What’s Happening at Fox News Isn’t What You Think. It’s Worse.

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This is part of Sly as Fox, a short series about the perils of underestimating Fox News in 2024. 

In September 2023, the author Michael Wolff published what amounted to a book-length obituary for America’s most popular cable news network. Titled The Fall: The End of Fox News and the Murdoch Dynasty, it argued that Fox News had been in decline since the departure of its founding CEO, Roger Ailes, in 2016, and the roughly concurrent political ascent of alleged billionaire Donald J. Trump. Ever since then, Wolff contended, Fox had struggled to maintain its once-unassailable place at the head of the American conservative movement while contending with personnel turnover, shaky internal leadership, competition from newer and wing-nuttier news outlets, the precipitous decline of the cable-television industry, historically expensive lawsuits—and the ungovernable Trump, who felt no need to genuflect to the network’s power.

In Wolff’s telling, longtime Fox Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch’s rumored disdain for Trump was very real, as was his frustration over his inability to break Trump’s grip on the Republican base. After the GOP’s dismal performance in the 2022 midterms, Fox News clearly attempted to starve Trump of oxygen by instead boosting Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, whom it portrayed as the ideal Republican standard-bearer going into the 2024 presidential elections.

A year and a half later, though, Trump has a stranglehold on the Republican nomination. DeSantis is sitting in Tallahassee, licking his fingers. And Fox News is now forced to confront this evidence of its apparent editorial impotence. To Fox, Trump has become rather like a houseguest who asserts squatters’ rights and somehow ends up as the landlord—an untenable outcome for a media mogul like Murdoch, who for decades has been accustomed to being the power behind countless thrones. With characteristic savagery, Wolff portrayed Murdoch as a doddering nonagenarian unable to parse the changes in the cable business and unwilling to accept that American conservatism’s center of gravity had shifted away from him. Then, a few days before The Fall was published, Murdoch abruptly announced his impending retirement from the chairmanships of both Fox Corp. and News Corp. The news seemed like a validation of Wolff’s thesis. Trump had won the power struggle, Fox News had become irrelevant, and Murdoch was just an elderly rat fleeing a sinking ship.

Murdoch’s retirement reinforced a powerful myth that has taken hold over the past year or two. If there was any silver lining for liberals in the political reemergence of Donald Trump, it was the idea that Trump’s ascent was a sign of Fox News’ decline. We are now beginning a general election campaign in which the fate of democracy in America arguably rests on the frail shoulders of the incumbent president, Joe Biden, an unpopular 81-year-old man who trails Trump in most polls and has lost ground in swing states to intraparty competitors such as “uncommitted.” For Democrats, the only joy these days is found in tainted emotions like schadenfreude, and so you will perhaps forgive them for taking comfort in the idea that Fox News has been fatally shivved by a creature of its own creation.

I’m here to tell you not to get carried away on the winds of wishful thinking. I’ve covered Fox News for years, and the belief that Fox is waning in power is a conclusion born out of imprecise premises. Sure, Fox couldn’t persuade right-wing voters to abandon Trump and vote for Ron DeSantis, but this failure is not necessarily evidence of the network’s sudden irrelevance. Indeed, Fox News has rarely been an instrument of direct electoral action. Its greatest power is flexed differently, and it is still capable of deploying that power toward malignant ends. On the brink of a presidential campaign unlike any that Americans have ever seen, in advance of a general election that once again promises to be the most important one of our lifetime, it would be foolish—perhaps fatally so—to presume that Fox News is no longer capable of tipping the scales.

Fox News debuted in October 1996, two years after the so-called Republican Revolution had won the GOP control of Congress and one month before Democratic President Bill Clinton would win a second term in office by 8.5 percent over Republican challenger Bob Dole—a margin of victory that no presidential candidate has matched since. In other words, it was an era in which Americans didn’t really know what they wanted, even as they suspected that things would probably be fine either way. The economy was healthy, the world was largely at peace, the Soviet Union had been dismantled, and they were still making new Lethal Weapon movies. As political scientist Francis Fukuyama had suggested not long before that, the world had reached the end of history: the final triumph of liberal democracy and its accompanying ideological virtues. Woooo! Go, Team America!

