Fox News death watch: Not time for an obituary yet
Fox News founder and hands-on chairman Roger Ailes is dead and buried, and it's been one month since reigning king of prime-time ratings host Bill O'Reilly was unceremoniously fired, but the story of the embattled Fox News cable channel (FNC) is far from over. While FNC's ratings continue to sag and the media's postmortems show no signs of ending, FNC's legions of fans line up to flood reader comments sections with defenses and laments, or to assign blame – and the articles continue.
At the start of the week before Memorial Day, the Drudge Report described a Hollywood Reporter story on the "upheaval" in cable news ratings as "FOXNEWS No. 3 for First Time in 17 Years." Another article in Variety was dubbed "MSNBC Magic." With the domestic political problems for President Donald Trump hardly resolved, expectations for the continued slide in FNC's ratings have taken hold of the mainstream media and appear to be self-fulfilling. Many analysts see the bump in the numbers of CNN's and MSNBC's viewers as evidence of Trump's enemies finally flocking to the two long struggling news outlets that have recently remade themselves as "resistance" mouthpieces.
Betting on interest in the purported Trump-Russia collusion meme trumping all else, CNN, unlike FNC and even MSNBC, did not focus primarily or exclusively on the Manchester, England Ariana Grande concert bombing after the news broke in the early evening of May 22, instead relegating the story to sharing airtime with its continued attacks on Trump, including new leaks involving former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn. Also on May 22, Trump's historic visit to the Middle East was given short shrift by CNN after the channel's live coverage from Israel ended in the morning.
For the moment, media coverage of the news channel ratings shake-up, and the aftermath of the changes at FNC, falls into three categories: reporting that 1) more or less documents what happened and continues to happen with FNC, 2) predicts who will run the show at FNC now, and 3) cheers the anticipated downfall of Fox News while cruelly dancing on the grave of onetime undisputed cable news wizard-king Ailes.
A prime example of the last one that is getting outsized attention is an op-ed by Monica Lewinsky published in the New York Times on Tuesday, May 23: "Roger Ailes's Dream Was My Nightmare." "This is not another obituary for Roger Ailes," Lewinsky begins – rather, "I hope, instead an obituary for the culture he purveyed." She goes on to blame Ailes and Fox News for taking unfair advantage of the news of her "relationship" with President Bill Clinton that first became public in January 1998 and led ultimately to an impeachment trial of Clinton for two charges of perjury and one of obstruction of justice relating to l'affaire Lewinsky in the U.S. Senate.
As a lifelong political, media, and news junkie, I remember that period well – and I also have VHS tapes I recorded from television coverage of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal during 1998 and '99 to back up my memory. It's not easy to imagine now, but in 1998, CNN and MSNBC, both of which had a head start on the upstart Fox News, were way ahead of the fledgling Fox News channel and were also hot on the "Lewinsky scandal" story, with constant breaking news on each development in the increasingly sordid tale. So were the New York Times and the Washington Post! And the rest of the mainstream media.
"The story," Lewinsky writes in her New York Times op-ed, "hooked viewers and made them Fox loyalists. For the past 15 years, Fox News has been the No. 1 news station." To buttress her last point, Lewinsky inserts a hyperlink reference to a January 31, 2017 story at deadline.com: "Fox News Channel Marks 15 Years As No. 1-Rated Cable News Network." Indeed. But the Lewinsky scandal ended early in the spring of 1999 – fully three years before FNC's ascent to the number-one ratings spot – helped more by Fox's superior coverage of 9/11 and its aftermath, I would argue, than by three- and four-year-old scandal coverage. And what responsibility does Ms. Lewinsky take for her role in the events? None, according to her Times piece. After all, it was just about sex and a consensual "relationship."
The best reporting on the death of Roger Ailes in my opinion has been the two recent pieces by Ailes's friend, prolific mainstream journalist Michael Wolff. Less than six hours after the news of the death of Roger Ailes broke, Wolff's article on Ailes's final days was published in the Hollywood Reporter. On May 21, Wolff's sensitive and informative article on the memorial service in Florida for Ailes – which Wolff was invited to attend along with about sixty other guests – appeared.
Also of note is the piece by John Nolte on May 17 in the Daily Wire: "Firing Bill O'Reilly Is Looking Like A BIG Mistake – Fox News Falls To Last Place." I agree with Nolte's conclusion: "The public stood by their guy [O'Reilly]. Fox News slapped that public in the face. There is a reason why that rule is the First Rule."
As an aside, Bill O'Reilly, who continues to operate his website billoreilly.com with both free and pay content, announced on his four-day-a-week podcast on Monday, May 15 that he would be teaming up with former Fox News host Glenn Beck every week for a spot on Beck's highly rated nationally syndicated radio show.
To be continued.
Peter Barry Chowka is a seasoned journalist who writes about national politics, media, popular culture, and health care.