Over the last four days, Fox News’s normal hierarchy has been inverted. Ordinarily, its opinion side—anchored by Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, and Laura Ingraham—is the network’s beating heart, an engine powering large portions of right-wing media. Narratives spouted by these figures are embraced everywhere on the right; under Donald Trump’s presidency they have, at times, dictated government policy. Fox News might be, in effect, state television under Trump, but it has taken an active, rather than a passive, role.
But ever since votes began to be tabulated, its news division has had much of the power, changing the tenor of the network’s coverage. Though still tinged with Fox’s dominant ideology, it has covered the election that is actually happening: a legitimate one that Joe Biden is winning. Trump’s authoritarian attempts to cast doubt on the results have been batted down, albeit without the gusto of other networks. Fox News has become a cathartic place for liberals: You can watch the president lose on his favorite network.
Present since its inception, the tension between Fox’s news and opinion programming was never greater than it has been over the past four years. But the 2020 election is pushing it to its breaking point. Now the news side’s decision to call Arizona for Biden early has put it in direct conflict with the president and his allies and supporters—it went from Trump’s preferred network to his scapegoat in a matter of hours. That conflict between Fox News and Trump points to a rockier than anticipated future for Fox News—and larger fissures within the Republican Party.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. In the lead-up to the election, the network’s honchos were practically giddy, certain that they would continue raking in cash regardless of the outcome. If Trump won, Fox would maintain its status as the president’s go-to network, state TV by another name. If he lost, it would return to its Obama-era position as the voice of the resistance.
“Hosts will scream ‘socialism,’ tell its minority viewers that Biden’s policies are bad for them, and they will further push the narrative that it’s Kamala Harris viewers should be scared of, since she’s the actual president behind the scenes, according to their narrative,” a Fox staffer told The Daily Beast about the network’s programming. “I believe it will be a resistance network if Biden wins, because being in the opposition is good for business.”
That will undoubtedly be true, but the last several days have shown that the transition will hardly be seamless. Fox News has been a frequent target of Trump’s, in large part because of its news division, which he deems insufficiently loyal—it is, after all, not as rabidly partisan as programming like Fox & Friends or Tucker Carlson Tonight. Anything less than total devotion is not enough for the president. Chris Wallace’s abysmal performance as moderator in the first debate was inexplicably seen by the White House as proof of the news side’s bias—by ineptly trying to get the president to stop interrupting Biden, Wallace was shielding the Democrat. In the days leading up to the election, Trump whined that Fox News was airing too many negative ads about him and not doing enough to aid his reelection battle.
The decision to call Arizona for Biden late on election night has turned the network into Trump’s public enemy number one. After the call was made, the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner was deployed to beg Fox News owner Rupert Murdoch to reverse the decision. The network’s decision desk refused and has stuck by the call, though the margins in the state have tightened significantly. For Trump, it was proof that Fox News and Murdoch were against him. “Why do you think Rupert attacks me so often?” he reportedly asked Newsmax founder Chris Ruddy. “Rupert always tells me to my face that he loves me, but I guess he doesn’t.”
Fox News’s opinion-side programming has tried to clean up the mess—its hosts, including Carlson and Hannity, have questioned the decision to call Arizona so early. Both have devoted significant chunks of programming to baseless allegations of voter fraud. And not long after Trump’s sons called for more support from Republican elected officials on Thursday, they hosted GOP Senators Josh Hawley, Ted Cruz, and Lindsey Graham, all of whom cast doubt on the legitimacy of the election. Graham pushed on state legislatures to send pro-Trump electors in states that Biden is winning to the Electoral College; Hannity, meanwhile, has become obsessed with re-rerunning the Pennsylvania election. But Fox News has nevertheless become a punching bag on the right. Armed protesters massed outside Maricopa County’s vote-counting center chanted, “Fox News sucks!” on Wednesday evening.
Perhaps sensing the growing revolt, the news side has tried to throw a bone to the president. Between November 6, 2020, and January 20, 2021, Joe Biden, should his victory be confirmed, will be referred to as what he is—the president-elect—across the mainstream media. Everywhere, that is, except one place: Fox News. According to a memo obtained by CNN, the network has instructed its anchors and reporters to refrain from using that term, at least until President Trump’s pathetic legal challenges have been resolved.
It’s a destructive move, contrary to basic journalistic principles. It legitimizes baseless allegations of fraud and the president’s attempts to overturn a democratic election. But it also smacks of desperation from Fox. It’s trying and failing to resolve the contradiction between its news division, which is rightly acknowledging that Joe Biden is well ahead in this election, and its opinion side, which is lying by claiming that it is being stolen from President Trump.
On Wednesday, Donald Trump Jr. tweeted a call to action to Republican politicians. “The total lack of action from virtually all of the ‘2024 GOP hopefuls’ is pretty amazing,” he tweeted. “They have a perfect platform to show that they’re willing & able to fight but they will cower to the media mob instead.” Fox News is in a similar position, being blamed for doing the bare minimum of journalistic diligence instead of wholeheartedly backing the president as he tries to steal the election. When Trump loses, Fox will be a whipping boy. With other conservative networks, including Newsmax and One American News, eager to challenge Fox’s supremacy and Trump rumored to be considering launching his own network, it’s no guarantee that Fox News will be the de facto leader of the resistance to the Biden administration.
Given the disappointing results in the House and Senate, the last three days have been dominated by stories about Democrats in disarray. But the anger at Fox News portends a potential fissure on the right, as well, and a further consolidation of right-wing media around Donald Trump, this time as a president in exile. Fox News is trying to get back on the president’s good side, but it might already be too late.