Will This Be The Week That Was for the Fox News Channel?

The week ahead promises to be a critical one for the future of the wounded and limping Fox News Channel (FNC). Knocked off its perch in early May as the longstanding number one cable television news outlet, FNC is now contending with an uncertain future. Declining ratings, internal conflicts and poor programming decisions, and new controversies have helped to energize a determined outside viral de facto “resist Fox News” campaign with the purpose of taking the channel down.

The decline of Fox News began last year with lawsuits by female employees alleging a hostile work environment, followed by the forced departure of FNC founder, chairman, and legendary media-political savant Roger Ailes (who died on May 18, 2017 as the result of a fall at his home in Florida one week earlier).

In the view of many observers, both critics and longtime fans of the channel, FNC’s new prime time program lineup launched in the wake of the executive and on-air talent shake-ups is simply not working. Since September 2016, FNC has lost three of its four highly-rated prime time hosts: veteran broadcasters Greta Van Susteren and Bill O’Reilly and the more recent breakout star Megyn Kelly. Sean Hannity, the last original survivor in prime time, like O’Reilly, started on FNC on the very first day the channel launched in 1996. For years, Hannity has been the second most popular radio talk show personality in the United States behind Rush Limbaugh and a leading conservative voice. Always a lightning rod for criticism from the left, Hannity has recently come under renewed attack thanks to a new wave of negative media scrutiny coupled with an orchestrated campaign to influence his advertisers to jump ship.

Sean Hannity

Last April, a similar strategy – media shaming and an advertising boycott – sealed the fate of Bill O’Reilly, for over twenty years the linchpin of Fox News’s prime time schedule. Since O’Reilly was fired on April 19, FNC’s ratings have gone into a tailspin, generating thousands of mostly negative news stories about the channel’s new ratings plight. FNC’s long time also-ran competitors, CNN and MSNBC, have suddenly become competitive and are starting to beat Fox News programs in the nightly ratings battle, especially in the coveted 25-54 year old viewer demographic. It’s a contest for the hearts and minds of the politically aware, with a trickle-down influence on millions of lower information voters. Meanwhile, scores of millions of dollars in annual advertising revenue are up for grabs for the media corporations involved.

A New Controversy

Recently, a new unforeseen controversy has emerged to further complicate the situation, leading to demands that Hannity’s sponsors abandon his program. What was Hannity’s transgression? In the past two weeks, he became the most prominent media personality to focus on the issue of the unsolved murder last summer of Democratic National Committee employee Seth Rich. Rich, 27, was fatally shot in the back by unknown assailants as he was walking home to his apartment in Washington, D.C. in the early morning hours of July 10, 2016. According to an article in the New York Daily News on July 11, 2016, citing information from Seth Rich’s father, D.C. Metropolitan Police were reported to be investigating Rich’s death as a robbery. But technically a robbery did not occur since nothing of value was taken from Rich after he was shot. Curiously, the same article also states “There is no immediate indication that robbery was a motive in the attack, police said, but it has not been ruled out as a possibility.”

An IT professional with a passion for politics, Seth Conrad Rich was the Voter Expansion Data Director at the DNC. According to Fox News’s January 10, 2017 story, “Rich would have had access to sensitive DNC information. His main duty at the DNC was to build an online system to get out the vote.” Reports began to emerge after the shooting of Rich that he might have been the source of 20,000 embarrassing internal DNC documents, showing collusion between the DNC and the Hillary Clinton campaign, that wound up being published by Wikileaks on the eve of the Democrat National Convention in late July. Recently, these initially unconfirmed reports about some kind of relationship  between Seth Rich and Wikileaks have gained new currency and momentum.

Seth Rich

On May 15, 2017, Fox News channel 5 in D.C. reported that Rod Wheeler, a former D.C. police homicide detective and a Fox News contributor who was independently investigating Rich’s death on behalf of the young man’s family, went on the record with allegations confirming many of the suspicions about the official investigation of Seth Rich’s murder, including a new claim that the D.C. police were instructed to “stand down on this case.” On May 16, Fox News in New York also reported the story based on Wheeler’s account. An identical version of the May 16 Fox News story republished the same day by the New York Post, which is owned by the same company that owns Fox News, is archived here, but on May 23, in a highly unusual move, Fox News retracted its story one week after publication and removed it from the Fox News Website.

Retired D.C. Police Homicide Det. Rod Wheeler

The Fox News retraction, the “backtracking” on elements of the story by Wheeler himself, and the emotionally charged objections by the Rich family to any more outside investigations and reporting about Seth Rich’s death, provided fuel to the fire stoked by the mainstream media, which had already dismissed any and all questions that were being raised about Rich’s murder and its possible links to the purloined DNC documents and Wikileaks as illegitimate, irresponsible, and “conspiracy theories.”

