Channel bounces back from a brief threat from even further right networks as its most high-profile ‘straight news’ journalist departs
Last modified on Mon 20 Dec 2021 00.10 EST
As the US braces for the likely resurgence of the Republican party in 2022’s midterm elections, rightwing media is preparing, both behind and in front of the scenes, to exert its influence over the rest of Joe Biden’s presidency.
The flagship conservative news network, Fox News, has continued a lurch towards the right that accelerated with the rise of Donald Trump. But a more insidious presence is the rise of a conservative media ecosystem, or echo chamber, that seems likely to coalesce what was once considered the fringes of rightwing thought.
Fox News bounced back from a brief threat from even further right networks like Newsmax in early 2021, but in the process, it has weathered a pair of lawsuits, and the departure of Fox News’ most high-profile “straight news” journalist.
Chris Wallace, who had been at Fox News for 18 years, frequently served as the daytime counterpoint to the swirling rightwing opinion that fills Fox News’ night-time schedule.
Wallace’s departure appears to have been amicable. “The bosses here at Fox promised me they would never interfere with a guest I booked or a question I asked, and they kept that promise,” Wallace said, while the channel said: “We are extremely proud of our journalism and the stellar team that Chris Wallace was a part of for 18 years.”
But for those who follow the comings and goings at Fox News, Wallace’s exit represented a further step away from its claims to be a mainstream news channel.
The almost symbiotic relationship between some Fox News hosts and the Trump government was exposed this week, when it emerged three of the network’s personalities had frantically texted Mark Meadows, Trump’s former White House chief of staff, during the 6 January insurrection.
The House committee investigating the attack, which had obtained the messages, released the material which showed numerous high-profile Fox personalities had frantically texted Meadows as hundreds of Trump supporters stormed the US Capitol.
“Hey Mark, the president needs to tell people in the Capitol to go home. This is hurting all of us. He is destroying his legacy,” Laura Ingraham, the host of The Ingraham Angle, wrote.
Brian Kilmeade, co-host of the morning show Fox & Friends, texted Meadows: “Please, get him on TV. Destroying everything you have accomplished,” while Sean Hannity wrote to the chief of staff: “Can he make a statement? Ask people to leave the Capitol.”
Unlike some of his Fox colleagues, Kilmeade criticized Trump the next day. “If the president doesn’t tell people over and over again that we were robbed, they stole it, march down there and protest it doesn’t happen,” he said.
Fox News remains the most popular cable news channel by far, with an average of 1.3 million viewers and 2.4 million in the 8-11pm slot – when its rightwing personalities Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson and Ingraham host their shows. Through the year the network has engaged in themes attractive to the right, including some hosts and guests dabbling in vaccine skepticism, although other hosts have told viewers they should consider getting a Covid-19 vaccine.
Carlson, Fox News’ most-watched host, has also championed Kyle Rittenhouse, who was acquitted in November of murdering two people at a Black Lives Matter protest. The network has also been sued by two different election technology companies over election fraud conspiracy theories.
Angelo Carusone, the president of Media Matters, a progressive media watchdog, said Fox News had made the decision to pander to the Trump base more than a year ago, to fend off criticism and competition.
On the night of the presidential election, in November 2020, the network was the first to call – correctly – the state of Arizona for Joe Biden, which led to intense criticism from Trump, and election night chants of “Fox News sucks” among some Republican voters.
In December, Newsmax, an upstart hard rightwing news network, jumped ahead of Fox News in the ratings, for one time slot, for the first time ever, while Fox News’ favorability among Republican supporters dropped from 67% to 54%.
“What we’re seeing now is the effects of that calculated business decision. Right after the election Trump supporters are all mad at Fox News, so their ratings tank a little bit,” Carusone said.
Carusone said Fox News responded by putting personalities like the incendiary Carlson “front and center”, to bolster its rightwing credentials.
It was always clear that some Fox News hosts had a close relationship with Trump – Hannity literally appeared onstage with the former president at a campaign rally in 2018. But the further insight into just how close certain personalities are to Trump and the far-right came when Carlson was accused of dabbling in falsehoods when his three-part documentary Patriot Purge aired on Fox Nation, Fox News’ streaming-only sister channel.
The documentary, which was promoted on Fox News as “The True Story Behind Jan 6”, attempted to rewrite the events of the riot, advancing theories that violence that day was instigated by leftwing activists, and that the insurrection may have been an FBI false flag operation.
Patriot Purge is “full of falsehoods”, the factchecking website Politifact wrote, and it “floated several conspiracy theories”. Snopes, another factchecking website, found that Patriot Purge “uses deceptive tactics and false statements to rewrite history”.
The documentary triggered the resignation of longtime conservative Fox News commentators Stephen Hayes and Jonah Goldberg, while NPR reported that Wallace had expressed concern over the documentary to Fox News management.
“It’s basically saying that the Biden regime is coming after half the country and this is the War on Terror 2.0,” Goldberg told NPR.
“It traffics in all manner of innuendo and conspiracy theories that I think legitimately could lead to violence. That for me, and for Steve, was the last straw.”
Heather Hendershot, a professor of film and media at MIT who studies conservative and rightwing media, said Fox News’ flirtation with conspiracy theories and extremism is more than “simply a reflection of the current state of the Republican party”.
“Fox News actively and deliberately adds fuel to the fires of extremism. Perhaps the best recent example is the network’s enthusiastic embrace of Kyle Rittenhouse,” Hendershot said.
“After Trump was elected in 2016, as Fox News continued to lurch harder and harder to the right, it still seemed reasonable – if overly optimistic – to understand the network as a sort of schizophrenic entity, with the opinion people on one side and a handful of reputable news people beholden to journalistic conventions like factchecking on the other.
“The departure of Chris Wallace, however, should disabuse us of any such naive notions. It sends a strong signal that it is people like Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham, who are most central to the network’s identity, and we should only expect the situation to get worse.”
Beyond just Fox News, the right wing is investing in a slew of efforts to create its own echo chamber – in “an attempt to circumvent what they see as an increasingly liberal internet and media ecosystem”, as Axios reported.
The efforts include building apps, creating cryptocurrencies and setting up publishing houses to pump out books written by people on the right. A conservative video service, Rumble, is set to go public in a $2.1bn, while Trump’s yet-to-launch social media network, Truth Social, aims to go public in 2022.
In mid 2021 the “Magacoin”, a pro-Trump cyrptocurrency, also gained publicity this year, but suffered a knockback when the Guardian reported that poor security configuration in a website associated with the currency exposed the personal details of users. Carusone, however, said the right wing seeking to create its own media world is not a new thing.
“The right has for decades had an echo chamber. Rush Limbaugh used to have 25 million listeners, and the listeners called themselves ditto heads – they would echo back the things that he would say.”
The modern version of that is different, given the power of social media, but the right has experimented with even fresh-seeming formats before – Hannity once even launched a dating site, Hannidate. The website is no longer active.
Unlike Hannidate, however, the rightwing eco-system is growing – and seems like it will be here to stay for a long time.