Fox News reportedly considering top executive firings over their post-election ratings collapse

If Fox News wants to restore its cable news ratings dominance, changes will have to be visible far lower in its organization than what is being reported.

Though I was angry over its election night coverage and have been dismayed at the behavior of a number of its on-air personalities, I take no joy in the ratings crisis that seems to be engulfing Fox News. For all its faults, its reach, resources, and stable of outstanding talent like Tucker Carlson make it an essential voice in a nation with a media scene that is getting scarier by the day. There is no doubt in my mind that, if FNC disappeared or lost its cable system distribution, as at least one of its rivals seems to be advocating, conservatism would be in a much weaker position.

Yesterday, The Daily Beast published an article with four authors, one of them a departed FNC staffer who charged sexual harassment and settled for an undisclosed sum, claiming:

Amid ongoing ratings struggles, Fox News CEO Suzanne Scott and President Jay Wallace are fighting for their jobs as their boss Rupert Murdoch has swooped in to take a more hands-on role at the network in recent days, multiple network insiders told The Daily Beast.

Fox disputes the report:

In response to a request for comment for this story, a Fox Corporation spokesperson said, “Your premise is wrong. It is wishful thinking by our competitors.” But when pressed for a statement of support for Scott from Fox CEO Lachlan Murdoch, none was forthcoming.

I have no inside knowledge of the situation there, but firing the CEO is a frequent response for corporations in crisis, even when the roots of the trouble lie elsewhere. If nothing else, it is highly symbolic. In Japan, it is almost a rule that a CEO takes responsibility for serious misbehavior that had nothing to do with him, and that practice has drawn at least some admiring notice overseas.

Were Scott and Wallace responsible for hiring liar and cheater Donna Brazile, a move that still rankles? Did they encourage Chris Wallace to play the role in the presidential debate that he did? I have no idea, but the top of a firm is responsible for whoever made those decisions.

The Beast indicated that the Murdoch family is stepping in:

Rupert Murdoch, who turns 90 in March, is returning to the United States after spending most of last year in the United Kingdom, and reversing Fox’s ratings decline is his top concern, according to a person familiar with his thinking. He had been waiting to receive the second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine—which he has received in recent days—before coming stateside.

The media mogul is now playing a more active role in decision-making at the network with his son Lachlan. Part of their increased involvement, sources said, included the overhaul of Fox’s daytime lineup, which was announced Monday and included moving news anchor Martha MacCallum out of the early primetime 7 p.m. slot in favor of more opinion-based programming at that hour—an obvious attempt to appeal to a hardcore conservative base.

The Murdoch pair are said to be “disenchanted” with Scott and Wallace, with the poor ratings being the main topic of conversation. “I mean, Rupert got involved with the shuffling of the lineup, so that’s never a good sign for someone in charge,” a current Fox staffer told The Daily Beast. “What is the point of having a manager running your business if you have to run the business yourself?”

While Lachlan Murdoch is the CEO of the parent Fox Corporation and Rupert Murdoch is co-chairman with him, the Murdoch family does not show up among the top ten shareholders. But because, like the New York Times Company, Fox Corporation has two classes of shares with radically different voting rights, the Murdoch family is able to exercise control. From a Fox Corporation SEC filing:

As a result of his ability to appoint certain members of the board of directors of the corporate trustee of the Murdoch Family Trust, which beneficially owns less than one percent of the outstanding Class A Common Stock and 38.4% of Class B Common Stock, K. Rupert Murdoch may be deemed to be a beneficial owner of the shares beneficially owned by the Murdoch Family Trust. K. Rupert Murdoch, however, disclaims any beneficial ownership of these shares. Also, K. Rupert Murdoch beneficially owns or may be deemed to beneficially own an additional less than one percent of Class B Common Stock and approximately one percent of Class A Common Stock. Thus, K. Rupert Murdoch may be deemed to beneficially own in the aggregate approximately one percent of Class A Common Stock and 38.9% of Class B Common Stock. This concentration of voting power could discourage third parties from making proposals involving an acquisition of FOX. Additionally, the ownership concentration of Class B Common Stock by the Murdoch Family Trust increases the likelihood that proposals submitted for stockholder approval that are supported by the Murdoch Family Trust will be adopted and proposals that the Murdoch Family Trust does not support will not be adopted, whether or not such proposals to stockholders are also supported by the other holders of Class B Common Stock.

The Daily Beast says that a possible successor as CEO is someone that conservatives generally regard with great distaste:

According to multiple insiders, there is speculation that David Rhodes, a former Fox News vice president, could return to replace Scott. Two people familiar with the matter said Rhodes, who has also led Bloomberg and CBS News, is often mentioned as Lachlan’s top pick to take over the network CEO role. According to a current staffer at Fox News, the Murdochs “like Rhodes a lot,” adding that they felt that Scott was “always a temporary solution.”

From my standpoint, if FNC wants to regain the viewership it lost, the personnel changes that are necessary would be farther down the organization chart, in the on-air and supervisory editorial staff. Chris Wallace has lost the trust of lots of conservatives. Ace points a finger at Bill Sammon, a former on-air personality with senior editorial responsibilities. I just don't know who was calling the shots on wrongly predicting Ohio and the incredible early, but ultimately correct call on Arizona election night. And I don't know who is responsible for the hiring and continued employment of on-air personalities that are viewer repellants for conservatives.

I do suspect that unless there are changes far more dramatic than those announced a couple of days ago, Fox News will not regain any lost ground quickly. Trying to be CNN-lite won’t cut it. Roger Ailes discovered a niche that was, as the late Charles Krauthammer joked, "half the country." That is a market position that is enviable and worked like a charm for many years. Discarding it was a mistake.

I presume that the rest of the major media would love to see FNC disappear, for ideological and competitive reasons. It would be a tragedy if they get their apparent wishes fulfilled.