You can tell another election is looming in the United States. It’s more than a year away and yet it feels like it’s looming. And the evidence for that is not just the number of obscure Democrats who have already declared they are running for president. The key evidence is the fixation on Fox News.
While the overall TV landscape seems to be shifting daily as media mergers and new streaming services change the dynamic, in the all-news arena, there are only three players and they have been dominating for years: Fox News, CNN and MSNBC.
As the whole world knows, Donald Trump adores Fox and Fox News adores him. Undermining Fox News is a priority for what passes as the left in the United States. And the undercutting of Fox News is well under way. To make sure Trump isn’t re-elected, Fox News must be shown to be less relevant, less powerful.
Two things have happened recently. First, a New Yorker exposé focused on the bizarre, incestuous relationship between the Trump White House and Fox. It went beneath the usual blather on the subject to allege, among other details, that the news channel had killed a story about a payoff to Stormy Daniels before the 2016 election. What the lengthy investigative piece makes clear is that the outright symbiosis between Fox News and the Trump circle, often treated as a joke, is a deeply sinister, unprecedented situation.
In the past few days, the second stab at subverting the power of Fox News happened.
The non-profit Media Matters for America, which has spent years attempting to correct conservative misinformation, and has a long-established relationship with the Democrats, published clips of radio interviews that Fox News host Tucker Carlson did between 2006 and 2011. In the clips, Carlson makes a string of misogynistic comments including a defence of Warren Jeffs of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, who is currently serving a life sentence in prison for child sexual assault.
The point is to portray Carlson as a Jekyll and Hyde figure, a man whose secret views on such issues as arranged marriages between adult men and girls marks him as perverted.
All of this would merely be a new addition to the scandalous recent history of Fox News – the firing of Bill O’Reilly after numerous allegations of sexual harassment and the ouster of Roger Ailes on similar misconduct charges – were it not for the stakes being high. The stakes are high because Fox News is vulnerable in the ratings.
Each of the three all-news outlets benefited from the so-called “Trump bump” during the 2016 election year. Fox benefited the most. In the election month of November, 2016, it had almost 70 per cent more viewers than in November of the previous year.
While it has long been clear that Fox shows often draw more viewers than competing coverage on CNN and MSNBC, what was crucial during 2016 and the early days of the Trump administration was that it actually had more than the other outlets combined.
Since then, Fox has, on occasion, had fewer viewers than CNN and MSNBC combined. And a pattern has emerged over the past two years. On MSNBC, Rachel Maddow would sometimes beat Sean Hannity on Fox in the ratings. Next, that became a regular occurrence. Then the combined ratings numbers for MSNBC and CNN were routinely more than Fox. What matters is the combined numbers.
Fox News may claim with its characteristic self-regard that its stars such as Carlson and Hannity have more viewers than CNN, but the bigger picture is far more significant. Especially if you are a partisan and want to get a message out. What matters is that Fox News is being isolated. Put the viewer numbers for both CNN and MSNBC together and that becomes a louder bullhorn than Fox News. What is happening is an attempt to liberate discourse from the grip of the Fox News behemoth.
There are all manner of minor skirmishes unfolding. Last week, before the Media Matters revelations, Carlson aimed insults at two CNN figures, calling Brian Stelter a "eunuch” and commentator Ana Navarro a "windbag.” And Fox News bosses rebuked host Jeanine Pirro – a Trump favourite – for Pirro’s suggestion that Muslim Congresswoman Ilhan Omar supported sharia law.
Also, the Democratic National Committee has decided not to hold 2020 presidential primary debates on Fox News. This has brought some backlash from individual Democrats who argue it's important for the candidates to share their views with the Fox audience.
Those dissenting individual Democrats don’t get it. There are powerful forces at work to curtail the influence of Fox News; by making revelations about Fox stars and spooking both viewers and advertisers. It’s not about Fox versus CNN. It’s not about CNN versus MSNBC. It’s about making sure that, from now until election day in 2020, Fox is less influential than the sum total of the influence of the other two.