Rupert Murdoch has a headache. It’s called Fox News Channel.
Only a few weeks ago, the co-founder and chairman of Fox was presiding over a TV juggernaut. With a new, Fox-friendly president in office, the network recorded the highest viewing totals in its 21-year history — a strong indication that Fox was resilient enough to shake off the sexual-harassment scandal that forced out its other co-founder, the late Roger Ailes, last year and the subsequent departure of prime-time star Megyn Kelly in January.
But that was then.
Ever since, the most profitable and influential piece of Murdoch’s globe-spanning media empire has been billowing smoke. Murdoch dismissed Bill O’Reilly, the network’s top attraction, in April amid another sexual-harassment scandal. Then he cashiered Fox’s co-president, Bill Shine, who was accused of enabling Ailes.
For the past 10 days, as bombshells and bad news swirled around President Trump, Fox has all but sidestepped the story, prompting some of its viewers to head elsewhere (the top reference to the story on FoxNews.com’s homepage Wednesday afternoon: “Does it matter? No evidence of Trump ‘collusion’ with Russia as media shift focus”). Result: A resurgent MSNBC took the top spot in the news ratings for the first time in its nearly 21-year history last week. Fox finished a shocking third behind MSNBC and CNN among younger viewers.
On Tuesday, there was a new mess for Murdoch: Amid an outcry and threats of a lawsuit, Fox took the rare step of retracting one of its stories — a baseless report alleging that Seth Rich, a young Democratic National Committee staffer, was murdered last year in a conspiracy tied to the leak of DNC emails. The retraction put Fox at odds with its signature personality, Sean Hannity, who has pushed the discredited story on his prime-time program and has refused to admit error.
Hannity now faces an advertiser boycott — the kind that helped sink O’Reilly — as Wednesday afternoon, three sponsors said they had pulled their ads from his show.
The accumulating chaos leaves Murdoch, 86, with perhaps his biggest management challenge since the network’s inception. The media mogul took over Fox after he booted Ailes last year at the urging of his sons, James and Lachlan, who run Fox’s parent company, 21st Century Fox.
Murdoch has said little as Fox’s problems have unfolded. In the meantime, Fox’s rivals have been all too eager to highlight the network’s issues.
People at CNN and MNBC say Fox has hurt itself by not covering allegations of Russian involvement in Trump’s campaign and administration more aggressively, especially during the prime-time opinion programs that attract its largest audiences. That has left a big opening for, among others, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, whose program briefly was the top-rated on cable news last week.
“There’s an absolute disconnect” on the Russia story, said one cable-news manager about Fox. “They have an alternate reality going on over there and it’s hurting them. They seem to be trying their damndest not to face reality.”
Ongoing coverage of the president’s overseas visit and the suicide bombing in Manchester, England, may have given Fox a temporary reprieve, restoring the familiar cable order among viewers. But once the intensity of that story fades, Fox will be left with the same problem: How, or even whether, to cover the bad news surrounding a president whom many Fox viewers support.
A senior manager of another news network, also speaking on background to offer a frank assessment, quickly ticks off a list of 10 bullet points about what he believes ails Fox. Point No. 2: “They have no one with a vision to lead them, so their story selection is off.”
The split between Hannity and Fox’s news managers could be the most damaging, he said, as it could lead eventually to Hannity’s departure (Hannity is under contract until 2020). He speculates that Hannity could end up with personalities like O’Reilly and Glenn Beck on a rival conservative news channel, perhaps one started by Sinclair Broadcast Group, the fast-growing Baltimore-area TV company. “The one thing that [Fox has] going for them right now is that their current audience has no alternative,” he said.
Hannity said on Tuesday that he wouldn’t discuss the Seth Rich matter further “out of respect” for the family, which has strongly condemned his comments and Fox’s reporting.
A Fox News spokeswoman, Carly Shanahan, said ratings are “cyclical.” She said Fox still has higher ratings than its competition as measured over a full month.
Jeffrey McCall, a DePauw University professor who studies the news media, says Fox “needs to get itself out of the news. Being the subject of constant news stories rhetorically signals that there is more commotion going on in the organization than might really be happening.”
But he notes, “The handling of Hannity’s coverage of the Seth Rich story suggests that [Fox] is not managing its internal affairs effectively. . . . The messy handling suggests Fox’s brass is not on the same page with its longest running, most visible commentator.”
McCall expects Fox’s core audience older viewers to remain loyal, although not at the levels during the first three months of the year.
“If there are more personnel moves to be made,” he said, “they need to make them right away and then let the organization get back to its main function of providing news and analysis for people who are skeptical of traditional outlets.”