The mainstream media initially downplayed Rich’s death and only began reporting about it again when new questions began to be asked – while dismissing the questioners in hundreds if not thousands of critical stories. A typical example of the latter appeared May 22 in Foreign Policy, the influential organ of the Council on Foreign Relations, with author Max Boot decrying Fox News in particular for being “morally bankrupt” and guilty of “conspiracy mongering” for its reporting in the Rich murder case. Meanwhile, the reporting that has reopened and advanced the story has been done primarily by alternative conservative media, including most recently by Liz Crokin and Alicia Powe writing, individually and together, at World Net Daily (WND).

Alicia Powe

For his part, Hannity, on his syndicated radio show on May 23, after Fox News had retracted its story, insisted “I am not Fox.com or Fox News.com. I retracted nothing.” But later that evening on his FNC program, after promising that he would present new information relating to the case, Hannity announced instead that he was backing off the story “for now” in deference to the wishes of the Rich family. These developments set the stage for a doubling down of the onslaught targeting Hannity by the mainstream media and left-wing advocacy groups like Media Matters for America, with Hannity’s enemies moving in for the “kill shot,” as he termed it, by employing the tactic of the sponsor boycott.

Before the Memorial Day holiday weekend began, at least seven companies had abandoned advertising on Hannity’s nightly show. While far fewer than the fifty or so sponsors that had bolted from The O’Reilly Factor last April, the possibility nonetheless exists that the boycott effort targeting Hannity could gain momentum in the days ahead and conceivably threaten the future of the program.

With the rest of FNC’s prime time shows faltering – The Story with Martha McCallum at 7 PM, Tucker Carlson at 8, and The Five at 9 (all times Eastern) – Hannity at 10 PM is still often the ratings leader on the beleaguered channel. The loss of Sean Hannity’s program, further unhinging FNC’s prime time schedule, could spell ratings doom for FNC.

The Larger Picture

The case of Seth Rich’s death is not simply a footnote in this larger story about Fox News. If it is true that Rich, acting as a principled whistle blower – rather than some Russian government hack colluding with Donald Trump’s associates – was the source of the initial document dump that wound up impeding Hillary Clinton’s chances in her 2016 presidential election campaign against Donald Trump, then that is big news. A confirmed connection between Seth Rich and Wikileaks would seriously challenge the overwhelming and to date largely successful mainstream/Deep State meme that representatives of the Trump campaign conspired with the Russians to disseminate internal DNC documents with the intention of harming the Democrat opposition. The whole “Trump has colluded with the Russians” party line that has dominated political discourse for months on end could go up in smoke.

The stakes in terms of how this story ultimately plays out couldn’t be higher and the mind boggles at the possible outcomes.

The Ratings Slump

Opinions on why Fox News’s ratings have tanked lately reflect two points of view:

Theory #1) The channel has been slow or disinclined to report fully on the “scandals” and problems of the new Trump Administration which is what cable news viewers are now most interested in – confirmed by the rise in ratings for CNN and MSNBC, both of which – especially CNN – are anti-Trump pretty much around the clock.

Theory #2) The cancellation of its popular core prime time program The O’Reilly Factor, the imposition of The Five – an increasingly frivolous, lightweight, personality driven infotainment show at 9 PM – and the hiring and increased visibility of more left-of-center hosts like Eboni Williams and guests – including “Fox News Contributors” like Marie Harf, Jessica Tarlov, and Krystal Ball to name three – have turned off FNC’s core audience of conservatives who don’t want to be subjected to stale and predictable leftist talking points.

The evidence, in my opinion, favors the second option. An excellent analysis by Brandon J. Weichert, “Fox News Chooses the Millennials (And Gets It Wrong),” appears to concur. Weichert, himself a self-described Millennial, writes:

After all of the shuffling, Fox actually lost the crucial 25-54 year-old demographic! Most analysts claim it is because Fox and Donald Trump’s ratings became entwined: as Trump’s popularity plummets, Fox’s does also. But, that’s a dangerously reductionist view.

Could it possibly be that people -- of all ages and races -- were attracted to Fox because of the ideological factor? Remember, 60 percent of Fox’s viewership is conservative. Also, a majority of Americans identify as “conservative.”

Renowned historian, Dr. Marek Chodakiewicz, is fond of telling me that unless an institution is avowedly conservative, it will inevitably be annexed by the Left. He’s correct. And, with so many other networks being consistently more Liberal (compared to Fox), why would anyone opt to watch a network undergoing an identity crisis, of the sort that Fox is currently suffering?

The Week Ahead for FNC

In the roiling media cauldron of the moment, with news and speculation breaking by the hour, it’s anybody’s guess what the immediate and longer term outlook is for Fox News.

