Laura Ingraham will return to her show on Fox News on Monday night, unbowed after a spring break hiatus that some briefly speculated might be made permanent. Once there, Ingraham, one of the cable news giant’s sharpest tongues and biggest stars, will confront a continued advertiser boycott and simmering controversy that has plagued her since she mocked one of the teenage survivors of the Parkland, Fla., shooting in a scathing tweet.
In other words, the new normal at Fox News.
For all the drama surrounding her, Ingraham is being welcomed back with the full support of Rupert Murdoch, who personally urged Jack Abernethy, Fox News’s co-president, to stand behind her. The executive chairman of 21st Century Fox, busy entertaining the Saudi crown prince and recovering from a back injury at his estate in the Bel Air area of Los Angeles, hadn’t spoken to Ingraham directly at publication time. But Murdoch has put out word to his people that caving to politically tinged boycotts would be dangerous.
It’s a position he has had ample opportunity to consider: One of his other marquee stars, Sean Hannity, was subjected to three advertising defections in 2017. The expectation, inside and outside of Fox, is that more are likely to follow.
“Any business that doesn’t have a paywall is vulnerable to this on the left and the right, and everyone should be concerned,” said a Fox insider who was not authorized to speak about internal discussions.
Since its inception, Fox News has delivered a combination of outrage and fear with its slate of news and commentary popular with a conservative audience. Riling up viewers is one of the best ways to keep them tuning in, and it has bred a cadre of hosts whose rhetoric seems to escalate to grab the attention of an ever more jaded audience.
Hardly chastened by his recent controversies, Hannity stole the spotlight back from Ingraham last week by declaring war on ABC’s popular late-night host Jimmy Kimmel. Hannity — perhaps the media figure closest to President Trump — took offense to Kimmel mimicking first lady Melania Trump’s heavy accent and spent a good portion of one show calling the comedian “a sick, twisted, creepy, perverted weirdo.” The two men have since traded insults on Twitter, and and Hannity vowed to keep up the fight until Kimmel apologized, which he did Sunday afternoon. In a tweet, the comedian wrote: “I will take Sean Hannity at his word that he was genuinely offended by what I believed and still believe to be a harmless and silly aside referencing our First Lady’s accent. Mrs. Trump almost certainly has enough to worry about without being used as a prop to increase TV ratings.”
But Ingraham’s slap at David Hogg, the media-savvy 17-year-old who gained a national profile as a gun-control advocate after 14 classmates and three teachers were slain at his Parkland high school in February, tripped a wire that even the controversy-hardened Fox did not welcome. On March 28, Ingraham tweeted: “David Hogg Rejected By Four Colleges To Which He Applied and whines about it. (Dinged by UCLA with a 4.1 GPA . . . totally predictable given acceptance rates.)” That evening, Hogg tweeted a list of advertisers on Ingraham’s show, urging followers to contact them. Eighteen companies pulled ads in subsequent days.
According to research firm Kantar Media, the advertising time in Ingraham’s show in the two days after the tweet dropped by more than half. The situation risked snowballing into a full-blown scandal for Ingraham, who had started as a host in September.
Kantar data also showed that Hannity’s program consistently carries 15 to 20 percent less ad time than the rest of the prime-time lineup at Fox News, “a disparity that suggests some hesitation to be associated with his personal brand, and Ingraham is now lagging even that,” a spokesman for the firm said.
A person with knowledge of Fox News’s ad sales data disputed this, saying that some advertising breaks in Hannity’s show have been eliminated to keep viewers from changing channels. Hannity’s show goes head-to-head with MSNBC’s “The Rachel Maddow Show,” which is edging up on his ratings and narrowly beat him in the 9 p.m. slot during March.
Inside Fox News, eyes rolled at Ingraham’s comments. But the public response was, in the initial days, to do nothing.
Later, though, executives did their best to turn the debate away from Hogg and toward Media Matters, the liberal watchdog group that helped circulate Ingraham’s list of advertisers.
Ingraham apologized for her tweet “in the spirit of Holy Week”; Hogg didn’t accept the apology and advertisers kept leaving the show. Soon, there was a backlash to the backlash. In an April 2 statement, Abernethy, the Fox News co-president, declared that the network “cannot and will not allow voices to be censored by agenda-driven intimidation efforts,” and clarified that Ingraham would be back on-air after a vacation with her children. Deposed Fox News icon Bill O’Reilly chimed in with a tweet suggesting that the boycott was “not some spontaneous uprising” but “directed by powerful, shadowy radical groups who want Laura Ingraham off the air.”
And on his HBO show this weekend, left-leaning comic Bill Maher offered a different critique of the boycott, defending Ingraham’s comments on free-speech grounds.
Despite what many outsiders view as a monolith of Trumpism, inside the Fox News newsroom there is tension over the network’s future. Such tension always existed, but under the direction of Roger Ailes, personalities stayed in line. Since his forced resignation in the summer of 2016, divisions have risen to the surface. Anchor Shepard Smith has publicly tangled with Hannity, saying that some of the opinion programming that airs during prime time on Fox News exists “strictly to be entertaining,” with Hannity shooting back that Smith was “clueless about what we do every day.”
But certain kinds of scandals will send advertisers running to safer airwaves. And in the Ingraham-Hogg spat, some advertisers saw “the Fox business model on full display,” said Angelo Carusone of Media Matters, a frequent Fox adversary. The furor over Ingraham’s comments had less to do with gun politics than “the lack of boundaries and the total absence of accountability,” he said. Fox “didn’t come out of the gate and say that she was bad.”
While Ingraham apologized to Hogg, she made no such move with the Cleveland Cavaliers’ LeBron James, whom she told to “shut up and dribble” after the National Basketball Association superstar publicly criticized the president. Although James never called for a boycott, a few shudders were felt through the larger Fox organization. One of Fox’s wildly profitable regional sports networks — which Fox Sports executives joke should be called ATMs instead of RSNs — has a long-term deal to televise Cavaliers games. Those regional networks are one of the key elements in 21st Century Fox’s proposed merger with Disney, because of their value to Disney’s ESPN. Criticizing a star such as James carries the risk of alienating his fans and, in turn, could depress ratings for a different part of the Fox empire.
Advertisers often return to shows they pull their ads from, after the initial firestorm has died down, said the person familiar with Fox’s advertising sales and strategy, who was granted anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. “It seems like it is blowing over,” this person said, noting that Fox News was prepared for advertisers to stay out for several weeks. Most of those advertisers had simply moved their ads to a different prime-time program. “Every client has a different temperature.”
Mike Lindell, chief executive of MyPillow and a vocal Trump supporter, tweeted his enthusiastic support for Ingraham’s show. “MyPillow has no plans to change its advertising,” he said in an email to The Washington Post.