Essential Politics: Fox News faces a high price for the Trump era’s final act

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This is the Feb. 10, 2021, edition of the Essential Politics newsletter. Like what you’re reading? Sign up to get it in your inbox three times a week.

Senators gathered yesterday in Washington to begin President Trump’s second impeachment trial.

On one side are House impeachment managers, who are pressing the Senate to hold Trump accountable for “the most grievous constitutional crime ever committed by a president.” On the other are Trump’s lawyers, who argued it was “unconstitutional” to try a former president, criticizing the proceedings as “political theater.”

By the end of the day, it was clear which side had presented the better argument, with even staunch Trump allies in the Senate hailing the presentation by House managers and expressing bewilderment at Trump’s arguments. Republican Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana told reporters that Trump’s lawyers had been “terrible.”

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“Why do you think Trump’s legal team did a terrible job?” a reporter asked after the session.

“Did you listen to it?” the senator replied.

Yet, despite the lopsided nature of the presentation, just six Republicans (including Cassidy) joined Democrats in a 56-44 vote to move forward with the trial, highlighting how the Republican Party, in particular, caters to an alternative reality crafted in part by powerful right-wing media outlets.

Much has been said about the fissures in the Republican Party. But, for years, right-wing media have worked to explain away the president’s falsehoods and actions and to heap blame on his political enemies. It was a long arc that began well before Kellyanne Conway in 2017 coined the phrase “alternative facts” in seeking to explain Trump’s misrepresentations about the size of his inauguration crowd.

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No network worked harder to promote Trump or his agenda than Fox News, and it was rewarded with record numbers of viewers. But the most radical elements of Trump’s base have become more vocal and further detached from reality, drawn to other right-wing outlets that have aggressively wooed the former president’s supporters by ditching any semblance of journalistic balance.

Now, Fox is caught in the middle of the war between Trump supporters and establishment Republicans over the future of the party. As evidenced by the way it covered the impeachment trial yesterday — with heavy commentary from conservative pundits critical of House managers, followed by more straightforward news coverage — it has found itself in an ever-constricting vice.

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The ratings drop

My colleague Stephen Battaglio has been closely covering the network and has noted that the Trump era was good for Fox News: five years of record ratings and profit. 2020 was its best year yet.

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But the network’s ratings also followed a particular trend, Battaglio writes: Viewers tuned out when Trump generated bad news.

Fox News was already struggling to hold on to Trump himself as a viewer. In the early weeks of the coronavirus pandemic, Trump began to grant news briefing time to the radical pro-Trump network One America News, whose reporters delivered more praise than questions, Eli Stokols wrote.

“He often gets upset with Fox when their coverage isn’t as positive as he thinks it should be,” an anonymous official told Stokols. “Pumping up OAN sends a message to Fox to stay in line.”

But it was hard to spin the last months of the Trump presidency as positive. The Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol by a pro-Trump mob was a low point.

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Early coverage aggressively covered the news, and hosts condemned the riot. But, later, opinion hosts Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham avoided placing any blame on Trump. Fox News sunk in the ratings.

Little more than a week later, the company announced a change to its lineup. The shakeup replaced a news program with more prime-time opinion content, and elevated news host Maria Bartiromo, one of the network’s biggest defenders of Trump’s false voter-fraud allegations.

A Fox News representative had previously stated the program changes were under discussion since the early fall and not in response to ratings. Still, as Battaglio writes, Fox has long sought a mix of coverage that requires careful calibration in courting Trump supporters without alienating less ideological voters. And that calculus has become harder.

Fox News executives said last month that most of its lost viewers had turned to CNN and MSNBC or tuned out completely. The network has also begun to see a small fraction of its viewers turn to Newsmax during a 7 p.m. Eastern slot occupied by opinion host Greg Kelly, who remains a rabid Trump defender.

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Fox drew just 2.3 million viewers for more straightforward inauguration coverage — last among the major networks. And while OAN and Newsmax, another aggressively pro-Trump cable network, didn’t draw close to the same numbers, they presented a different kind of coverage: Newsmax aired commentary critical of Biden and hopeful of a Trump comeback; OAN ran a recorded tribute to Trump.

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The conflicted post-election message

Fox News was the first network to put Biden in line for victory. At 11:20 p.m. Eastern time on election night, Arnon Mishkin, the Fox News decision desk chief, called Arizona and its 11 electoral votes for Biden.

Though AP agreed, other major networks would not call Arizona for another nine days. Mishkin was right, of course. Arizona did, indeed, go to Biden.

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What made the call unusual was that it conflicted with Fox’s image as a pro-Trump network. It came as a shock to some at the company, Arizona officials and to Trump himself, Battaglio wrote. Mishkin stood by his call, and the network stood by him.

But that changed after withering criticism by Trump and his supporters. Chris Stirewalt, a Fox News digital politics editor involved in the call, left the company as part of “restructuring.” Bill Sammon, a longtime Fox News executive who was also involved in the Arizona call, announced his retirement.

