Media critic

On his MSNBC program on Friday night, host Chris Hayes cast about for some way to describe the tweet that had landed Fox News host Laura Ingraham in trouble. “I just want to be clear: Ingraham’s tweet … was to me more petty than vile. I mean, just, like, what’s wrong with you? Like, grow up, right? But it wasn’t disgusting what she said to him,” Hayes said.

That’s about right. On March 28, Ingraham lashed out on Twitter against David Hogg, an outspoken survivor of the Parkland, Fla., massacre. As follows:

Disgusting, no; exceedingly dumb and nasty, yes; politically motivated, for sure. Since the Parkland massacre, Hogg and some of his schoolmates have advocated for greater gun restrictions, with passion and results that Ingraham and her fellow prime-timers at Fox News aren’t accustomed to seeing. Ingraham, meanwhile, staked out the opposite side of the issue, starting with her program on the night of the shooting, when she brought on an expert to discuss the weapon in question. “Let’s look at the AR-15, what makes it so popular and overwhelmingly what makes it so safe, and what it takes to get one,” Ingraham said. “I’ve fired it many times. My family owned a lot of guns. I shot guns since I was, I don’t know, six years old,” Ingraham said. “But it’s like all weapons. It’s very dangerous in the hands of the wrong person, and if you’re not trained and you have a criminal disposition, a violent disposition, it can be turned into a killing machine. But [Sen.] Chris Murphy [D-Conn.] wants to make this tonight all about the weapons.”

The Parkland students have been unimpressed with Ingraham’s childhood memories.

As the students organized protests and otherwise raised concerns in the media, gun-control opponents questioned their expertise and attempted to undermine their push for immediate action. It’s in that spirit that Ingraham lashed out against Hogg:

Whatever the contours of his college quest, Hogg demonstrated a graduate-level understanding of media politics:

That worked. Advertisers started peeling off of Ingraham’s show. She apologized in a double-tweet attempt to erase her poor judgment:

To the Erik Wemple Blog, Ingraham’s words came off as a strong and heartfelt apology. To Hogg, they did not.

Advertisers on “The Ingraham Angle” took note, pledging to pull away from the show. A few of the brand names to make statements: Bayer, Office Depot, Expedia, Wayfair, Liberty Mutual, Honda, Progressive. According to Angelo Carusone, the president and chief executive of Media Matters for America, the list represents about 20 percent of the show’s national advertiser base.

Fox News, however, has not bailed. Though Ingraham shipped out with her children for a week’s vacation, Fox News clarified on Monday that this was no Bill O’Reilly vacation. “We cannot and will not allow voices to be censored by agenda-driven intimidation efforts. We look forward to having Laura Ingraham back hosting her program next Monday when she returns from spring vacation with her children,” Fox News co-president Jack Abernethy said in a statement.

Step back and think about this sequence of events. A Fox News host publishes an un-disgusting tweet; she issues a solid apology; days later, the boss at Fox News is forced to issue a statement supporting her, just to keep the story from getting out of hand. “I think it’s dangerous to see these ad boycott attempts happening more and more often in this country,” CNN’s Brian Stelter said Sunday on his program “Reliable Source.” “My view is, let’s not shut down anyone’s right to speak. Let’s meet their comments with more speech.”

That’s a fine principle, though the advertisers in this case don’t appear to be cooperating. The decision by nearly 20 “Ingraham Angle” advertisers to skedaddle, moreover, cannot be explained by examining Ingraham’s actions alone. A single errant tweet — followed by an apology — cannot and does not account for why Ingraham is in a fight for her Fox News perch. The fuller story here is that the opinion hours at Fox News — especially the prime-time shows “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” “Hannity” and “The Ingraham Angle” — are among the most toxic zones in all of American television.

For this running liability, Fox News can thank … itself. It allowed Glenn Beck to spin his hatred and destructive meanderings until he faced an advertiser retreat that bounced him from the lineup. It allowed Bill O’Reilly to rack up settlement after settlement with accusers until it all spilled out in a New York Times investigative report that triggered an advertiser desertion. It allowed Sean Hannity to hatch his own version of the truth, which included a Seth Rich conspiracy theory that inspired a similar action. And so it now takes but the most minor kerfuffle to inspire skittishness among companies that do business in this space.

Media Matters played leadership roles in the Beck-O’Reilly-Hannity actions cited above, though it says it’s not “running” the effort against Ingraham’s show, according to a spokeswoman for the group. Carusone, the organization’s president, told the Erik Wemple Blog that after Hogg’s tweet, his organization received requests from activists and journalists for a list of Ingraham’s advertisers. If Media Matters was assisting folks behind the scenes, Carusone said, it made sense for the sake of transparency to publish the list on its site. It did so on March 29. So what’s the difference between publishing a list of advertisers and “running” the action? Big, Carusone said: “I have a fairly large amount of money that I keep sitting to the side that is reserved for advocacy campaigns.” The group uses that money to geo-target employees of key advertisers, appeal to shareholders and take other actions to defund Fox News.

Such measures aren’t afoot vis-a-vis Ingraham: “When we do these campaigns, they’re never based off of one incident or even two,” said Carusone, who is continuing the fight against “Hannity.” Mismanagement by Fox News itself, he said, gives momentum to collective efforts to peel away advertisers for hot-button shows. Time and again, the company has hunkered down — defense, defense, defense! — as opposed to offering up apologies and outlines for reforms. Advertisers notice. “If you are a company, and you know that the network isn’t going to run cover or do anything to neutralize the situation, you’re left out there with no cover,” Carusone said.

It’s all a question of constituencies. An Ingraham needn’t fear viewer desertion over a bad tweet any more than a Hannity needed to fear viewer desertion over his Seth Rich “reporting.” In the first quarter of this year, “Hannity” was the most-watched program in cable news. And consider all the idiocies that have piled up over the years on the set of “Fox & Friends”; its audience, from all appearances, loves that stuff.

Advertisers are a separate matter. They worry about their brand’s national image. As the Fox News prime-timers continue to strain decency in defense of President Trump, the dissonance with advertiser sensibilities is bound to surface again and again. In less than a decade, Carusone argued, Fox News will become barely recognizable. “They’ll go completely off the deep end or they’ll have to go more into real news, actual news,” he said. Another possibility: Fox News will continue dominating cable news, racking up controversies and so-called crises that bind its viewers ever more closely to the product.