Now that a Democrat is preparing to enter the White House, it may be tempting to ask whether Fox News is vulnerable. But Northeastern journalism professors argue that the election of Joe Biden is unlikely to undermine support for the conservative news network.
“Fox News is going to be just fine,” says Meg Heckman, an assistant professor of journalism at Northeastern. “In some ways, they may do better now as the perceived voice of the opposition.”
The resilience of Fox News was affirmed shortly before the election when a former senior producer of the network met off-the-record with students of Politics and Media 2020, a course taught by Jonathan Kaufman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, and Dan Lothian, a former White House correspondent at CNN.
“The students asked him, ‘Do you hope that Trump wins or loses from a marketing point of view?’” says Kaufman, professor and director of Northeastern’s School of Journalism. “And he said history will tell you that ratings of Fox are always better when they’re in opposition—that their readers, their listenership, and their viewership increase in intensity and in numbers.
“Fox News made its reputation as being the outsider, speaking for people who had no voice,” Kaufman says. “So if you have a Democratic administration pushing Democratic policies, that’s going to fire up Fox viewers even more. Losing the White House can be good for Fox News, because now they can constantly be angry with what’s going on in Washington.”
And yet the landscape of conservative media is still adapting to an influx of millions of Trump supporters who weren’t necessarily voting for Republicans before 2016. Where they will turn for their news has yet to be determined.
Newsmax, under the leadership of Trump confidante Christopher Ruddy, has not acknowledged Biden’s victory and has seen a ratings surge in recent weeks. But Heckman isn’t certain the upstart conservative networks will be able to maintain their newfound prominence once Biden moves into the White House.
“It’s going to be a while before we figure that out,” Heckman says. “I think we’re going to see a realignment of factions within the conservative movement.”
A contractual relationship between Trump and Fox News could be mutually beneficial, notes Kaufman. Trump could demand a high salary from Fox while trying to maintain control of the Republican Party for another presidential run in 2024, enabling the network to hold onto Trump’s large audience.
On the other hand, adds Kaufman, Trump may have outlived his usefulness to the conservative movement and Rupert Murdoch, the longtime ruler of Fox News. Its decision on election night to declare a Biden victory in Arizona—with just 73 percent of the results in—incited anger from Trump.
“There is a feeling that Trump gave conservatives everything they wanted—huge profits, tax cuts, conservative judges—so that he may have reached the sell-by date at this point,” Kaufman says. “It wouldn’t surprise me to see conservatives looking around to anoint the next person who will be able to carry their fight forward. Trump may be pricing himself out of the market and moving too far to the right in a way that makes places like Fox begin to think he’s a bit of a liability.”
Fox News has a formula that enables it to reach a wide audience. Though far-right pundits like Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, and Laura Ingraham appear to embody the culture of Fox News, Kaufman notes that the 24-hour network also produces objective reporting.
“We divide our students into teams to watch different stations, and the folks who watch Fox News always come back impressed,” Kaufman says. “They expect it to be a mouthpiece for the Republicans, and they end up finding it to be very thoughtful.”
Trump’s baseless claims that the election was rigged and he should remain in power have been dismissed by Fox News for the most part, adds Kaufman.
“Obviously, the commentary side of Fox News has been much more pro-Trump,” says Kaufman, author of The Last Kings of Shanghai: The Rival Jewish Dynasties That Helped Create Modern China. “The news side, from election night onward, has done a pretty good job of saying there’s no evidence that Biden isn’t the winner. They’ve played it relatively straight.”
Heckman, like Kaufman, takes the long view. Her recent biography, Political Godmother: Nackey Scripps Loeb and the Newspaper That Shook the Republican Party, tells a story about the conservative media that helped spawn Fox News and other such outlets.
“The appetite for conservative media predated Trump and Trumpism, and it will continue long after,” Heckman says.