What members of the Trumpist base may not realize is that they’re retreating not just from a news source where unfriendly information seeps in from time to time, but also from the profound political influence that Fox News wields. And it’s something the newly popular far-right outlets very likely can’t duplicate.
It does appear that there’s serious dissatisfaction with Fox News among the GOP base. According to a Morning Consult poll, Fox News’s approval rating among Republicans has dropped significantly since the Nov. 3 election; almost as many Republicans now say they have a very unfavorable view of the network as say they have a very favorable view of it.
This started in earnest when Fox News’s decision desk called Arizona for Democratic nominee Joe Biden on election night, which reportedly enraged President Trump. In the days since, he has repeatedly attacked the network on Twitter.
And Trump loyalists do appear to be looking for an alternative. Many seem to be heading to Newsmax, which used to be a network characterized by cheap production values and elaborate conspiracy theories, but is now characterized by cheap production values, elaborate conspiracy theories — and rapidly growing ratings.
Others seem to be gravitating to One America News, the even nuttier cable news alternative that has long been a Trump favorite. Meanwhile, some Trumpists fed up with Twitter — another of Trump’s targets — have been decamping for Parler, where right-wingers are free to say almost anything they please without moderation.
I’m sure that it feels safe and secure inside these forums, where the ideological spectrum runs from very conservative to disturbingly conservative. We’re all more comfortable hearing things we agree with, after all.
But as a political project, they’re limited in one important way.
Let’s review a bit of history. While Trump may have whined more about the media being unfair to him than any president in history, conservative complaints about the media really got going decades ago. “The News Twisters,” the first book-length polemic against the supposed liberal bias of the mainstream media, was first published in 1971.
Before long, the notion that the media is biased against conservative politicians and ideas became integrated into the political worldview of just about every Republican. In response, they began founding their own newspapers and magazines, and conservative talk radio flourished. Then, in 1996, Rupert Murdoch hired Republican political operative Roger Ailes to create Fox News.
What’s critical about all these efforts — especially Fox — is that they weren’t just supposed to be an alternative to mainstream media. Yes, Fox News wanted you to turn off CBS News and turn them on, and the Washington Times hoped you’d cancel your Post subscription and read them instead.
But these outlets were in an ongoing interaction with the mainstream media, one whose goal was to influence what that media produced.
That’s why the shortcomings of the news media were such a constant topic of discussion in conservative media. It wasn’t just to inflame their own audiences, it was a political project aimed at “working the refs” — keeping journalists under pressure to alter what they reported and how they reported on it to make the news more friendly to the right.
While it’s an unending battle, working the refs works. Conservatives are very good at raising a stink, and news organizations often respond by changing their coverage. But it only works if those in the mainstream are aware of what’s being said on the right. You can’t pressure someone who is barely aware you exist.
Which is part of the power of Fox News: It’s watched by most Republicans in official Washington, and what happens there is injected into the mainstream conversation. The same congressman who watches Fox News in his office later goes on ABC News and repeats what he heard.
Just to be clear, there are plenty of ludicrous lies and insane conspiracy theories that Fox News spews out on a daily basis. But it remains tethered to, and in conversation with, the mainstream. That’s where its power comes from.
Could Newsmax or One America News do the same thing? It’s theoretically possible, but right now they’re still rinky-dink operations with zero credibility. The only time just about any real journalist pays attention to what goes on at either outlet is to watch a clip shared on social media and say, “My god, look at how crazy this is.”
Parler is an even starker example. Just about every journalist uses Twitter; it’s also where you can yell at us and call us names. But a closed system like Parler can’t influence the mainstream media, because no one in the media knows or cares what goes on there.
I’m sure Fox News will weather this time of uncertainty; once Biden becomes president, the network will be back in its comfort zone, shaking its fist at Democrats with power. The Trump devotees who chant “Fox News sucks!” at protests will likely come back to watch Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity totally own the libs every night.
Meanwhile, these extra-extreme news outlets will continue to exist, and those with a real desire to dive down the rabbit hole of right-wing lunacy will keep patronizing them. But they won’t be able to affect how the mainstream media operate.