As the White House changes hands, so will Fox News’ support of the presidency

·5 min read
<span>Photograph: Jim Bourg/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Jim Bourg/Reuters

When Joe Biden is sworn in as president on 20 January, cable news viewers may witness one of the most dramatic 180-degree turns in history.

After four years of slavishly promoting the president, Fox News is expected to pump on the brakes within seconds of the inauguration ceremony.

All of a sudden, the person in the White House is not a Republican. More than that, the network can no longer rely on the willingness of the president or his aides to call into Fox News any time of the day or night.

The rightwing TV channel, and its big name hosts Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity, will spend the next four years as the party of the opposition. The network has done this before, of course – the eight years of Barack Obama’s presidency weren’t that long ago – but Biden presents a different challenge.

Related: Fox News' Laura Ingraham and Tucker Carlson distance themselves from Trump

“Of course we can expect it to be relentlessly negative, but it’s a challenge on some levels, because he’s a 78-year-old white man, fairly moderate history,” said Heather Hendershot, a professor of film and media at MIT who studies conservative and rightwing media.

“In the past they attacked Hillary Clinton very hard not only because she was liberal, but obviously there was some underlying sexism and misogyny there – and obviously the fact that Barack Obama was African American was central to rightwing attacks on him, either implicitly or explicitly, including on Fox News.”

That’s not to say Biden’s government will escape attack, even if he dodges the worst.

Kamala Harris will be the first Black vice-president, and could become a target for Fox News’ hosts. If Democrats win the two Senate runoff elections in Georgia, the Senate will be split 50-50, and Harris will cast the deciding vote.

“[If that happens] she’s going to be out there front and center as a tie-breaker in Congress over and over again,” Hendershot said.

“And every time that happens that is a way to tangentially attack Biden – it gives [Fox News and other rightwing outlets] a kind of ‘red meat’ to attack Kamala Harris, because she is both a woman and a person of color.”

Biden claims he has nominated “the most diverse cabinet anyone in American history has ever announced”, with Janet Yellen set to be the first woman to be secretary of the Treasury, while Lloyd Austin, if confirmed, poised to become the first Black defence secretary.

Pete Buttigieg, an occasional Fox News guest, is set to be the first openly gay cabinet secretary as head of transport.

Fox News has already been attacking another diverse set of Democrats: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and other female, non-white members of Congress.

Matthew Gertz, senior fellow at Media Matters for America, a media watchdog, said that’s a theme that has continued to dominate, even since Biden became the president-elect.

“A lot of what we’re seeing right now is less of a focus on Joe Biden himself and more of this idea that he will somehow be a puppet for other figures that they find easier to attack – whether that is Kamala Harris, or Bernie Sanders, or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez,” Gertz said.

“That is an angle they pursued quite a bit during the campaign, and it’s something they’ve focused on during the transition as well.”

Donald Trump is interviewed by Fox News in August.
Donald Trump is interviewed by Fox News in August. Photograph: Fox News

Fox News has been credited with helping to fuel the growth of the Tea Party movement in 2010, which was the initial vehicle for fringe rightwingers to gain greater influence in the Republican party.

The attack of the US consulate in Benghazi in 2012 became a long-running story on Fox News, even as the administration was cleared – by a Republican-controlled House committee – of any wrongdoing.

“We’ve seen to some extent how this will play out. Looking back at 2009, 2010, the early years of the Obama administration featured a lot of incredibly overheated and conspiracy-minded Fox News commentary. I think that is likely to be an area that they are happy to return to,” Gertz said.

“It will likely be a source for the scandalmongering that we saw during the Obama administration – basically a return to Benghazi coverage, where the network takes a news event and spends months and months and years and years poring over it, and telling their audience that the Democratic administration is the source of horrific actions.”

Obviously, a switch from supporting one president to opposing the next is not unprecedented.

The more liberal cable news networks will have experienced something similar when Trump was elected in 2016 – although CNN and MSNBC were never the same quasi-propaganda outfits for Obama as Fox News has been for Trump.

Still, the more liberal news organizations experienced a spike in popularity, and a boost to viewing figures, after Trump won.

MSNBC and CNN saw double-digit growth in viewing figures after Trump won, while the Atlantic, the New Yorker and ProPublica all saw a boost in readers. Fox News declined to comment, but a spokeswoman pointed to Nielsen ratings showing the network is consistently the most-watched cable news channel.

Hendershot said Fox News could see a similar benefit to its more left-leaning rivals once it is in opposition to the White House.

“Politicized media, whether magazines or opinion, smaller ones like the [left-leaning] Nation or the [conservative] National Review, or larger ones like Fox News, they tend to financially prosper the more oppositional they are,” Hendershot said.

“They will have to increase their oppositionality, by virtue of the fact that Biden is president – and at the same time they can have their cake and eat it too, in that they don’t lose Trump as a story because he will continue to promote himself, inaccurately, as the real president in exile.”

“So they may do very well financially and politically, because they can not only attack Biden, they can swing very hard at Kamala Harris, and they can also keep working the Trump story, trying to satisfy that base, because Trump isn’t going to go away.”