeal to advertisers. In October, Fox News’s prime-time audience was bigger than any other program on cable, and had more viewers than ABC’s “The Bachelorette” and “Celebrity Family Feud” and NBC’s “The Weakest Link.”
But what about 2021?
The network’s current lineup is a reflection of the Trump presidency, with opinion hosts such as Hannity, Ingraham and Jeanine Pirro, who have leveraged their personal relationships with the president for ratings success; and a morning show, “Fox & Friends,” that has become Trump’s go-to venue. On shows such as “The Five,” Trump skeptics such as Dana Perino and Greg Gutfeld have quieted their reservations and embraced their roles as critics of Trump’s critics; while the network’s finance-focused cousin, Fox Business Network, has catapulted Trump allies Lou Dobbs and Maria Bartiromo to greater prominence through exclusive interviews with administration officials and Trump himself.
If Biden wins, that access disappears. Yet Murdoch has always considered Fox News’s original underdog status to be its strength. And while he valued the White House access, he is ready to welcome a new inhabitant — partly because it may give Fox the central role in the Republican Party that it occupied before Trump co-opted the party.
“Fox thrives when it is in the opposition because they have a real-time bad guy to beat up on,” said Jonathan Klein, a former president of CNN. “A Biden win would be great for Fox’s business.”
One Murdoch executive envisions the Fox prime-time lineup emerging as “the standard-bearer of the resistance” under a Biden administration. And former Fox executives point to the network’s role in championing the tea party movement in the Obama years as a model for how the network could find a way forward should Trump lose in November.
“If anything, I think they will be more successful,” said Sean Graf, who worked at Fox for the news division’s well-regarded research staff before leaving in January 2020. “There’s going to be an audience for Biden controversy.” And few envision viewers abandoning Fox for lower-rated rivals such as the conservative upstarts One America News or Newsmax.
The greater risk for Fox News, as exists for all cable news outlets post-Trump, is that with the frenetic atmosphere of the Trump administration gone, viewers will be less likely to tune in altogether. Conservative media typically operates better when it is attacking rather than defending — but Trump broke that model because of the media’s addiction to his every tweet and scandal. Biden may also be an exception.
“He’s so boring and engenders so little enthusiasm on both sides of the political spectrum that it’s going to be hard to find narratives to program against him,” said one veteran conservative media executive.
“It’s hard to imagine Joe Biden’s occasional gaffes and stammering to somehow be more evil than the idea that Trump has completely ripped off the American people with his tax fraud,” said Carl Cameron, who logged 22 years at the network before leaving to create his own progressive news aggregator.
Behind-the-scenes staffers at the Fox News Media networks say that most people who work on the news side of the company are not pulling for either Trump or Biden. Rather, they’re just exhausted from covering Trump’s frenetic first term.
Hannity, who has prospered from the president’s eagerness to appear on his show, may be the Fox pundit facing the most awkward pivot from a Trump presidency. He signed a new contract earlier this year but suggested in an August interview that he’s already thinking about when to leave the network. “I’ve kind of made a pledge to myself that I don’t want to push it to the very end,” he said.
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But Fox veterans say that news-side stars, such as Bret Baier and Chris Wallace, would fare far better, having cultivated relationships with Democrats. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer just appeared on Wallace’s “Fox News Sunday,” where the Democrat blamed Trump for rhetoric that encouraged a failed attempt to kidnap her.
Lachlan Murdoch has expressed confidence that a Biden presidency would not hurt the company’s bottom line. “We’ve grown ratings in multiple administrations, from both political parties,” he said at a conference in September. Indeed, Fox News has been the No. 1 cable news network since 2002.
One of the biggest question marks hanging over Fox News if Trump leaves the White House is: Where will he go?
Before his 2016 win, Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, explored the possibility of launching a Trump-focused media enterprise. One way or another, Trump is almost certain to attempt to maintain some kind of a media presence when he leaves office, so Fox probably will have to contend with him — whether it’s as a contributor on its own airwaves or a competitor.
The elder Murdoch has stopped speaking as frequently as he once did with Trump, but his associates say that those conversations probably will pick up again after Nov. 3, when Trump will either be a second-term president or a free agent on the media circuit.
“Maybe Rupert can just back the truck up and pay Trump to appear on Fox’s air at will,” Klein said. “Trump might prefer that to the rigors of having to actually run an actual business.”
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