The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The marketplace for fantasy is reshaping conservative media, just like it reshaped conservative politics

President Trump gestures to moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News during the first presidential debate on Sept. 29 in Cleveland. (Olivier Douliery/Pool photo AFP via AP)

With the clarity of retrospect, one can see how Fox News got into its current predicament. For the duration of President Trump’s time in office — and, of course, well before that — the network tried to find a middle ground between establishment Republican reality and the virulent right-wing rhetoric bubbling on social media and in conservative blogs. It’s a somewhat tricky dance, but it’s generally feasible. There’s usually enough gray area around reality to both cover what happened with one eyebrow raised and to allow the audience-generating “opinion” folks in the evenings to run without leashes. There’s usually a way to provide something palatable to both those who want actual news presented through a conservative lens and those who simply want politics-based soap operas offered with a veneer of authenticity.

This has been the central trade-off for everyone in Trump’s orbit since he took office. Republican elected officials were the first to have to figure out how to operate in rapidly narrowing center slice of this Venn diagram, with some simply opting for one world (Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah) or the other (Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas). Government officials were forced into a similar space, with many deciding the door was more appealing than the dark. Fox News and other non-fringe media outlets generally tried to maximize their audiences by figuring out how the tightrope worked.

That Trump was president at all, though, showed there was a way to be successful while living in the surreal world of fantasy and falsehood and maintain diplomatic relationships with reality. Trump vaulted to the lead in the Republican primaries in 2016 because he was willing to echo far-right rhetoric on terrorism and immigration that had a known audience but which was anathema to establishment Republicans. Eventually, mainstream Republicans got on board and he won enough votes to be elected president. He was himself a demonstration that — academic questions about whether one should simply lie all the time aside — the surreal world offered more than enough political and financial resources to thrive.

But Fox News wasn’t making that bet. There were enough people at the network committed to preserving its role as a legitimate news entity that, while there was an obvious shift toward Trumpworld after January 2017, it still had objective polling and generally covered actual news. Again, plopping events into the murk of subjectivity allowed them to have their cake and eat it, too.

Then Trump lost his reelection bid, as any objective assessment of the situation made clear. By Nov. 7, Fox News called the race for President-elect Joe Biden. While it provided a Galactic-Senate-chamber number of platforms for Trump allies to make unfounded allegations about fraud in the election, the network’s position didn’t change: Trump lost. It was a hard reality that couldn’t be ignored.

At least not if one wanted to preserve a sense that one dwelled in the real world.

Over the past few years, Fox News has had two challengers nipping at its heels: One America News and Newsmax. The former is a pro-Trump video channel offered with a cable-news-like aesthetic. The latter is an outgrowth of a right-wing website that similarly couches fervently pro-Trump coverage within a newsy package. Each made a deliberate calculation last month: It was more useful to deny Trump’s loss than to accept it. So viewers of either channel are repeatedly told the settled issue is not settled and Trump’s baseless and debunked claims about fraud are substantial and awaiting a court’s verdict.

Trump noticed this and began hyping the Fox alternatives to his millions of Twitter followers. His followers listened, with Newsmax and OAN gaining viewers at Fox News’s expense, according to a recent poll. On Monday, something once unthinkable happened: Newsmax’s 7 p.m. program with anchor Greg Kelly got more viewers in the key marketing demographic than Fox News’s show in the same time slot.

Cable news ratings have been an obsession of Trump’s for years, including while he’s been president. He has tweeted about ratings more than 140 times as president, often to hail how well Fox News was doing against CNN or MSNBC, its hated rivals. He used ratings variations as a cudgel, demanding Fox News show more fealty to his worldview or pay the consequences.

“Don’t know why [Fox News] wants to be more like” its competitors, he tweeted last December. “They’ll all die together as other outlets take their place. Only pro Trump Fox shows do well. Rest are nothing. How’s Shep doing?” — a reference to Shepard Smith, one of Fox News’s few obviously objective anchors who eventually left the network.

At the time, this seemed like little more than an effort to cow Fox News into being even more obsequious. But there’s an obvious kernel of truth to what Trump was arguing: Fealty to Trump at the expense of objectivity and truth is, in fact, one strategy for success. It made Trump himself successful, after all, along with Fox opinion hosts who, for months on end, were dominating their rivals.

The possible fragmentation of the conservative cable-news market poses an interesting problem for Fox News. Its long-standing lead in the ratings was in large part a function of Republican viewers remaining loyal to its coverage. More than half of Republicans have repeatedly said they trusted Fox more than other news or commentary sources in polling from Suffolk University, while Democratic and independent viewers split their attention among a number of outlets. Fox succeeded, in part, because it had a monopoly on mainstream conservative programming. If that splinters, Fox stands to lose its dominant position. CNN’s Don Lemon beat every one of Fox News’s shows on Monday night, a preview of what’s to come should conservative viewers continue to divvy up their viewing.

That’s not a certainty, of course. One can vacuum up viewers by telling them what they want to hear, clearly, but that doesn’t make a business successful. Are advertisers going to want to invest in a network that spreads conspiracy theories and debunked claims with the wantonness of OAN? Will OAN and Newsmax try to moderate their choir-preaching to expand their audiences and appeal to people beyond die-hards like My Pillow?

Trump doesn’t really care about any of this, of course. He cares about promoting his worldview and rhetoric without a filter and leveraging misinformation to his benefit. He doesn’t care if there’s a bizarre cult of people who believe that prominent people are involved in child-sex trafficking, as long as they support him personally. What matters is Trump, followed by what Trump wants, followed, as needed, by reality.

But this is a problem. It is a problem that Fox News viewers are abandoning the network for a ship unmoored to reality. It is a problem that, as a result, Fox News seems to be moving more in that direction, including by expanding the footprint of its opinion hosts like Tucker Carlson. Carlson last month told his audience that his “reporting and analysis” would soon more fully permeate the network, a prediction that seems to be coming to fruition.

It is a problem that surreality is being presented as a valid contrast to reality, including by the president of the United States. On Wednesday morning, Trump complained about news coverage of the Supreme Court declining to throw out the results of the vote in Pennsylvania.

“How can you have a presidency when a vast majority think the election was RIGGED?” Trump asked on Twitter.

It’s a good question and one that doesn’t depend on the fact that there is no credible evidence at all that the election was rigged in any substantive way. How can you have a presidency — a country — when a large part of the population (though hardly the “vast majority”) declines to accept obvious realities? When media outlets leverage the desire for nonsense by elevating more nonsense? When there are robust market forces pushing money and votes and attention away from what’s objectively happening?

I guess we’ll see.