SAM SANDERS, HOST:
Hey, y'all. From NPR, you're listening to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE. I'm Sam Sanders. This episode, cable news after President Trump.
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SANDERS: So it's quite possible that Donald Trump, as we know him, would not exist without Fox News. Several years ago, Fox News was the place Trump repeatedly went to stir up the conspiracy theory that would really put him on the political map - birtherism.
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GRETCHEN CARLSON: Do you think he was born in this country?
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I am really concerned.
SANDERS: After that, Fox News was basically Trump's partner as he careened towards the presidency. During the 2016 campaign season, he'd often just call up Fox News anchors on air to chat.
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STEVE DOOCY: Donald Trump is actually joining us on the phone right now. Mr. Trump, good morning to you.
TRUMP: Good morning.
SANDERS: Fox anchors and commentators became some of his biggest supporters and most trusted allies.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TUCKER CARLSON TONIGHT")
TUCKER CARLSON: Millions of Americans sincerely love Donald Trump. They love him in spite of everything they've heard. They love him often in spite of himself. They're not deluded. They know exactly who Trump is. They love him anyway.
SANDERS: And this relationship - it has been very good for Fox News' bottom line. In 2020, Fox News was the most watched cable news network for the fifth year in a row. But since election night 2020, CNN has been beating Fox in the ratings.
Why does this actually matter? Only a fraction of America actually watches cable news on a regular basis. But all of Capitol Hill does, and cable news drives our politics and our politicians' most strident supporters. Since election night 2020, Donald Trump has been in a very public feud with Fox News.
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ARNON MISHKIN: The Fox News Decision Desk is calling Arizona for Joe Biden.
SANDERS: Fox News would eventually call the election for Joe Biden...
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MARTHA MACCALLUM: Donald Trump, the 45th president of the United States, will be denied a second term. That has not happened since 1992.
SANDERS: ...Which also annoyed the president. So in recent weeks, Donald Trump has been telling his supporters to turn off Fox News. And where those supporters are going, these are places you probably hadn't heard of a few years ago - Newsmax...
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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Well, we are now going from a strong leader to a weak one, and it makes me sad, and sometimes it even makes me laugh. But today, old Joe is getting his second vaccine.
SANDERS: ...And the One America News Network.
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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: It's becoming glaringly apparent that Donald Trump absolutely crushed Joe Biden in the election.
SANDERS: This all puts Fox in a very tight spot.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: I think Fox is feeling kind of a pincer movement a bit.
SANDERS: That is NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik. He literally wrote a book about Fox News, and he covers media for NPR. And today, David's going to talk me through Fox News' existential crisis.
FOLKENFLIK: They're trying to maintain credibility in the conservative world. And the most rabid conservatives, the most loyal ones are those who are outraged that Republican lawmakers and that voices on Fox are in any way seeming to give legitimacy to Joe Biden.
SANDERS: Today, David tells me how Fox got in this predicament and how they might get out of it. He also has some big-picture reflections on the state of all cable news as the Trump show maybe comes to an end. All right, let's get to it - cable news and David Folkenflik.
FOLKENFLIK: Fox is facing some challenges. You've seen MSNBC and CNN do certainly well in recent days and even since the election. But you've also seen Newsmax, which is a much, much smaller outfit, start to get some traction for its personalities and audiences, fueled in part by people like President Trump saying, Fox is disappointing me with all this reporting stuff...
FOLKENFLIK: ...So let's go to other places where we can do it. So Fox even removed its 7 p.m. show, which was given by Martha MacCallum, a news anchor, not an opinion host, although I'd say she was sort of - shows sympathy and consideration to the president beyond what the facts might suggest, and they moved her to the - more of an exile timewise to mid-afternoon. And so, you know, all they've done is they basically said, we're going to give yet another hour in the evening, when we have larger audiences, to opinion hosts.
SANDERS: To opinions, yeah.
FOLKENFLIK: And it's hard to imagine that's going to be a contrary opinion host.
SANDERS: Yeah. They see that the opinion resonates more, you know? But it's - if Fox News is in this pickle, trying to figure out whether they're opinion or whether they're fact-based news, what kind of spot does that put them in compared to some of the other conservative news upstarts? I'm talking about Newsmax. I'm talking about OANN. What is it? O-A-N-N - One America News Network. Like, those two platforms - it seems as if they have less of that double-pressure. I think a lot of folks hearing this episode may not really know about OAN or Newsmax yet.
SANDERS: Tell folks who they are.
FOLKENFLIK: So let's walk through that. Newsmax is an online conservative outlet that aggregates opinions, has some reporting, a lot of it sort of rewritten from other sources. And Newsmax, a few years back, several years back, created a TV presence. It's been a money-losing venture, but it's been gaining some steam in the Trump years, access to some Trump people. And I got to tell you, in recent months, as Trump has been banging against Fox's news side and anyone who really expresses any degree of acknowledgement of the fact that Biden won freely and that, you know, his election should be certified and he should take office, Newsmax has made gains.