In retrospect, the notion of definitive historical apotheosis was bound to not sit well with the reactionary right, a political faction organized around the premise that the present moment stinks and that everything was better in the past. The end of history also portended the end of reactionary conservatism. Fox News’ emergence came at the perfect time for the political right, which needed an apparatus that was powerful enough to set the wheels of history spinning once again.

At a point in time when things were generally pretty good, Fox News gambled that what Americans really wanted was an endless stream of straw men to hate and resent, an endless list of reasons why things were actually terrible. With this strategy, the network was following the lead of the many right-wing demagogues who had amassed influence by weaponizing conservative nostalgia for “better days” while railing against cultural liberalism. At the time, the most recent model was the radio host Rush Limbaugh, who in the early 1990s had found great national success by convincing his listeners that the liberal elite wanted nothing more than to mock their biblical marriages, turn their children gay, and keep Christ out of Christmas.

Limbaugh was a partisan political actor in a commentator’s costume, using the veil of editorial legitimacy provided by the news part of the phrase news talk to frame his dumb bombast as informed analysis. Day after day, he mocked and vilified the Clintons, and “feminazis,” and environmentalists, and other easy targets—and in so doing made Republicans seem sensible and virtuous by comparison. Rather than spend much time making the affirmative case for conservative policies and politicians, Limbaugh found that it was easier and more effective to just give his listeners something to stand against.

If Limbaugh gave Fox News the playbook, then Fox deployed it with unmatched vigor and relentlessness. Under the leadership of Ailes—a long-standing Republican campaign consultant who had recently served as president of CNBC—and Murdoch, who infused the network with the reactionary populist spirit of his tabloid newspapers, Fox News expertly exploited television viewers’ residual trust in the aesthetics of news to command a level of credibility that its commentary and reporting did not always merit. Fox presented as a news network along the lines of CNN, albeit one with a pronounced conservative slant, a point of view that the network justified by suggesting that its competitors were biased because they lacked a conservative slant. Its motto, “Fair and Balanced,” was best understood as a code phrase, speaking to right-leaning viewers who already believed that the rest of the media was anything but.

Over time, Fox News refined its approach to covering current events. The network has always aired segments of straightforward news reporting and sober commentary, and some of this material can be fairly decent. From a macroscopic perspective, though, this output is useful to Fox mostly insofar as it gives it plausible deniability against charges of partisan bias. Bret Baier, Neil Cavuto, and the rest of the network’s relatively normal anchors and reporters effectively serve as cover for the culture warriorship that has long consumed the bulk of each programming day. Whether it was Sean Hannity fuming about the liberal media and Hollywood perverts, Tucker Carlson mainstreaming key components of the great replacement theory, Bill O’Reilly bashing abortion providers and liberal media, Glenn Beck assuring his viewers that Barack Obama was the real racist, or the Fox & Friends mopes offering shots of xenophobia with their viewers’ morning coffee, the network has a long and documented history of using its platform to proclaim the cultural and political villainy of the left—and thus to celebrate the relative virtue of the right.

The network’s conspiratorial fearmongering rarely holds up to rational scrutiny. But Fox News has never really been interested in direct logical persuasion. Instead, it feeds and cultivates what I have come to refer to as the midnight mind. The midnight mind is that state of irrational delirium in which implausible things and theories can start to strike you as true. It’s what you experience when you’re lying awake in the middle of the night and, in the absence of mitigating clarity, your mind begins to wander into illogical zones. In a state of midnight-minded panic, it is easy to believe that all the world is aligned against you and that the worst will always come true. Conspiracies become certainties. Enemies become entrenched. With no one else around to tell you that these fever dreams are stupid, they can start to seem very, very smart.

