Fox News seems to be reviving its old playbook of trying to discredit its critics, this time by hiring two conservative, former reporters for the job, according to The New York Times.
From Ben Smith’s May 31 column:
Quietly, Mr. Murdoch and his main deputy Viet Dinh, a former Bush administration official, have begun taking a more aggressive approach. Last summer, they hired Raj Shah, a former Trump White House official who led opposition research against Hillary Clinton at the Republican National Committee. And this year, I recently learned, Mr. Shah has begun to build a secret operation, hiring two former reporters for the conservative Washington Free Beacon, Elliott Schwartz and Alex Griswold. (Mr. Schwartz had also run Jeb Bush’s campaign “war room.”) Their job is to defend Fox from criticism from progressive outlets like Media Matters and Sleeping Giants on social media, protect advertising dollars and discredit critics, three people familiar with the work said. (The two former reporters have conspicuously omitted Fox from their Twitter bios.)
But Mr. Shah’s new team suggests that the criticism of its coronavirus coverage has stung hosts and alienated advertisers. But it also seems a kind of ineffectual, corporate re-enactment of Mr. Ailes’s once-feared opposition-research tactics, which included private detectives, aggressive hunts for leaks and smear campaigns against reporters. The new Fox executive team shares Mr. Ailes’s ambitions, but doesn’t seem to have the stomach for his tactics.
I have no idea if NewsHounds will be targeted or if the network is only focusing on larger outlets and/or ones that target its advertisers. That is a tactic we have deliberately avoided. However, we’re certainly not crying over Fox’s lost advertising revenue.
Media Matters’ president and CEO Angelo Carusone writes today that its toxic rhetoric has cost Fox “hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising revenue” over the last few years. The network is now looking to make that up by hiking its subscriber fees, the fees it charges cable providers for each subscriber, which are then passed on to all of us who have cable or satellite, regardless of whether we watch Fox or not.
This year, Fox News is renegotiating cable contracts that account for about 65% of its subscriber fee revenue.
Fox News actually gets the majority of its revenue from subscriber fees, not advertising revenue.
Fox News is notoriously recognized as the most aggressive negotiator. To be clear, it’s not just that the network is good at negotiating. It lies, bullies, and -- in my opinion -- cheats. For example, during these negotiations, Fox doesn’t tell viewers it is trying to charge them more. Instead, it threatens the provider with access to Fox News. Then it turns around and tells Fox News viewers that their cable company is trying to silence Fox News for ideological reasons; the network enlists hosts to spread misinformation too.
So what’s the effect of all this? Subscriber fees for news and information channels are normally pretty small. MSNBC gets about 33 cents, CNN gets about 70 cents to 90 cents (and that includes CNN and CNN Headline News). In contrast, Fox News gets more than $2 per month from every cable customer in the country. This is wildly out of step with industry averages.
According to Carusone, the hikes Fox is seeking could raise that to $3 per month per customer. But, he writes, “a backlash among cable providers has been brewing as well. The recognition of Fox News’ toxicity and extremism only compounds the headwinds the network faces heading into negotiations.”
Yet, because of its lost advertising revenue, “Fox News needs this current round of negotiations to succeed,” Carusone continues. In a lengthy Twitter thread on the subject, he points out that this is Fox’s firewall. He urges people to keep up the pressure on advertisers and to “Tell able providers to stop forcing all of us to pay Fox News such a wildly inflated” fee, let alone an even higher one. “Make Fox News actually rely on ads for revenue, watch how fast they change,” he adds.
Personally, I have mixed feelings about this approach. It makes me queasy to try to stifle media outlets no matter how odious. Perhaps more importantly, I feel that the Fox genie is out of the bottle and has already infected mainstream America with its poison. It's the poison we need to find an antidote for, not destroy the bottle, in my view. But, like the advertising dollars, I won’t cry over any Fox losses, either.
One thing you can be sure of: We will be criticizing Fox every bit as much as we are able, maybe even a little more.
(Murdoch image via screen grab)