President Trump gestures to moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News during the first presidential debate in Cleveland on Sept. 29. (Olivier Douliery / Associated Press file photo)

President Trump gestures to moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News during the first presidential debate in Cleveland on Sept. 29. (Olivier Douliery / Associated Press file photo)

Comment: How Fox News can stay relevant in post-Trump era

It doesn’t have to lean left but it can recommit itself to news coverage and sticking to the facts.

By Margaret Sullivan / The Washington Post

For a long time, Fox News has ruled the cable-news roost. With its rabidly right-wing prime-time hosts and news shows that too often gave a showcase to crackpot ideas, it had a formula that worked beautifully; for ratings, and profits, if not for democracy.

Quite simply, it dominated. And it has been hugely influential in American politics, giving an essential boost to Donald Trump as birtherism conspiracy theorist, then fueling his presidential bid, and finally serving as perhaps his most dependable — and certainly loudest — megaphone throughout his presidency.

But now, with the political tectonic plates shifting, Fox is feeling some new pressure.

On the right, upstart outlets like Newsmax and One America News are pushing hard, ready to disregard truth entirely, as they promote Trump’s cynical lie that he won a second term. And from the left, CNN has made significant ratings gains in recent weeks, particularly in the coveted 25-to-54 age group.

It would be silly to say that Fox News, which makes nearly $2 billion a year, is in trouble. After all, revenue was up $40 million in its first fiscal quarter this year. But its leadership has to be looking over its shoulder. Both shoulders in fact, right and left.

What’s the cable giant to do? Here’s one notion, crazy as it may sound:

Yes, keep appealing to a right-leaning audience; but commit to doing it within the realm of the truth.

That would mean, for instance, no more unchallenged and lie-laden interviews with the likes of Maria Bartiromo, whom Trump phoned up on Sunday to talk on air for 45 minutes about the supposedly rigged election. The opinionated financial-news host did nothing to challenge Trump’s baseless claims of voter fraud in key states; she even chimed in with her evidence-free criticism: “This is disgusting! And we cannot allow America’s election to be corrupted. We cannot.”

No more of the kind of bogus reporting that resulted in the network’s settlement last week with the parents of Seth Rich. The couple sued the network for emotional distress over a false story that Fox promoted on the air for almost a week about the 2016 death of their son, a Democratic National Committee staffer.

And no more of unchallenged parroting of falsehoods, like Trump’s downplaying of the coronavirus threat that very likely cost American lives.

In recent weeks, Fox News has shown that it knows how to hew to the truth, even within the context of its right-leaning ways.

On election night, for example, its well-respected decision desk made a gutsy, early call that turned out to have an outsize influence. It said that Trump’s challenger, former vice president Joe Biden, had won Arizona, thus flipping a red state to blue.

Fox brass stood firmly behind the call, despite enraged entreaties from the Trump camp. That made a difference, as data analyst Nate Silver observed, “a check against claims Trump might make that he’s winning.”

And in the days and weeks after Biden won, Fox’s use of the term “president-elect” has surely made a difference in Americans’ acceptance of reality.

Fox could commit to this better course by beefing up its reporting ranks, as Rupert Murdoch pledged to do in 2016 when he foresaw Hillary Clinton as the likely next president, according to CNN’s Brian Stelter, whose 2020 book, “Hoax: Donald Trump, Fox News, and the Dangerous Distortion of Truth,” explores the network’s history and influence.

“Murdoch talked a big game about strengthening Fox’s news division,” Stelter told me “But he failed to follow through. In fact, what happened was the opposite. Trump won. Which meant that Fox’s opinion side prevailed, and “the news side was suffocated.”

Now, though, the tables have turned again. And there’s another chance for reinvention.

Stelter thinks it could be a risky strategy to go heavy with news, given how radicalized the Fox viewership has become: “I fear that the audience would reject the improvements.”

When I’ve criticized Fox News in the past, I sometimes hear from readers who say they appreciate the network because it diverges from what they consider “groupthink” in the rest of the media. And what’s the difference, after all, between the left-leaning MSNBC and CNN, and Fox’s rightward bias?

The difference is pretty simple. Those networks — and many others in the nonconservative media sphere, such as NPR or the New York Times, for instance — certainly have their worldviews. But they also adhere to basic journalistic practices. They have formal standards departments that cover both news and opinion offerings, where editors (and sometimes lawyers) review material for factuality. They publicly correct their errors.

Far too often, Fox News strays far afield from such basic practices. And that’s been a deeply corrupting influence on our culture and our politics. Now, things are changing and there’s a chance for improvement.

So go ahead and lean right, Fox News. But do it with an emphasis on reporting and strictly within the realm of truth.

Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist. Previously, she was the New York Times public editor, and the chief editor of the Buffalo News, her hometown paper.

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