In the light of morning, of course, it is easy to see the flaws in these nighttime chimeras—which is why Fox News seems to work so hard to create, in effect, in its viewers something of an induced trance from which it is hard to ever wake up. By bombarding its audience with endless reports on the dishonesty and unreliability of the rest of the mainstream media, Fox makes it seem like a moral imperative to never, ever change the channel. In the ensuing echo chamber, the midnight mind thence becomes the dominant mind, and things that are objectively false start to feel like the only things that are actually true.

As you may have noticed, this playbook has less to do with promoting specific conservative political candidates than with setting the stage for any given conservative candidate to win.

If and when the network does boost particular politicians, it generally does so in a manner that is incidental to its main mission, which is to demonize the left by peddling an unbroken narrative of its decadence and corruption, thus fostering a tribal mentality in which outsiders start to seem like existential threats.

When Donald Trump first entered the political scene, his campaign directly echoed the cultural-decline narrative that Fox had been pushing for decades. Because Trump himself was so conspicuously unvirtuous, he couldn’t easily take advantage of the standard faith-flag-and-family branding that preceding Republican candidates had long used to denote their moral superiority. Instead, Trump resorted to standard midnight-minded fearmongering, demonizing his opponents and the left in order to make himself look better by comparison. The petty nativism and reactionary nostalgia that animated his 2016 presidential campaign were thematically reminiscent of much Fox News programming, with one main difference: Trump flipped the script by making this messaging all about him. Trump became the main character in a midnight-minded melodrama that was supposed to serve all Republicans, not just one guy.

During and after Trump’s presidency, his habit of asserting conspiracies against him came to pose problems for Fox News. For one thing, Trump is so venal and unfit for office that the only way to make him look good by comparison has been to indulge in a series of increasingly outlandish and indefensible theories about the left—theories that many of Fox’s more journalistically minded personalities were occasionally unwilling to endorse. But the main problem for Fox with changing its messaging away from “Everyone is conspiring against Republicans” to “Everyone is conspiring against Donald Trump” has always been that Trump is a world-class loser. Deploying a powerful messaging machine in deferential service to one guy becomes difficult when that guy keeps on losing elections.

If Trump had faced a different Democratic opponent than Hillary Clinton in 2016, there is a very good argument that he would not have won the presidency. Under his leadership, the Republican Party lost ground in the 2018 midterms. In 2020 Trump lost the presidential election, and the Republicans lost control of the Senate. Although the 2022 midterms were supposed to be a “red wave,” poor performances nationwide by a suite of Trump-backed candidates rendered that wave more of an anemic puddle. Fox News has resisted Trump’s cult of personality not because the network finds him distasteful but because he weighs down the broader party. And yet this resistance has been ineffective because its midnight-minded audience has been trained for decades to be incredibly receptive to the sorts of dumb theories that are the entirety of what Donald Trump has to offer. Trump is crack cocaine to his acolytes, and the addiction is such that it cannot be defeated with a half-hearted “Just say no.”

Besides, don’t kid yourself about Fox News’ resistance to Donald Trump. To the extent that the network defied him while he was in office, that defiance was largely confined to the “Actually, let’s not overthrow the government” level. The network’s DeSantis advocacy was a product of primary season, when there was still a chance that someone else might step up and break Trump’s spell. In general elections, when the candidates have been chosen, Fox will always accede to the wishes of the primary electorate and turn its editorial energies toward creating the conditions for those candidates’ success. We’re just about at that point right now—and already those energies are evident as Trump’s New York trial progresses and the coming election nightmare creeps closer and closer.

This election is the real reason you might reasonably ask yourself whether Fox News still matters. Before you try to answer that question, I would urge you to really examine what you’re asking. If the question is whether the network has declined relative to its own peak performance, then, sure, the old gray mare ain’t what she used to be. But neither are most media properties, especially cable networks. Remember when AMC was the standard-bearer for prestige television, or when MTV used to air programs starring people other than Rob Dyrdek? Remember when your local print newspaper used to be more than just repackaged wire stories? Relative to outdated expectations, Fox News is underperforming. Relative to the present moment, the network is crushing it. Week after week, month after month, Fox News is consistently the highest-rated cable network of them all. In the much narrower cable-news category, Fox boasts Harlem Globetrotters levels of dominance; it’s not uncommon for the channel’s ratings to be better than those of CNN and MSNBC combined.

