- Fox News has given up all pretense of acting as a news network.
- It’s time advertisers and cable companies stop funding the deception Fox beams into American homes.
- The more people let cable providers know that they are done funding Fox News, the less leverage the network has going into renegotiations.
- Nikki Ramirez is a researcher at Media Matters For America, a nonprofit media watchdog.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
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After a year spent undermining public health and safety, eroding confidence in our democracy, and mainstreaming white nationalism, it’s become even clearer that Fox News is a threat to the American public. Now, the network wants more money.
Per multiple industry publications, Fox News made a preemptive pitch to advertisers on May 11 in advance of the advertising industry “upfront” presentations scheduled to begin the following week. Major television networks, including Fox News, have traditionally used those presentations to sell the majority of their advertising space “upfront” for the year ahead.
Reports suggest that in that pitch, Fox News touted its daytime programming and streaming service and did not mention its prime-time lineup, presenting it’s day-side and online programming as a subdued and safe investment for buyers.
The move is understandable. Tucker Carlson and his fellow prime-time hosts, including Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity, have made the channel a toxic swamp for advertisers, who’ve fled in droves.
Those of us who watch Fox News daily know that there is very little news reporting left on the network’s “news side.” Watch a single night of the network’s “reporting” and it becomes abundantly clear that Fox has dropped all pretenses of operating as a journalistic operation. The network has used the cover of its “opinion” side to truncate coverage of the mundane trappings of real world news events in favor of culture war narratives like “the war on beef,” the apocalyptic threat of “cancel culture,” obsessive, fear mongering about transgender individuals, or a network-wide fixation on critical race theory.
And while conjuring controversy out of thin air is a staple at the network, executives have steadily transitioned resources away from “news side” operations in favor of buttressing the antics of their opinion hosts – antics that have landed the network in multiple multibillion-dollar defamation lawsuits and forced Fox to argue in court that its most popular anchor, Tucker Carlson, shouldn’t actually be taken seriously by viewers.
Fox is expecting an uphill battle in convincing potential advertisers and cable companies that they won’t face public backlash for being the financial backer the next time a Fox host endorses a white nationalist conspiracy theory, casts doubts on the results of a fair and free election, or contributes to the consistent stream of virulent rhetoric that plagues the network.
In fact, a broad and diverse coalition of more than 40 organizations sent an open letter to media buyers during the television industry’s upfront period, urging them not to buy advertisements on Fox News, warning that any ad spend on the network will fund the promotion of COVID conspiracy theories, bigotry, and lies.
In response to that letter, Fox News told The Wrap that it is “about to close out its fourth consecutive year delivering new records in advertising revenue, so clearly Media Matters’ predictable ongoing partisan attacks have zero impact outside of their irrelevant echo chamber on social media.”
The network was one of the biggest backers of former President Donald Trump’s attempts to subvert the results of the 2020 election. Following the January 6 storming of the US Capitol building, Fox became headquarters for the public relations defense of the rioters who attempted to stop the vote to certify Joe Biden’s election.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, which has killed almost 600,000 Americans, Fox News chose to provide its audience not with informative coverage, but with a flood of misinformation and conspiracy theories. The network denounced protective measures like masks and social distancing, broadcast conspiracy theories about vaccines, and consistently undermined trust in public health officials and the scientific community.
During the upfronts, Fox News scrambled to draw a veil over their record and paint a sunny picture for investors and media buyers. But the network that has built itself as a place for laundering and repackaging extremism, and has handsomely rewarded those who do it well. Now it faces a reckoning with advertisers and cable companies, whose cash and contracts Fox needs.
Head of Fox Corp Lachlan Murdoch has made clear that there is no line he won’t let his hosts cross. Tucker Carlson has long been a major hub of white nationalist talking points, but on April 8, Carlson made one of his most explicit endorsements of the worldview to date: an outright embrace of the “great replacement” conspiracy theory. It is abundantly clear that Fox News will not only tolerate Carlson’s full-throated amplification of white nationalist ideology, but will actively enable and support it. Simply put: Public condemnation alone will achieve nothing. The way to force accountability at Fox is to put its finances on the line.
While the prospect may seem daunting, the 2021 advertising bookings represent a unique opportunity for an exercise in consumer power. Fox is banking on its viewers’ ignorance of advertising sales practices and cable subscriber fees to keep its head above water. But the reality is that Fox collects a lot of its advertising money upfront and every American household with a basic cable package gives the network roughly $20 a year regardless of whether they actually watch the channel.
Fox has for a long time leveraged the promise of a loyal viewership in order to increase the fee it charges cable companies to carry their channel, negotiating a much higher price than the other major news networks charge. While more than 90 million households pay for Fox News, only about 3 million are regular viewers.
Fox News understands what should be clear to everyone: that advertising dollars and cable subscriber fees are what fund the disordered stew the network attempts to pass off as news. Fox recognized that upfronts are critical and that they are no longer a guaranteed bet for investors – that’s why the network is attempting to hide its most controversial talent in the back room until the contracts are signed. It’s why Fox has made a conspicuous pivot to streaming, where it’s given its most caustic anchor two new shows that are insulated from the scrutiny of accessible public viewing.
Despite these tactics, advertisers and cable companies can no longer feign ignorance regarding the destructive nature of Fox News’ programming. It is no longer simply a matter of financial interest but a clear-cut ethical boundary.
The more pressure placed on the networks’ backers to stop funding Fox News, by contacting them directly or joining initiatives like #UnFoxMyCableBox, the less leverage the network has going into renegotiations. A mutiny by cable consumers, coupled with a drought of advertiser interest, could push Fox toward a financial position vulnerable enough to force a change.
As Fox competes for advertising dollars, it is also in the process of renegotiating between 40% to 50% of its cable contracts. Media Matters President Angelo Carusone explained to On The Media’s Bob Garfield that Fox News “could have zero commercials, and still have a 90% profit margin, because they are the second-most expensive channel on everybody’s cable box.”
Carusone went on to explain that if Fox is “able to successfully complete these renegotiations over the next year, and get more money out of it, there’s nothing they can do or say that will get them any meaningful consequences and force them to change.” If Fox can make it through this year’s upfronts and renegotiations unscathed, it could mean years of financial impunity.
It’s time to defund Fox News. The network has forfeit any right to claim to special treatment by advertisers and cable providers. By continuing to support the network’s outsized cash grab under consumers’ noses, advertising agencies and cable companies are safeguarding the slush fund that enables Fox to dodge any form of accountability, no matter the detrimental effect it has on the American public.