FOLKENFLIK: Now, they're still a much smaller operation than Fox, but they can cause Fox pain.
SANDERS: Now, what about the One America News Network? So, like, they - I don't really know what they are.
FOLKENFLIK: I mean, they are a fantastic repository and circulator of off-the-wall conspiracy theories.
FOLKENFLIK: They justify pretty much any indulgence that Trump wants to any allegation he wants. They went in deep on Biden and Ukraine in ways that even after official government reports and investigations came out not finding it, you know, they kept going back to Rudy Giuliani, allowing him to make claims that appear, at least in part, to be based on information and material provided by a guy that Trump's own Treasury Department have said is essentially Russian operatives. These guys are very much - it's not like they've doubled down. They have bet the house on the idea that whatever helps Trump in the moment, however wild the conspiracy theory is, if there's something for them to spin as a tale, they'll do it.
SANDERS: OK. So then if there are these upstarts challenging Fox from the far-right, Newsmax and One America News - and Fox News is now kind of losing compared to outlets like CNN. You know, CNN has been the most watched cable news network since the day after the election, and they're just beating Fox right now. How bad of a predicament is Fox News in? They're being attacked from both sides, and they are kind of losing on both fronts?
FOLKENFLIK: I mean, from my standpoint, I would say that Fox, on the one hand, is crazily profitable, and they've got an incredible brand and loyalty among a lot of viewers. But it's bumpy right now. And I'd also say that it's somewhat - it appears to be somewhat rudderless.
SANDERS: Like - so like no one's in charge.
FOLKENFLIK: I mean, there are people in charge. Suzanne Scott, a longtime Fox executive, is the head of Fox News Media, which incorporates Fox Business News and Network and other affiliated platforms. But you're not hearing them set parameters. It's not that you want them to dictate what people say, but you'd think that they would say, hey, look; folks, we need to honor throughout our news and opinions that Biden has won this.
You're not seeing any sort of command response say, this is a time of national crisis. Both the challenge to the election was a national crisis, and last week during the assault on the Capitol - that is a moment of national crisis.
FOLKENFLIK: And you saw Fox basically cut away from a lot of the impeachment debate. Instead, you saw them spend an extraordinary amount of time about social media deplatforming of President Trump and his associated supporters and treating that as though that is a crisis.
Now, I actually think there's some interesting free speech implications to that, but I don't think that's more important than an entire insurrection against the seat of the legislative branch of federal government. And although there are people reporting on that for FOX, that is not what you would take away from their coverage.
SANDERS: Coming up, the evolution of Fox News.
I'm thinking back to when I first discovered Fox News. I was, like, a high school junior. And I had not been into the news at all before, but this story of Elian Gonzalez broke, and there was like a saga. And I remember turning on my TV to watch and see what was going on, and the first news channel that I got to was Fox News. So I began to watch Fox News voraciously. And I remember, like, a lot of reporters talking about facts. And the Fox News that you're talking about today seems very, very far removed from that place.
There's been an evolution of Fox, and it seems to have happened at a breakneck pace under Donald Trump. Can you talk briefly about how much Trump changed Fox News itself and how far it is gone, perhaps, from the role that Rupert Murdoch might have conceived for the network years ago?
FOLKENFLIK: So it's such an interesting thing. You know, you talk about the question of getting away from reporting in fact, and I would say, to be fair, that their reporters have done a very good, straight-ahead job of reporting on all the individual claims of fraud and the larger question and taken efforts to debunk it. But there's a shriveling of what the news hole occupies compared to the opinion space, which was always major, but there's a shriveling of that. And also, I think there's a degradation of what you see as the news space in that they now take a lot of clips from their top opinion hosts and inject it into their so-called news programming so that the actual news part...
SANDERS: They quote themselves and call it news.
FOLKENFLIK: Yeah. And then they're like, well, what do you say about that? And then it allows them to have segments that are essentially opinion inside what are technically news programs. So the newsiness of the news side has also been diminished as well. And don't think that that's not noticed internally by journalists and producers there.
In terms of what Rupert Murdoch wanted, you know, he wanted to - he saw an appetite and an audience for people who believed that they were not served by the mainstream media, particularly on the right and culturally conservative. He was accompanied by his executive, Roger Ailes. And I mention Ailes 'cause Ailes has been so important with that because he stoked that grievance. It was part of the network's formula on and off the air - was to stoke that sense of grievance so that no matter how valid or not valid it was, it would only feel more accentuated.
Murdoch, in his other properties in his other parts of the world, has always wanted to have a shape in influencing - a role in influencing and shaping politics, policy and personalities. And the one thing he's never had in the U.S. in the way that he's had it in his native Australia and in Britain, where he's been so influential, has been like a bat phone to the White House. Now he is kind of contemptuous of Trump.