What this means, among other things, is that Fox News has more leverage than any other cable network to keep commanding high carriage fees—the per-subscriber payment that cable networks get from their carriers, which is the real reason why cable subscription prices are so high. Whereas once it made sense for cable companies to oversaturate their lineups with hundreds of networks that nobody watched, changing cable-business economics have led these companies to start trimming the fat and stop paying millions in carriage fees to bad networks that nobody likes. Fox News will be the last network to succumb to these pressures. As long as cable is around, Fox News will be too—and despite cable’s recent declining subscribership numbers, there is enough money at stake here that it’s not implausible to think that cable might find a way to turn the tide.

Maybe the question is whether Fox News is still influential on the right. Again, relative to past performance, probably not as much. The network is constantly being primaried from the right, so to speak, by other outlets—down-the-lineup cable news networks and podcasts and radio shows and YouTube conspiracists and social media meme-makers and so on and so forth—that have always been more than willing to carry water for Donald Trump and his interesting theories. And yet Fox News has perpetually had competitors, and the fatal flaw with these competitors has always been that they are not Fox News. YouTube prognosticators and Substack pamphleteers might be more viscerally conservative than Fox, but they don’t have billions of dollars behind them. OANN and Newsmax are further to the right than Fox, but they’re getting dropped left and right by cable providers because their viewership numbers aren’t worth the carriage fees. No matter how compelling your favorite right-wing radio host or paleoconservative podcaster might be, they’re not broadcasting 24 hours a day. Fox News has structural advantages that every single one of its competitors lacks.

The question we should be asking, I think, is whether Fox News still has the ability to affect the election. And I think it’s pretty clear that the answer to that question is yes. It seems evident that there are not enough rabid Donald Trump supporters to guarantee a Trump victory in November, just as there are not enough die-hard Biden supporters to ensure the incumbent president a second term. What this means is that the presidential election will once again come down to turnout and messaging and those voters in a handful of states who have somehow still not yet made up their minds.

Baby boomers and older are both more likely to vote than any other age group and more likely to still subscribe to cable than any other age group. Can Fox News persuade enough undecided voters in this group to vote for Donald Trump? Of course it can. Fox and Trump are fully invested in peddling the narrative of a nation in decline, and all that either needs to do is use their dark gifts to convince, like, 250,000 people in, like, five different states that the Sleepy Joe Crime Cartel and its democratic socialist allies have pursued unfair vendettas against Trump while turning America into an expensive, protest-riven, migrant-infested, gender-deviant crime hole. Trump cannot sell this story entirely on his own. He needs Fox News and its fair-and-balanced veneer to launder this message for the benefit of those voters who could still go either way.

At Fox, there is less internal resistance to this mandate than ever. Over the past five years, the network has parted ways with most of the more sober journalistic personalities whose integrity might prevent them from fully signing on to Trump’s stupid chaos narratives. Shepard Smith, Chris Stirewalt, Chris Wallace, Geraldo Rivera—they and others have all been shown the door, leaving behind a shrinking internal bulwark of sanity that’s increasingly incapable of resisting the encroaching tide of Trumpian illogic. Murdoch himself, meanwhile, was the one man at Fox sufficiently forceful to resist Trump’s pull and impose his own will on the network, but he’s gone now too. Today the network is led by Murdoch’s son Lachlan—who is not his father—a bunch of un-prepossessing executives, and an on-air roster of Trump loyalists, Fox lifers, wing nuts, and has-beens. Although the network will be careful not to court any more billion-dollar lawsuits, the people remaining there otherwise have few reasons not to give their viewers what they want.

To this end, Donald Trump doesn’t challenge Fox News: He completes Fox News. The old man is gone. The midnight mind is ascending. History is back in motion. Fox News is finally free.