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Fox settlement seen as unlikely to change conservative media

The network has built a hugely successful business with an opinionated operation that appeals to the emotions of viewers and doesn’t have much incentive to change the way it operates

Fox News
A person walks past the Fox News Headquarters in New York, April. 12, 2023.Yuki IWAMURA (AP)

Days after Fox News agreed to pay nearly $800 million to settle a lawsuit over its airing of 2020 election lies, you’d be hard-pressed to notice anything had changed there.

Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham led their shows Thursday talking about Hunter Biden, the president’s son. Ingraham’s show warned, “The left wants the government to be your only family.” Hannity targeted familiar villains — Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Vice President Kamala Harris. Carlson mocked a speech on racial equity, saying it meant “that straight white men are bad.”

Experts doubt the settlement will lead to much of a course correction in conservative media, save for a little less specificity to avoid future lawsuits.

So far, that’s been the chief result of a Connecticut jury’s verdict last year that Alex Jones must pay $965 million to parents of Sandy Hook school shooting victims, after claiming the 2012 massacre was a hoax and that grieving parents were actors. Now Jones is more likely to keep names out of it, said Nicole Hemmer, a Vanderbilt University professor and author of “Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s.”

“It hasn’t changed his conspiracy theories,” Hemmer said. “He’s just a little more careful about not saying legally actionable things.”

Heading into the 2024 election, radio host Erick Erickson predicted more hesitancy in conservative media to embrace claims by former President Donald Trump or anybody in politics preaching election denialism. Fox’s response will be most watched.

If anything, Fox is just as dominant among conservatives today as it was in the aftermath of the 2020 election, the period addressed by the Dominion lawsuit. That’s when Fox aired false claims that Dominion Voting Systems helped rig the election against Trump, despite many at the network knowing the allegations were bogus.

Documents in the case exposed the fear within Fox that it would lose viewers if the network didn’t tell Trump fans what they wanted to hear.

A former Fox personality, Bill O’Reilly, wrote after the settlement: “This is what happens when money becomes more important than honest information.” His own experience, though, shows there was reason to be afraid. O’Reilly said he lost more than 1,000 premium subscribers to his website after telling them the election results wouldn’t be overturned.

Fox’s followers, it seems, were more upset with the election reporting than with revelations in the lawsuit about those at the network who didn’t believe the fraud charges and expressed private disdain for Trump.

There’s been little noticeable change in Fox’s television ratings in the past few months, certainly none attributable to the lawsuit. In March, Fox’s website had 88.7 million unique visitors, marking its fourth straight month of double-digit gains, said Howard Polskin, whose website The Righting monitors conservative media.

Most conservative websites either ignored the Dominion lawsuit or gave it cursory coverage, he said.

“The coverage on the right would not support at all that some landmark settlement had been reached,” Polskin said. “It was completely misaligned with the magnitude of the news event itself.”

While Fox acknowledged in the settlement the judge’s conclusion that the network had spread false material about Dominion, Fox offered no apology. That likely would have meant more to Fox’s critics than its fans, anyway, said Megan Duncan, a Virginia Tech communications professor who studies news audiences.

To Fox’s followers, criticism of the network wouldn’t matter much unless it was made by someone who shared their ideology. For the bulk of Fox’s audience, the settlement will be quickly forgotten — if it was followed at all, she said.

For Fox, that’s all an argument for the importance of keeping its audience happy.

That audience is what has made Fox the leading cable television network for several years, so profitable that it is able to absorb the $787 million Dominion settlement as a cost of doing business.

Fox still has legal challenges, with a pending defamation lawsuit by Smartmatic, another elections technology company. But Dominion also has a case against Newsmax, Fox’s chief television rival for a conservative audience. Newsmax insists its case is different and that it has better protections against defamation than Fox did.

But as a smaller company, if Newsmax is wrong, a financial judgment could cripple or kill it, to Fox’s benefit, Hemmer said.

“Fox would absolutely go after that audience,” she said.

Fox soon faces crucial negotiations with three large cable companies — Comcast, Spectrum and Cox — over carriage fees, the amount they will pay to Fox for the right to offer the network on their systems, said Angelo Carusone, president of Media Matters for America, a left-leaning media watchdog group.

Ever since an advertiser boycott against former Fox personality Glenn Beck, largely orchestrated by Media Matters, Fox has concentrated on boosting carriage fees. It has succeeded to the point where Fox would have a 35% profit margin even if had no advertising revenue, he said.

That makes it important for Fox to illustrate to these companies that it has a large, valuable audience that can be counted on to be loyal at a time people are cutting cable service.

Fox could use the conclusion of the lawsuit to build up its news operation, which has lost personalities such as Chris Wallace and Shepard Smith in recent years, said Chris Stirewalt, an executive fired by Fox after the quick, although ultimately correct, decision on election night 2020 to call Arizona for Democrat Joe Biden in the presidential race.

Fox said that it is doing just that, saying this past week that it has increased its investment in journalism by more than 50%.

“Being a news organization is expensive and dangerous,” said Stirewalt, now political editor at NewsNation. “Not just expensive because you have to pay to get news but also, expensive because you can lose your audience because sometimes you have to tell them what they don’t want to hear.”

It could be easier, and good business, to double down on programming that appeals to the attitudes and emotions of viewers, he said. Fox wouldn’t be alone in following that direction.

“I don’t envy their choices,” he said.

Erickson, the radio host, said he would expect to see greater management control of Fox’s personalities, although this wouldn’t necessarily be something that viewers would notice. That would revert back to the days of the late Fox leader Roger Ailes, drummed out of the network in a sexual misconduct scandal in 2016.

“Whether you liked Roger Ailes or not, he did understand that you should not lie to your audience,” Erickson said.

The ovations delivered on Thursday night by an audience crowded into Hannity’s studio — for him and for Carlson and Ingraham at the beginning and end of their shows — illustrated an enduring point.

Fox has several solid journalists on its payroll but its stars, the chief reason viewers tune in, are those that offer tough talk and opinion.

“I think they’ve backed themselves into a corner, and that corner is full of Trump supporters,” said Hemmer, the Vanderbilt professor. “That is the business model.”

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