A year ago, Fox News was considering a breakup with Trump. 2021 changed those plans.

In the weeks leading up to the 2020 election, as Fox News executives and luminaries accepted its possible outcome, some began to see it as a long-awaited opportunity – a chance to break up with Donald Trump.

Even the president felt an increasing distance from the network that was once so closely tied to him. “What’s the biggest difference between that and four years ago?” He asked rhetorically in an election day appearance on “Fox & Friends,” skipping obvious choices such as US foreign relations, immigration policy or the makeup of federal courts. “I say Fox,” he replied. “It’s very different now. “

The sentiment was most fervent on the news side of Fox and its Washington office, according to current and former Fox News figures familiar with the dynamics who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the internal conversations. Many felt that the network’s identity had become too closely tied to its opinion leaders – some of whom had become not only on-air cheerleaders but behind-the-scenes advisers to a president beloved by their viewers – at the detriment of its old self-image forged as a “fair and balanced” information operation.

Yet the post-Trump era has opened for Fox with a drop in ratings that quickly resulted in a recalibration of those 2021 visions.

Now, a year later, the dream some had of moving away from Trump is long gone. The biggest threat Fox now faces is a pair of looming lawsuits from two voting technology companies who claim the network, far from turning away from him, has allowed prominent figures allied to Trump – including hosts at the air as well as guests – to falsely slander them with spurious conspiracy theories about widespread electoral fraud.

Over the year, Fox managed to reassert himself as the No.1 cable programmer – and wholeheartedly realigned with the former president and his supporters.

It was a hotly contested triumph that allowed Fox executives to ignore two other recent developments that, at least to outsiders, have further undermined his credentials as a news broker – the departure of veteran presenter Chris Wallace and the panicked texts revelation three of his hosts sent to Trump’s chief of staff, urging him to quell the January 6 riots on the United States Capitol.

And it highlights a dynamic affecting the entire cable news industry at a time when the polarized politics of the day increasingly guided viewers’ decisions about what to watch.

“The universe of cable news viewers is in decline, so you need to make the most of existing viewers,” said Chris Stirewalt, former Fox News political editor, who likens cable news to “the industry. tobacco around 1988, where you have addiction as a path to profit ”- and a strong motivation for channels to give their most loyal audiences the worldviews they want. “A lot of Fox’s decisions (suggest) they’re going this route.”

Fox News spokesperson Irena Briganti attributed the network’s dominance of ratings to her staff – “not just our news and opinion skills, but the many enterprising team members who work in behind the scenes to bring a top-notch product to the air, “she said. “It’s because of our great people that we consistently have more Americans watching Fox News every day than our competition combined. “

Stirewalt’s own career at Fox reflects some of the backbones of the network in its struggle to stay on top. He was once part of a team that had gained respect throughout the media industry – Fox’s non-partisan “decision-making office”, known for its sharp and lucid analysis of election results.

But the ruling office’s performance on election night 2020 sparked some of the drama Fox would face in early 2021. The network was the first outlet to project that Joe Biden would win the traditional Arizona Red State, an announcement that enraged Trump. camp and prompted an angry phone call from President Jared Kushner’s son-in-law to Rupert Murdoch, whose family controls Fox News’s parent company.

Murdoch refused to cancel the ruling office, the projection of which turned out to be correct. But when Trump lost, he declared war on Fox, cursing the network for his call in Arizona and avidly promoting two much smaller news channels, Newsmax and One America News, which were starting to carve out their place among the faithful. from Trump.

Weeks later, Stirewalt says, he was fired, while another executive involved in Arizona’s appeal abruptly retired. Fox says Stirewalt’s job was simply cut in a larger staff restructuring and notes that the network recently renewed the contract of Arnon Mishkin, the consultant who has run his decision-making office for years.

The next test for Fox – and those on-air personalities who had publicly defended Trump for so long – took place on January 6. Some of the network’s opinion leaders spent the following weeks and months downplaying the violent attack on the U.S. Capitol by hordes of Trump supporters or implying it was started by leftist agitators. For now, however, texts would later show Fox hosts Laura Ingraham, Sean Hannity and Brian Kilmeade begging the president to calm the crowds and uphold the peace.

“It hurts us all,” Ingraham wrote to Trump’s chief of staff Mark Meadows in a text message revealed last week by the special House committee investigating the attack, echoing some concerns she shared on air that night. “He’s destroying his heritage.

In January 2021, for the first time in 20 years, Fox reported lower monthly audiences than its two main cable news competitors, CNN and MSNBC.

Now Fox is back on top, announcing that it was on track to complete its sixth year as the top ranked channel in all of cable, not just cable news. But it comes after a year of defections, criticism and high-profile lawsuits challenging the allegations he has allowed to air.

And Fox’s resurgence follows the growing influence within the company of Tucker Carlson, the prime-time host of the network’s most-watched show.

In November, Carlson produced a documentary series – which aired on the network’s streaming service, Fox Nation, but promoted on Fox News – that launched baseless theories that the January 6 attack was internal government work to target Trump supporters. (“They have started to fight a new enemy in a new war on terror,” Carlson intoned in the first episode. “… A real war, soldiers and paramilitary agencies stalking American citizens.”)

The Carlson series drew cries of condemnation not only from critics outside Fox, but also from whispers of dissent within the network, including anchors Bret Baier and Chris Wallace. In November, two longtime Fox News contributors Jonah Goldberg and Stephen Hayes cited the Carlson special – “a collection of inconsistent conspiracies riddled with factual inaccuracies, half-truths, misleading imagery and overwhelming omissions “- as their main justification for resigning from the network.

Even Lachlan Murdoch, the CEO of the network’s parent company, Fox Corp., was troubled by the show’s incendiary trailer, according to people who spoke to him. Still, the series continued to air on Fox Nation, which gave Carlson an air of untouchability inside Fox. (Asked for comment, Brian Nick, spokesperson for Lachlan Murdoch, said: “When Lachlan has a problem, he deals with it internally with the team, not through the media.”)

Of greater concern to Fox executives appears to be a pair of billion dollar lawsuits filed by Dominion Voting Systems and Smartmatic Corp. in shows hosted by Carlson, Hannity and Jeanine Pirro.

Last week, a judge dismissed Fox’s request to dismiss the Dominion case, allowing him to move forward. Fox called the lawsuit “baseless” and a “total attack on the First Amendment,” arguing that the network “vigorously covered the latest news surrounding the unprecedented 2020 election, providing full context for each story with in-depth and clear reporting – cut analysis.

Wallace’s departure has drawn much more attention, as the veteran presenter announced last week that he was leaving Fox to host a show for rival CNN’s upcoming streaming service. During his 18 years on the network, executives have repeatedly praised Wallace’s non-partisan credentials as a tough and skeptical questioner as proof of Fox’s commitment to the news.

But Fox insiders were quick to downplay his action, arguing that it wouldn’t mean much to a core Fox audience that revolves around its very busy opinion-making hours. And they sang the hit performed a week later by Baier, who scored the must-see interview of the day while temporarily holding Wallace’s former “Fox News Sunday” seat, when Sen. Joe Manchin III, DW.Va ., announced on the show that he would vote against President Joe Biden’s domestic spending plan.

This was proof, in Fox’s view, that the show’s powers did not lie in the person in the interviewer chair – but in the substantial number of loyal viewers who guaranteed to tune into Fox. at any time.

“Fox’s programming decisions are a reflection of their audience,” said Rob Horowitz, a communications consultant who teaches a course in politics and the media at the University of Rhode Island. “That’s where the audience is, but the audience is there in part because that’s where Fox leads them.”

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