Fox News Winds Up in a Tough Spot After Early Calls for Biden
(Bloomberg) -- On Wednesday, long before many other news organizations, Fox News put the electoral-vote tally for Joe Biden at 264, placing the Democrat just a handful of electoral votes away from becoming president.
That and other early calls for Biden, including Virginia and Arizona on election night, put the conservative-leaning network in a difficult position with many of its Republican viewers -- including President Donald Trump.
One of Trump’s political advisers, Jason Miller, tweeted Tuesday night that Fox News was trying to “invalidate” the votes of the president’s supporters and it “should retract their call immediately.”
Trump weighed in on Thursday. “A Clinton-Voting, Biden-Donating Democrat Runs the Fox News Decision Desk,” he said in a fundraising email to his supporters. “A Democrat operative put his finger on the scale and declared Joe Biden the winner before the votes were counted.”
Rivals on the right seem ready to pounce. Christopher Ruddy, the chief executive officer and majority owner of Newsmax, a competing news channel, told the Daily Beast that Fox News anchor Chris Wallace’s handling of the first presidential debate, as well as network polls favoring Biden, will cost the channel its loyal audience.
“Fox is sort of like a suicide of a network,” Ruddy said. “When you add it all up, it paints a really bad picture.”
The next few days will require a delicate balancing act for Fox News, the crown jewel of Fox Corp. The New York-based company is the most-valuable part of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire after the family sold the bulk of their entertainment assets to Walt Disney Co. last year.
Arnon Mishkin, the director of Fox News’s election decision desk, has gone on the network several times this week to defend his calls. In an appearance Thursday, he also addressed the Trump campaign’s criticism of him, saying he did once work for Democratic candidates and over his 12 years at Fox has given a total of $800 to two friends running for Congress. He said $300 went to a Democrat and $500 to a Republican.
“The team, when we come to Fox, we basically check our politics at the door and focus our statistical or political analysis on the computer and what the numbers show,” Mishkin said. “And that’s it.”
It’s certainly true that Fox News has benefited mightly from the election of Trump, a frequent guest on the channel well before his decision to run for office. Fox host Sean Hannity appeared onstage at a Trump rally in 2018, a move that earned him a rebuke from the network. Fox’s lineup of prime-time commentators, also including Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham, are ardent supporters of the president.
But Fox News has stood by its Arizona call, and it wasn’t the only time during election week that Trump and the network disagreed. That has led Murdoch watchers to wonder if the mogul is using his media properties, which also include newspaper publisher News Corp., to distance himself from Trump as his chances diminish.
After Fox News anchor Bret Baier said Thursday that “we have not seen hard evidence” to support Trump’s claim of election fraud, Gabriel Sherman, who wrote a biography of Fox News founder Roger Ailes, tweeted: “Wow. Fox totally divorcing from Trump.”
Fox’s Wallace also pushed back on Trump’s claims this week. In the early hours of Wednesday morning, after Trump claimed victory, he said: “This is an extremely flammable situation and the president just threw a match into it. He hasn’t won these states.” By Friday morning, Wallace said on Fox News that Biden was “more likely than not to win the presidency.”
Fox News’s prime-time opinion hosts remained firmly in Trump’s camp this week, amplifying his unfounded claims of voter fraud. Ingraham complained about “unverifiable dumps of votes,” while Hannity said Thursday night that “it will be impossible to ever know the true, fair, accurate election results.”
News viewership on all networks has soared this year with the elections, social protests and coronavirus coverage, Bloomberg Intelligence analysts Geetha Ranganathan and Kevin Near said in a note. Fox News, the most-watched news channel, has been a key beneficiary.
“A downturn in ratings after the election will be unavoidable, however, with this furious news cycle likely cooling down,” they said, with a risk coming to the network’s $1 billion in annual advertising sales.
Wall Street has started to worry about what a Biden presidency would mean for Fox News’s ratings. Earlier this week, media analysts pointed out that Fox’s stock had underperformed its peers on a day when the company reported strong quarterly revenue and profit.
There has been speculation that Trump, if he loses, could acquire Herring Networks Inc., the little-known company that owns the conservative One America News Network, and turn the channel into his own TV network.
After announcing the better-than-expected earnings on Tuesday, Fox Corp. CEO Lachlan Murdoch responded to an analyst’s question about Fox News possibly facing off against a Trump-backed rival. He said the channel had been No. 1 in cable news for 18 years, through various administrations.
“We love competition,” Murdoch said. “We have always thrived with competition, and we have strong competition now.”
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