In terms of Sean Hannity’s future – which is closely intertwined with the future of Fox News itself – Fox News issued a reassuring statement on May 25 that Hannity would return to his FNC program on Tuesday, May 30 after a five-day vacation. There has been considerable speculation that Hannity’s “vacation,” like O’Reilly’s the month before, would end with him being out at Fox News.

Doubts about Hannity’s future at Fox News had been building even before his involvement with the Seth Rich story. On April 27, for example, Hannity posted a tweet to New York magazine writer Gabe Sherman’s Twitter account after Sherman wrote in a Daily Intelligencer column that Fox News co-president Bill Shine, a holdover from the Roger Ailes era and a close friend and supporter of Hannity’s (and who Hannity reportedly brought on board to Fox News two decades ago), might be on the way out. (Shine was gone from FNC on May 1.) Hannity’s April 27 tweet about Shine’s future being on shaky ground was ominous: “Gäbe [Sherman] i pray this is NOT true because if it is, that’s the total end of the FNC as we know it. Done. Best Sean.”

On May 16, Independent Journal Review published an “exclusive” article titled “Hannity Goes ‘Underground’ to Decide If He Will Return to Fox News, Source Says.”

Hannity has gone “underground” and is actively considering whether or not he will return to Fox News on Tuesday, a source close to Hannity told Independent Journal Review. . . the well-placed source said Hannity has since retreated to isolation — even temporarily “swearing off” social media — while he makes a decision regarding his future at Fox News. Hannity’s last tweet was posted on Thursday afternoon. “He has stopped answering his phone, and communicating even with his close friends,” the source added.

A search of “Sean Hannity” using Google News on May 28, and expanding the “View All” option that opens a “Full Coverage” list, yielded a plethora of stories – most of them negative – typified by titles like “Conservative host: Hannity ‘aided and abetted’ his own demise” and “Fox News Is Collapsing.”

A number of the stories harped on Hannity’s involvement with the “discredited” “fake news” Seth Rich death “conspiracy theories.”

Pearson Sharp, One America News

Meanwhile, investigations into the death of Rich are proceeding, mainly on the part of independent journalists. An exception were two reports broadcast by One America News Network (OAN) on May 19, “Who Killed Seth Rich? Investigating the DNC Staffer’s Suspicious Murder.” Video of the reports can be viewed here (Part 1) and here (Part 2). At the conclusion of Part 2, OAN reporter Pearson Sharp said:

For now there are no clear answers as to who killed Seth Rich – or why. Police have called it a robbery, but have no proof. There is growing evidence that it was something much more than a mugging gone wrong... It’s not just one coincidence, or two. It’s dozens. And they trace their way all the way to the highest brains of the DNC. Yes, it could be a coincidence that the officers were wearing body cameras but the footage apparently can’t be found. It could be a coincidence that the attending physician has direct ties to [one of] Hillary’s right hand [men]... And it could be a coincidence that Seth’s father said that a security camera from a small convenience store across the street captured video of their son collapsing at the feet of two men and that the police say that now that footage doesn't exist. But the question we must ask ourselves now is at what point does one coincidence – or 100 – add up to something approaching the truth.

As part of its ongoing coverage of and interest in solving the murder of Seth Rich, One America News Network has offered a $100,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of a suspect in the case. Other parties, including Wikileaks, Republican strategist Jack Burkman, and the D.C. police, have offered rewards totaling $175,000 bringing the grand total to $275,000.

Seth Rich Metropolitan D.C. Police Reward Flyer

As mentioned earlier, journalist Liz Crokin, who has written for the conservative Web sites Townhall and World Net Daily, has emerged in recent weeks as a viral force probing the killing of Seth Rich. In addition to her articles about Rich’s murder in World Net Daily, Crokin appeared twice last week on the daily Internet program The Hagmann and Hagmann Report  (May 22 video here, May 25 video here).

Liz Crokin on the Hagmann & Hagmann Report, May 22, 2017

On May 28, I interviewed Crokin by email. “If the truth comes out about Seth’s murder, it will bring down a huge number of people in the government and expose all kinds of unimaginable corruption,” she wrote. Crokin was confident that the Rich murder story will not go away. “The truth will come out about Seth Rich. I can absolutely guarantee that. It’s inevitable that the full story will come out.”

I asked Crokin if she thinks that Sean Hannity will keep his Fox News show. “There are truly powerful and evil forces that are trying to get Sean Hannity fired,” Crokin replied. “They will try their best to get him canned. However, if that happens, it will only bring more awareness to the Seth Rich murder case and how the media is not only complicit but also, in some cases, accomplices in this massive cover up. This is a case where the cover up is way bigger than the crime. This is Watergate on steroids!”

To be continued.

Peter Barry Chowka is a veteran journalist who writes about national politics, media, popular culture, and health care.

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