FOLKENFLIK: Murdoch knew Trump from tabloid days in New York City when Trump wanted to be famous through the tabloids and from just sort of being out and about in the town. And he realized that with Trump, he could have a bat phone. So initially, he was kind of skeptical of it, was not his candidate for the Republican primaries. Trump ascends the summer of 2016. I mean, it's all like a movie. Roger Ailes, who's, you know, a tyrant...
SANDERS: Or a TV show - "Succession." Sorry. Go ahead (laughter).
FOLKENFLIK: Very much like that. But Ailes, you know, gets knocked out because it turns out he has been operating Fox as a place to groom young women for incredible level of sexual harassment, and at times, it is alleged sexual assault. So he is fired.
So Rupert decides, I'm going to run it for a while, and I'm going to throw in my lot with Donald Trump. And you know what? He and Trump were on the phone all the time. He goes, you know, quietly to the White House in ways that aren't reported. The White House decides not to release visitor logs in the way that's been done in recent decades, so you can't document it as well. But I did stories early on in the administration in 2017 showing that they were tied and they were talking very frequently.
FOLKENFLIK: So suddenly, what Murdoch has is a line into the White House that he's never had before. The compromise he's had to make is it's a candidate he doesn't believe in.
SANDERS: Yeah, yeah. So then if the relationship between Fox News and Trump is frayed right now, to say the least, does what's going on there represent, like, an existential crisis for Fox or just, like, a bump along the road? Is there a moment a year or two from now where Fox's viewing audience has forgotten about Trump and they're totally Team Fox again? Or has this fundamentally changed the way that Fox News will operate in the conservative media space?
FOLKENFLIK: I mean, in some ways, it depends on its leadership and it depends on its personalities. In the absence of leadership, people like Sean Hannity just do whatever they want and people like Lou Dobbs do whatever they want. And, you know, in the absence of very strong leadership being exerted, they've got very strong personalities.
And, you know, Trump complains all he wants, but, you know, who did he give a statement to in the last, you know, day or two about the importance of there being a peaceful transfer of power, ultimately? He gives that to Fox News now that he doesn't have a Twitter feed. He's very tightly tethered to Sean Hannity, one of his closest advisers off the air, as well as one of his biggest champions on it. You know, their most popular hosts are among the most sympathetic voices out there for him. So he still needs them, and he probably needs them more than they need him.
SANDERS: Coming up in just a minute, what a post-Trump world means for all of cable news, not just Fox. Stay with us.
I keep seeing stories kind of predicting that as soon as Trump leaves the White House, ratings for all news TV is going to drop by a lot. You know, there are some numbers that you can look at on the way that TV news has covered Trump over the last four years that are truly astounding. The Columbia Journalism Review found that Trump was the fourth most used word in The New York Times in 2018, and he was directly mentioned two or three times in every article, indirectly even more. The Stanford Cable TV News Analyzer found that cable news on average the last few years gave Trump about twice as much attention as they gave Obama when he was president. If these networks - not just Fox, but CNN and MSNBC - if they're used to covering a White House like this, what happens when a guy who seems to be a lot more boring goes to the White House? Is it just going to, like, be a crisis for all of them?
FOLKENFLIK: I mean, ultimately, you got to imagine yes.
SANDERS: OK, how bad?
FOLKENFLIK: Let's walk through it a little bit. The first thing I've got to say is that I've come to the conclusion that the start of every new presidency, whether after four years or eight years, is kind of a reset for all of the big three cable channels. And it may be that that happens - because of Trump, that that starts to happen with other kinds of news organizations, like newspapers like the Times. It may be.
But I think they decide, OK, we're going to redo it. You know, Jeff Zucker took CNN, and for a while it was just like whatever spectacle we can have you pay attention to. And, you know, it was like, we have a cruise liner sinking, and it's great video. You know, like, whatever it is, we're going to get you there and keep you on and keep you watching long enough so that when real news happens, you'll be plugged in to us.
And CNN is having a moment. They're getting really good ratings. But they're getting great ratings in part because the election never ended and Trump was still trying to fight the old war. I mean, it does remind you a little bit of sort of like arguments for the Confederacy, right? Like, it's just this war has been fought, but people are still - you know, the lost cause still endures, right?
SANDERS: The lost cause, yeah.
FOLKENFLIK: And there's something like that going on in some ways. CNN is no longer indulging that in the way it did in the early time of Trump - right? - where they would have Trump surrogates on to say things that just were clearly baloney.
SANDERS: Or they would let Trump just call in and talk at length.
FOLKENFLIK: They were eager for it.
