One of the most important observations in the Donald Trump era of American politics — now celebrating its eighth anniversary — came in the book “The Divider,” by Susan Glasser and Peter Baker. It concerns Trump’s early relationship with Fox News and its founder Roger Ailes.
“What Ailes saw in Trump that he did not see in any other Republican politician of recent years,” Glasser and Baker write, “was someone who connected with the Fox audience even more than Fox did.”
This was the early days, after Trump had ascended to the forefront of Republican primary polling in July 2015. Ailes was “flummoxed” by Trump, the authors write, adopting a strategy of appeasement rather than destruction.
The network’s appeasement strategy outlived Ailes. Fox News spent the duration of Trump’s presidency defending him and undercutting his opponents out of fear that their viewership would bail. In May 2020, Monmouth University asked Republicans who they trusted more, Fox or Trump. They chose the president, by a wide margin.
After Trump lost the 2020 election, Fox News slowly started to move away from Trump — only to see their worst fears realized. He lashed out, demanding that the network echo his false claims about election fraud. His base demanded the same, turning to other, further-right cable-news channels for that content. Fox hosts tried appeasement once again, giving oxygen to the disinformation. It ended up costing Fox three-quarters of a billion dollars.
It is not surprising, then, that two recent reports suggest that Rupert Murdoch, chairman of Fox News’s parent company, is not enthusiastic about seeing Trump win the Republican nomination again in 2024.
Murdoch “has made clear in private discussions over the last two years that he thinks Mr. Trump, despite his popularity with Fox News viewers, is unhealthy for the Republican Party,” the New York Times reported on Wednesday. And so, like many Trump-skeptical Republicans, he’s been looking for an alternative.
Also, like many Trump-skeptical Republicans, Murdoch appears to have believed that the party could rerun 2016 but with a twist: put a popular alternative on the ballot against a moderately popular Trump, consolidate the anti-Trump vote and watch Trump fumble. But this approach has already shown significant limitations, including that the non-Trump vote hasn’t consolidated.
It’s also hobbled by the fact that the strongest non-Trump candidate to emerge was Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who for months enjoyed favorable treatment from Murdoch’s media properties. But his campaign has proven to be an alternative to Trump not in the sense that anti-Trump voters like him. Instead, it’s an alternative to Trump in the sense that Trump voters like him as their second choice.
DeSantis needed a strong campaign launch to assuage concerns that he might not be the consolidated anti-Trump candidate. He didn’t get it. So now, according to the Times and Rolling Stone, Murdoch is looking elsewhere.
“Murdoch has also noted DeSantis 2024’s recent failures to chip away at Trump’s stubborn dominance in the polls, despite the pre-campaign-launch hype about how things would significantly change right after DeSantis’ declaration,” Rolling Stone reported. Murdoch, the Times adds, has talked about getting Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin into the race (an idea that obviously appeals to Youngkin).
Again, though, the blame for Murdoch’s predicament centers heavily on Murdoch’s properties, including Fox News.
Consider what happened in 2015 and 2016. Before Trump announced his candidacy — and immediately after he did — Fox News didn’t spend a lot of time talking about him. Then his anti-immigration rhetoric sparked controversy and a surge in support and Fox News went from talking about Jeb Bush 60 percent more than Trump (in June 2015) to talking about Trump four times as much in July.
From then on, Trump consistently got far more coverage than his opponents. Fox News decided that appeasing their mutual fan base with Trump was better than antagonizing it.
As president, Fox spent far more time covering Trump than it had Barack Obama. From 2017 through 2019, Trump was consistently mentioned in 10 percent of 15-second blocks airing on the channel each month. That’s twice what Obama got in 2016 and more than Biden got in 2021. Even out of office in 2021, Trump continued getting as much attention from Fox News as Obama had in his last year in office.
One result was that no Republicans were more loyal to Trump than those who watched Fox News.
Over the past 20 months, Trump has continued to be a focus of Fox News coverage, often thanks to his allies on the network defending his actions. There was a spike in Fox News coverage of Trump in August 2022, coinciding with the FBI search of his property at Mar-a-Lago. Suffice it to say that this new attention was not critical of the former president.
So far this year, Trump has consistently attracted more attention than DeSantis on Fox News’s airwaves. On average, he is mentioned four times as often in a month as the Florida governor. Even in the month when DeSantis announced, Trump still beat him by almost 2 to 1.
And that was the peak of Fox’s attention for DeSantis. In the past two months, Fox News has mentioned the name Biden in the context of the president’s son Hunter more often than it has mentioned DeSantis.
(Youngkin barely registers in Fox’s coverage.)
Trump is now doing better in primary polling than he ever did in 2015 or 2016. His position with Republican voters — and, by extension, Fox News viewers — is better than it was the last time he was in a contested primary fight.
One key reason for that is that Murdoch and his media empire decided it was better to strengthen his position and retain his base as viewers than to challenge him even on the most obvious issues. They still do it.
Murdoch is reportedly frustrated with DeSantis and wants someone else who can challenge Trump. Few people bear more blame for his current position than Rupert Murdoch.