Fox News Is Flipping Trump’s Trial Coverage on its Head

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The People of the State of New York v. Donald J. Trump, now unwinding in New York City, has failed to attract bumper-to-bumper coverage from the Fox News Channel. You’re free to decide whether this is an expression of Fox’s superior news judgment — the sort of news judgment that cost Fox $787.5 million to settle a defamation lawsuit by Dominion Voting Systems — or an attempt to protect Trump’s presidential campaign by suppressing news detrimental to him, or an effort to coddle Trump-loving viewers and keep them from switching to other channels that are ultra-friendly to Trump, like OAN and Newsmax.

But the numbers don’t lie.

According to database calculations provided by Roger Macdonald of the Internet Archive TV News, from April 15 through May 17, the Trump trial has been mentioned about half as often on Fox than either of its primary rivals, CNN and MSNBC. (What's measured: Number of 15-second blocks of airtime times in which both the words "Trump" and "trial” are spoken.)

Meanwhile, at the same time Fox has devoted less attention to the trial itself, it has extended near-blanket coverage to the alternative proceedings taking place in the same location — Trump’s open soliloquies to the press from the courthouse lobby where he lashes enemies inside and out of the courtroom. Fox conducted 33 live broadcasts of Trump statements to the press compared with 19 live statements aired on CNN and just three on MSNBC.

The Fox "brown out" has been obvious to close watchers of the trial. Reuters' Helen Coster and Kanishka Singh recently noted that MSNBC was availing itself to "breaking news" chyrons to announce new developments in the trial while Fox was zeroing in on pro-Palestinian protests on college campuses, as well as other matters. "In contrast," they reported, "the hour-long Fox program The Faulkner Focus spent less than 10 minutes on the trial, focusing in part on potential flaws in the prosecution's case." (Fox News defended its coverage when questioned by Reuters, saying it had reported on "all facets" of Trump’s trial.)

Perhaps you’re not surprised that Fox is eager to serve as a megaphone for Trump. It’s less a news station than a purveyor of conservative propaganda, after all. But it’s important to view this development through the trajectory of the often-fraught Trump-Fox relationship.

These metrics provide strong evidence that Trump has fully returned to Fox’s good graces after a temporary hiatus following Jan. 6. As The New York Times reported, Ron DeSantis replaced Trump as Fox’s darling soon after the MAGA riot at the Capitol: DeSantis was depicted “tossing a softball in Florida with [Fox anchor] Brian Kilmeade and promoting his memoir in prime time with numerous hosts, including Ms. [Laura] Ingraham.”

The distaste for Trump at Fox came from the top. Rupert Murdoch, the network paterfamilias, had never liked Trump but allowed his network to back him when he leveled the 2016 Republican primary field. Murdoch’s animus was real. He reportedly called Trump a “fucking idiot” and “a phony” and described the former president’s actions on Jan. 6 as “pretty much a crime.” In July 2022, Murdoch’s New York Post editorial page declared Trump “unworthy to be this country’s chief executive again.” Then, in November 2022, when Trump announced his candidacy for president, Fox placed an unofficial “soft ban” on Trump appearances.

Everything changed when Trump once again looked like a possible winner, particularly as DeSantis’ campaign crumbled. Fox ended the soft ban on April 11, 2023, with a Tucker Carlson Tonight interview. Since then, the Trump-Fox marriage of convenience has resumed, which has been reflected in the Fox coverage, and that appears to have iced Fox’s competition. As the Daily Beast’s Justin Baragona reports, NewsMax’s ratings, which had begun to challenge Fox, particularly after Carlson’s ouster, have gone into the swirly. “Newsmax’s primetime viewership has plummeted to its lowest levels of 2024,” Baragona writes.

NPR media reporter David Folkenflik, a close Fox observer and biographer of Murdoch, notes in an interview that by showing Trump repeatedly outside the courtroom, the network makes it appear as if it is adequately reporting on the intricacies of the trial — even if its coverage is scant. He adds that the TV airtime Fox has given to the Trump congressional surrogates lined up outside the courtroom to testify for their man provides a similar impression.

“This is one of the classic modules or templates that Fox has to offer, the simulacrum of news rather than the actual coverage,” Folkenflik says.

What’s significant about the lopsided Fox coverage is that it implies the real news — and the real trial — isn’t happening inside the courtroom where the prosecution and defense argue before a jury drawn from a pool of citizens and before a genuine judge, but from a shabby 15th-floor lobby just steps from where the official trial has convened.

The lobby is Trump’s forum of preference, a place where the defense’s case is the only one considered, a place where the TV public and not an impartial jury judges him, a place where he controls what is admissible, and where he and not some pesky judge determines how long arguments run. “Trump justice,” if you want to call it that, is like Trump University and Trump golf courses and Trump hotels. He’s in charge, and his word is the first, the last and the only, except for scattered questions from the press, which he chooses to acknowledge or ignore.

Trump’s aim has been to displace as much of the trial coverage as possible with his soliloquies. With Fox’s help, he’s accomplishing that goal. Trump’s legal mentor, Roy Cohn, would pull a similar trick when fighting in court. The rule of law allows only so much leeway inside the courthouse, Cohn knew. But after the proceedings ended for the day, Cohn frequently pleaded his extrajudicial case to the press on the courtroom steps. Like Cohn, like Trump.

If Trump can win in the court of public opinion, he appears to reason, and if he wins in November, he’ll consider himself acquitted, no matter what the jury says.

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