As supporters of President Donald Trump gathered around the country in the past week to protest the election, a surprising chant could occasionally be heard: “Fox News sucks.”
The network has held a central role during Trump’s presidency, regularly hosting him on its various shows and featuring a slate of commentators who vociferously defend him. But that relationship began to show signs of strain in recent months, culminating in outright hostility from Trump after Fox News and The Associated Press became the first major media outlets to announce that former Vice President Joe Biden had won Arizona in the presidential race.
On Thursday, Trump took his anger at Fox News even further, claiming the network’s ratings had “collapsed,” which is untrue. On election night, ratings data from Nielsen showed that Fox News averaged 14.1 million viewers from 8-11 p.m. ET, a record for cable news coverage of a presidential election.
“Very sad to watch this happen,” Trump tweeted, “but they forgot what made them successful, what got them there. They forgot the Golden Goose.”
With Biden as president-elect, Fox News’ relationship with Trump and conservative America is at a crossroads. The conservative media landscape is far broader today than it was four years ago, and the rival networks that proliferated during Trump’s presidency could be eager to take on Fox News — possibly in concert with Trump. But any predictions of Fox News’ demise would be premature.
“They’re not the 800-hundred pound gorilla, they’re the 8,000-pound gorilla,” said Howard Polskin, who tracks right-wing media outlets. “Fox News casts a huge shadow and is very important. Foxnews.com’s audience is 10 times as large as the second-largest conservative outlet. It’s not even close.”
While Lachlan Murdoch, the CEO of Fox Corp., hinted that things may change after the election, he remained confident in Fox’s position during a call with investors on Election Day.
“You would just have to plead to your fan base to stop watching Fox News and start watching your channel.”
“I would expect as we enter a more normal news cycle, which has to happen eventually, that appetite for news will shift,” Murdoch said. “We’ve seen this through 18 years … of different administrations and different political cycles, we’ve maintained our No. 1 position through all of that.”
On Thursday, at Fox Corp.’s annual shareholder meeting, Murdoch reiterated that Fox News had an incredible year, which he attributed to its “live news, analysis, and clear and strong opinion.”
However, there’s no question Fox News is facing a new reality. Right-wing media sites have proliferated under Trump — an unusual phenomenon in itself, since partisan media sources generally grow more when their side is not in the White House — and operations like One America News and Newsmax could stand to benefit if Trump decides to partner with them once he’s no longer president.
Newsmax — which maintains the election hasn’t been decided yet — has seen a ratings spike. Trump has retweeted comments from Twitter users who are saying they’re switching from Fox to Newsmax.
“If you look at the president’s tweets, he’s validating a lot of these sites that people maybe never heard of,” Polskin said. “All of a sudden these sites that were far- and to the right were becoming more mainstream in Washington. Trump gave OAN’s reporter a lot of credibility at press briefings.”
As Trump’s frustration with Fox News has grown, there has been renewed speculation that he may even start his own media network, an idea Trump has explored before.
Trump has a devoted fanbase and could exploit his donor list or cobble together a media conglomerate from the various small right-wing websites that already exist on their own, said Derek Baine, research director at Kagan media group.
“Newsmax and OAN are both tiny players, so the game plan would be to start attacking Fox News,” Baine said. “If you could even get 20 percent of the ad dollars that Fox News generates, that would be a huge win. You wouldn’t have to wipe them out, you would just have to plead to your fanbase to stop watching Fox News and start watching your channel.”
Trump’s relationship with Fox News and Rupert Murdoch, whose family controls its parent company, has changed significantly over the course of Trump’s presidency. Fox News and News Corp. declined comment to NBC News.
Murdoch and Trump had cultivated a close relationship that included weekly calls. But over the past several months, things have gotten rockier.
“Murdoch has a history of turning on conservative leaders that he thinks need to go — but this was the first time Murdoch turned against a Republican in the United States who is a sitting president,” said Matthew Sheffield, a former conservative activist.
“Rupert Murdoch has a history of turning on conservative leaders — but this is the first time Murdoch has turned against a Republican sitting president.”
Fox News’ steadfast commitment that Biden won Arizona, which infuriated Trump, highlighted the existing dichotomy between the network’s news-based content and its opinion-based programming.
On Monday, host Neil Cavuto even cut away from a Trump campaign news conference in which White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said that Democrats have been trying to keep people from observing ballot counting.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa. I just think we have to be very clear: She’s charging the other side as welcoming fraud and welcoming illegal voting,” Cavuto said. “Unless she has more details to back that up, I can’t in good countenance continue showing you this.”
The divergent messaging at Fox News is reminiscent of what’s unfolding within the broader Republican Party as both figure out their messaging in a post-Trump presidency, according to Sheffield.
“It’s a parallel tension between the Republican elite and the Republican base and then the Fox News newsroom and Fox News opinion shows,” he said. “Fox News is literally a microcosm of the Republican Party.”