SANDERS: So if we have literally lived in a cable news era in which political coverage and coverage of the president seemed to be at least double than what it usually would be, can the cable news-consuming public ever actually go back to normal? Are we all, as viewers, perpetually primed now to see a White House reality show all the time and only care about politics and nothing else?
FOLKENFLIK: I think that's a really good question. I think one of the things to remember about cable news, which people forget, is that even the best-viewed cable news programs, with very rare exception and not consistent exception, just every now and then, are less well-watched than the lowest-rated broadcast newscast, like "CBS Evening News." I think that - you know, what do they have to do? All they have to do to succeed wildly is get 3 million to 4 million people, so maybe 1% of the American watching public, you know, watch their shows at night. They've shown that that's doable.
What they will do - and for Fox, it's an easier prospect in some ways. They just make themselves the opposition party. Fox just says, fine, OK, let's leave Trump aside, and we'll make references to things that whip you up, but we won't go deep.
SANDERS: Yeah, yeah.
FOLKENFLIK: Easier to go after a guy than to have to play defense all the time. So I think there'll be some relief at Fox. It's just getting from here to there.
SANDERS: You know, when I think about what we did wrong over the last few years, I think the biggest mistake we all made, all of us in the news media - we let Donald Trump set all of our news agendas all the time. I recall that time in the first, like, year of his presidency where before any assignment editor would assign a story to anyone, before any newsroom would go about their day gathering news, they would wait to see what Trump tweeted, and that would dictate the day. Donald Trump for a long time was the editor-in-chief of every newsroom in America. And it meant that we all spent a lot of time chasing things that weren't real.
And I hope that, like, after this, we can slow down as an industry and look for the stories that matter and not let politicians set our day, right? And I don't know if we're prepared to do that because I think everyone is used to the quick metabolism of news right now. Everything has to be breaking news. Every five minutes, a new headline has to happen. We're primed for it. But I would hope that we just slow down a bit after all this.
FOLKENFLIK: I think that's very fair. I don't think that Biden is going to operate in the same way, and therefore, the dopamine won't be dispatched in quite that pattern, rhythm and cadence. But I think that's absolutely right. Look; if you think about The Washington Post...
FOLKENFLIK: ...You know, the Post has, I think, been more restrained and careful than the Times on a lot of its reporting in certain ways.
SANDERS: Yeah, yeah.
FOLKENFLIK: And that said, if you go to its website, sometimes you see six takes on the same story.
FOLKENFLIK: Why is that? That's because Jeff Bezos' analytics will tell you that you're going to, you know, quintuple traffic that way. But it's not necessary. Like, they did have one or two stories already. Like, that's fine. But they saw that there's appetite. They're going to feed that. So, you know, there are ways in which it shapes, distorts and contorts news judgment, even by people who are doing honorable work.
FOLKENFLIK: And I think that when it comes to cable, you know, it doesn't pay to think of them as moral or immoral, but often just amoral. It's like, what's working for us?
SANDERS: (Laughter) That's the tease cut, David. That is (unintelligible) for this episode.
FOLKENFLIK: There you go, baby. I'll take care of you.
SANDERS: You just gave us a gift. Thank you. Oh, my goodness. Anyhoo, last question before I let you go. I can't let you, David Folkenflik, media reporter...
SANDERS: ...Come on to talk about the state of media without asking you, what's up with these rumors that Trump might start his own media empire? I always hear this. I keep hearing it. What's up with that?
FOLKENFLIK: What is up with that? I thought it was possible that he might do it in tandem with someone who might, say, buy Newsmax and turn it into a Trump TV kind of thing, and maybe he was the brand and the tone for it. I think after January 6, that's much less - even less likely. I think, you know, he's going to be the beacon for true believers but that the number of people willing to tune in to that is narrower.
Before January 6, I thought the most likely thing was that Rupert would take out his wallet and say, look; I'm going to throw 10 - $8 million, $10 million, $12 million a year at you - easiest money you'll ever make. You just have to do it, you know, an hour a week, but you can do more. You don't have to have a show. Just show up, you know, periodically from some place with good lighting. And it would be the cheapest way for him to prevent Newsmax from really growing and also, you know, keep Trump people in the fold. But I think that Trump has pretty firmly discredited himself from a broader audience. If Fox does it now, it will tell you something about how deeply they're concerned that they will lose the loyal Trump viewer, and that will be a statement in and of itself.
SANDERS: Well, one thing I know for sure - no matter what, cable news, in some capacity, will survive. It always does. It shall be with us.
FOLKENFLIK: And make a lot of money.
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SANDERS: Thanks again to NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik for that very informative chat. You can catch more of David's media reporting literally all over NPR all the time and on our website, npr.org.
All right, this episode was produced by Anjuli Sastry and edited by Jordana Hochman. Listeners, we are back in your feeds on Friday. Until then, take care of yourselves. I'm Sam Sanders. We'll talk soon.
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