Battaglio reported that the news programming remained skeptical of emerging claims pushed by Trump and his allies of fraud. Meanwhile, its opinion hosts had free rein, becoming some of the loudest voices claiming a stolen election.

And news coverage on some programs began to shift, too. Host Bartiromo covered the claims extensively, airing interviews with Trump himself and attorneys Rudolph W. Giuliani and Sidney Powell, with little pushback as they rattled off disproven claims of fraud.

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Depending on who was speaking, the theoretical fraud took plenty of different forms. But key among the claims Bartiromo featured was the false notion that a voting technology company had manipulated the results.

The lawsuit

First came the unusual fact check, in December. Fox News aired a three-minute segment with a voting technology expert who debunked the claims about Smartmatic its hosts had been making.

The segment was reportedly in response to a letter Smartmatic and its attorneys sent threatening legal action.

But it wasn’t enough, and the lawsuit still came. On Feb. 4, Smartmatic filed a $2.7-billion defamation lawsuit against Fox and three of its on-air hosts — Bartiromo, Lou Dobbs and Jeanine Pirro — who presented the disinformation on their programs, plus Powell and Giuliani, who were frequent guests on Fox News programs.

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The company hit back with a motion to dismiss the suit, saying the claims were newsworthy and protected by the 1st Amendment. But internal decisions were also being made about how to move forward.

Battaglio broke the news that Fox canceled “Lou Dobbs Tonight” and Dobbs would “in all likelihood not appear on the company’s networks again.” People familiar with discussions told Battaglio that the decision to end Dobbs’ program was under consideration before the suit arose, though Dobbs was also among the most ardent supporters of the assertion of voter fraud in the 2020 election.

But the company isn’t moving too far from Trump. This week, the network said it had filled Dobbs’ slot on Fox Business with former Trump economic advisor Larry Kudlow.

Battaglio and other media watchers will be keeping a close eye on Fox over the next week as it covers the impeachment, walking that fine line between courting rabid Trump supporters while presenting the ugly truth about the Capitol siege.

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The latest on impeachment

The next step of the impeachment trial begins today. Jennifer Haberkorn has a recap of Tuesday’s proceedings. And going into the second day, House prosecutors are pledging a “devastating” case against Trump, write Sarah D. Wire and David Lauter.

Can they convict him? Is there precedent? Would Trump keep his presidential benefits? Wire and David G. Savage have the answers to your impeachment questions.

Lawyers for Trump argued the Constitution didn’t allow impeachment of former presidents, among other claims. But some of those arguments weren’t true.

Theater critic Charles McNulty offers an unconventional impeachment take: What “Hamlet” has to say about Trump’s trial.

The view from Washington

Ammon Bundy is best known as the leader of the 2016 occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. But Richard Read reports he has a new venture, a new right-wing movement seizing on backlash to coronavirus restrictions; experts say it has ties to the far right.

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As other Biden nominees cruise to confirmation, Evan Halper writes, Republicans are maneuvering to slow down the process for Xavier Becerra, Biden’s pick to helm the Department of Health and Human Services.

Biden ended the travel ban on Muslim-majority nations. But separated families remain in limbo, writes Sarah Parvini.

Georgia officials have launched an investigation into Trump’s telephone call to state Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger in which the then-president pressured the elections official to overturn the election results.

Jill Biden is pushing access to free community college and training programs, saying the schools will be an important part of the Biden administration’s efforts to rebuild the economy.

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From Chris Megerian: Biden’s push to reopen schools nationwide could become bogged down in California, where powerful unions are demanding teachers receive COVID-19 vaccinations before returning to the classroom.

The view from California

Biden wants 100% clean energy, and policymakers across the country are looking to California to show that it’s possible. But Sammy Roth reports that critics say a labyrinth of cautious regulators and bureaucratic silos are stifling badly needed clean-energy infrastructure.

The White House on Monday announced that Biden “clearly opposes” the ongoing recall effort against Gov. Gavin Newsom, adding to a growing chorus of Democrats voicing support for California’s governor, Phil Willon reports.

In an unprecedented move, Sacramento is on the verge of approving a plan that would make the city the first in California, and one of the first in the country, to end zoning that permits only one single-family home on a property, writes Liam Dillon.

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The movement to replace traditional district attorneys has gained momentum over the years, helping to propel George Gascón to power in L.A. County. But his immediate orders weren’t well received, as old-guard and reformer colleagues spar in a power struggle, write Anita Chabria and James Queally.

In California, the divisiveness over Trump is affecting holders of congressional, state and local offices. Mark Z. Barabak writes that the power of Republicans in City Hall is declining. Just ask California Reps. David Valadao and Mike Garcia — Melanie Mason reports the two Republicans took different approaches to Trump and still faced backlash.

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