Comment: Ratings, advertising are how to get Fox’s attention

Government shouldn’t try to rein in the network’s falsehoods; leave that to viewers and businesses.

By Margaret Sullivan / The Washington Post

I happened to be watching Fox News on election night when the network startled the political world by calling Arizona for Joe Biden.

It was a weird moment, without the fanfare that usually accompanied the announcement that a state was being put in one column or another. A few hours later, the Associated Press made the same call.

But many other news organizations, including the Washington Post, took days to reach that daring conclusion. For them, Arizona’s vote count simply remained far too close. Nate Silver, the data-oriented editor of fivethirtyeight.com, even argued that Fox News should rescind its call, that it was too early to make the prediction.

And Trumpworld was enraged. Losing the traditionally red state would make it that much harder to proclaim that the election was so close that it must in fact have been stolen by the Democrats. It would disrupt the Big Lie narrative. Former president Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, even called Fox honcho Rupert Murdoch to complain. But Fox News stood behind the call, which turned out to be correct.

But a lot has changed since then. Last week, two key members of Fox News’s decision desk abruptly departed the network. One was laid off, the other has retired, and some insiders are calling it a “purge.”

Apparently, at a network that specializes in spreading lies, there was a price to pay for getting it right. (“Fox News isn’t a newsgathering organization,” surmised press critic Eric Boehlert, arguing in response to the purge that its White House credentials should be revoked.)

In recent days, Fox has taken a sharp turn toward a more extreme approach as it confronts a post-Trump ratings dip; the result of some of its farthest-right viewers moving to outlets such as Newsmax and One America News and some middle-of-the-roaders apparently finding CNN or MSNBC more to their liking.

With profit as the one true religion at Fox, something had to change. Ninety-year-old Rupert Murdoch, according to a number of reports, has stepped in to call the shots directly. Most notably, the network has decided to add an hour of opinion programming to its prime-time offerings. The 7 p.m. hour will no longer be nominally news but straight-up outrage production.

Why? Because that’s where the ratings are.

And in a move that should be shocking but isn’t, one of those who will rotate through the tryouts for that coveted spot will be Maria Bartiromo, whose Trump sycophancy during the campaign may well have been unparalleled. She was among those (including Lou Dobbs and Jeanine Pirro) recently forced under threat of a lawsuit to air a video that debunked repeated false claims on her show that corrupt voting software had given millions of Trump votes to Biden.

At the same time, Sean Hannity, who likes to blast Biden as “cognitively struggling,” and Tucker Carlson, who tries to sow doubt about the prevalence of white supremacy, have become even more outlandish as they try to gin up anti-Biden rage within their audiences.

Even James Murdoch, while not naming names, blasted the harm that his family’s media empire has done. “The sacking of the Capitol is proof positive that what we thought was dangerous is indeed very much so,” he told the Financial Times. “Those outlets that propagate lies to their audience have unleashed insidious and uncontrollable forces that will be with us for years.”

But it’s his father and his brother, Lachlan, who run Fox, not James.

How to get the Fox News monster under control? I do not believe the government should have any role in regulating what can and can’t be said on the air, although I often hear that proposed. That would be a cure worse than the disease. But let’s not count on the hope that the Fox-controlling Murdochs will develop a conscience.

No, the only answer is to speak the language that the bigwigs at Fox will understand: Ratings. Advertising dollars. Profit.

Corporations that advertise on Fox News should walk away, and citizens who care about the truth should demand that they do so (in addition to trying to steer their friends and relatives away from the network).

Big companies would never do that, you say? Don’t be so sure.

The Washington Post reported last week that the 147 Republican lawmakers who opposed certification of the presidential election have lost the support of many of their largest corporate backers. General Electric, AT&T, Comcast, Honeywell, PricewaterhouseCoopers, KPMG and Verizon all said they would suspend donations to members of Congress who voted against certifying Joe Biden as president.

This shows, at the very least, that there is a growing understanding that lying to the public matters, that it’s harmful; or “insidious,” in the words of James Murdoch. And that some corporations don’t want to be a part of that.

When you think about Fox News’s role in the 400,000 lives lost to the pandemic and in the disastrous attack of Jan. 6, it’s even fair to call it deadly.

So if reality-based America wants to communicate clearly with Fox News leadership, they’ll have to do it in a language they understand. The language of money.

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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