It was during the million MAGAmarch, as a group of marchers was chanting “Fox News sucks, Fox News sucks,” that it occurred to me that Fox News may be on the precipice of Fox Newsing itself out of existence. Perhaps it was inevitable that at some point the outrage machine would be unable to manufacture the necessary outrage to perpetuate itself, but I didn’t think it would be the election of 2020 that triggered it.
Historically, Fox News has been able to successfully untether itself from the truth on matters like the coronavirus, caravans, (what happened to those?), Seth Rich trutherism. But when it came to the election, well, that was trickier, because Fox has an independent election decision desk that does not shape its facts around the president of the United States’ feelings.
But the problem is that Fox had built an audience that had gotten more and more radicalized with each passing year by Fox’s content. So by Election Night, when Fox anchors suddenly wanted to play things straight, it created a phenomenon whereby Fox News was unable to keep up with the conservative outrage generated by Fox News.
For the last few years, Fox News’ opinion shows have managed to skirt the edges of reality, pumping everything from insane conspiracy theories to white nationalist talking points. Who could forget when a Trump-appointed judge noted of Tucker Carlson, with regard to Carlson’s ranting about Trump accuser Karen McDougal, that “whether the Court frames Mr. Carlson's statements as 'exaggeration,' 'non-literal commentary,' or simply bloviating for his audience, the conclusion remains the same—the statements are not actionable." But while the courts might consider Tucker too wacky to be believed, millions of Fox viewers consider his word to be gospel. This terrible disinformation clearinghouse wasn’t a problem for Fox news until it was.
You see, Fox News created the perfect feedback loop, from their opinion hosts to their viewers. And one of those viewers was, theoretically at least, “the leader of the free world.” For a while this worked beautifully for Fox (though less well for America as a whole). The president used his millions of Twitter followers to spread Fox News messaging. It was actually rather seamless. Of course there was this little problem that much of Fox News’ news was highly exaggerated or just untrue, but that didn’t bother Trump because Fox echoed (and perhaps created) a lot of these RNC talking points. Brian Stelter pointed out in his book Hoax that, "At 9 o'clock sharp, the president is watching Hannity deliver the talking points that they have already discussed."
The feedback cycle relied on Fox and Trump sharing the same reality. Which largely they did. Until they didn’t. The problem with the Fox News feedback loop was that it thrilled and delighted its viewers with an endless montage of “boomer outrage porn,” like videos of people dressed in black clothing who were deemed “antifa” or gaffes of liberal Hollywood actors who were of touch with real America. And the problem with boomer outrage porn is that it needs to continue to outrage. There’s a serotonin hit that needs to be produced. Perhaps at first that hit can be produced by a tan suit mini-scandal. But it always needs more scandal to feed the outrage. Eventually this outrage weaponized its own audience against itself.
Fox News hasn’t exactly embraced the election results, but it hasn’t exactly not either. Fox anchors’ handling of the current situation range from the insanely conspiratorial Maria Bartiromo, who has lately insisted that computers are stealing the president’s votes, to weekend anchor Eric Shawn, who debunked the bulk of Trump’s voter fraud conspiracy theory.
Now, Fox News is having trouble keeping up with the unhinged product being peddled on other far right networks like One America News and Newsmax. Newsmax has leaned in to this, airing a commercial with Mike Huckabee. A voiceover says, “Fake news is a real problem, that’s why millions turn to Newsmax," as a parade of right-wing faces, including Huckabee's, dances across the screen. This is, as Beast writer Justin Baragona points out, “a shameless play for Trump loyalists disenchanted with Fox News having called the election for President-elect Joe Biden and largely dismissed President Donald Trump’s baseless allegations of a ‘stolen’ election.”
Last week Newsmax refused to call the election for President-elect Biden. This was completely and utterly symbolic because Newsmax doesn’t have a decision desk. But it delighted Trump’s supporters as few things have. The New York Times noted that this “alternate-reality strategy is working, and turning Newsmax into a legitimate contender for conservative eyeballs in the post-Trump era.”
And then there's OAN, which is home to Rudy Giuliani’s best friend and occasional traveling companion Chanel Rion. E.J. Dickson notes in Rolling Stone that Rion asks “almost comically leading questions during news briefings that rarely, if ever, have to do with the issues other reporters are asking him about.” OAN makes Fox look like PBS News Hour.
The right-wing media is currently at war for the viewers Fox News created but can no longer satiate. But Fox is not going down without a fight, a notion expressed by terrifying propagandist and lover of white nationalist talking points Tucker Carlson, who said on his show: “Ironically, at that very moment, we were working on a project to expand the amount of reporting and analysis we do in this hour across other parts of the company.”
Who knows what that means, but it likely means Fox is going to lean into the Tucker brand, which is kind of terrifying. It would seem that the only thing worse for democracy than one Fox News is three of them.