By Jacob L. Nelson
For decades, Fox News thrived because the people behind it understood what their audience wanted and were more than willing to deliver: television news – or what Fox called news – from a populist perspective.
Fox is consistently the most-watched cable news channel, far ahead of competitors like MSNBC and CNN. That’s in large part due to people like Tucker Carlson, whose show “Tucker Carlson Tonight” has been one of the highest-rated in cable news. But on April 24, Fox announced that Carlson is leaving the network, and while no explanation was provided, it’s safe to say it wasn’t a lack of viewers.
Carlson’s departure came on the heels of Fox News’ US$787.5 million settlement of the lawsuit lodged by Dominion Voting Systems over the network’s promotion of misinformation about the 2020 election. Dominion had cited claims made on Carlson’s program as well as on other shows as evidence of defamation, and Carlson was expected to testify if the case had gone to trial. The settlement reveals Fox’s biggest strength and weakness: the network’s incredible understanding of what its audience wants and its unrelenting willingness to deliver exactly that.
More real than elites
I’m a journalism scholar who studies the relationship between the news industry and the public, and I’ve long been interested in understanding Fox’s appeal. As media scholar Reece Peck observes in his book about the network, Fox’s success is less about politics than it is about style. Fox’s star broadcasters like Carlson found enormous success by embracing an authenticity-as-a-form-of-populism approach.
They presented themselves as more “real” than the “out-of-touch elites” at other news organizations. Journalists have traditionally attempted to earn audience trust and loyalty by emphasizing their professionalism and objectivity, while people like Carlson earn it by emphasizing an us-against-them anti-elitism where expertise is more often a criticism than a compliment.
As Peck notes, Fox broadcasters present themselves as “ordinary Americans … challenging the cultural elitism of the news industry.” So the allure of Fox is not just in its political slant, but in its just-like-you presentation that establishes anchors like Carlson as allies in the fight against the buttoned-up establishment figures they regularly disparage.
In short, NPR plays smooth jazz between segments, while Fox plays country.
‘Authenticity’ became a trap
This anti-establishment, working-class persona embraced by many of Fox’s broadcasters has always been a performance.
Back in 2000, Bill O’Reilly, whom the network would eventually pay tens of millions of dollars a year, called his show the “only show from a working-class point of view.”
More recently, Sean Hannity, who is a friend of former President Donald Trump’s and makes about $30 million a year, slammed “overpaid” media elites. Peck observes that this posturing is purposeful: It emphasizes “Fox’s moral purity, a purity that is established in terms of a distance from the corrupting force of political and media power centers.”
However, the Dominion lawsuit revealed that, after decades of using this distinctly populist – and often misleading – brand of performative authenticity to earn the loyalty of millions of people, Fox became trapped by it.
Internal communications between Fox broadcasters that were revealed in the months leading up to the trial’s scheduled start date showed the network’s marquee acts trying to reconcile their audience’s sense that the 2020 election had been rigged with their own skepticism about that lie.
Messages made public as part of the Dominion suit show Carlson, for example, said that he believed that Sidney Powell, Trump’s lawyer, was lying about election fraud claims. But, he added “our viewers are good people and they believe it.” Fox wasn’t telling its audience what to believe. Instead, it was following its audience’s lead and presenting a false narrative that aligned with what its viewers wanted to be true.
Once Fox’s broadcasters and the Fox audience became bonded by the network’s outsider status, those broadcasters felt compelled to follow the audience off a cliff of election misinformation and right into a defamation lawsuit. The alternative would run the risk of sullying its populist persona and, ironically, its credibility with its audience.
As New York Times TV critic James Poniewozik observed, “The customer is always right. In fact, the customer is boss.”
A trendsetter and a cautionary tale
The Dominion lawsuit was more than a rare opportunity to see firsthand just how dishonestly Fox’s talent acted when the cameras were rolling.
It’s also a cautionary tale for those who see so-called authenticity as a marker of trustworthiness in journalism, and in the media more generally.
“As a society, we … love the idea of people ‘being themselves,’” says scholar Emily Hund, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center on Digital Culture and Society and the author of “The Influencer Industry: The Quest for Authenticity on Social Media.”
The question that many seem to implicitly ask themselves when deciding whether to trust journalists and others within the media world seems to be shifting from “Does this person know what they are talking about?” to “Is this person genuine?”
Media workers have noticed: Journalists, celebrities and marketers routinely share seemingly personal information about themselves on social media in an effort to present themselves as people first and foremost. These efforts are not always necessarily dishonest; however, they are always a performance.
For decades, Fox’s prolonged popularity has made it clear that authenticity is truly valuable when it comes to building credibility and audience loyalty. Now, the network’s settlement with Dominion has revealed just how manipulative and insincere that authenticity can be.
Jacob L. Nelson is Assistant Professor of Communication at the University of Utah.
The Conversation arose out of deep-seated concerns for the fading quality of our public discourse and recognition of the vital role that academic experts could play in the public arena. Information has always been essential to democracy. It’s a societal good, like clean water. But many now find it difficult to put their trust in the media and experts who have spent years researching a topic. Instead, they listen to those who have the loudest voices. Those uninformed views are amplified by social media networks that reward those who spark outrage instead of insight or thoughtful discussion. The Conversation seeks to be part of the solution to this problem, to raise up the voices of true experts and to make their knowledge available to everyone. The Conversation publishes nightly at 9 p.m. on FlaglerLive.
David Schaefer says
I’m glad that the idiot is gone now Hannity and Igranm have got to go..
If everyone you disagree with is an “idiot”, perhaps some introspective examination is warranted.
Well, just remember that Tucker himself acknowledged in an email exchange that his audience consisted of “…dumb…cousin f—king types” so don’t be offended.
@A song says it all
Hasta Lavista Don Lemmon too! says
Now he just need that other light in the loafer idiot you know the one that stands in a ditch during some light flooding to make the water seem higher, Anderson cooper
easy as pie to rig voting machines, BSCS/minor in math
If it was so easy, the conspirators would have been able to produce the evidence.
They couldn’t because there isn’t any.
Ray W. says
Actually, as the News-Journal reported after the 2000 Volusia recount, the manufacturer of newly purchased machines that were used in Volusia County had contributed money to Florida Republican politicians before its product was legislatively approved for purchase throughout the state. During that hand recount, 21 of the 172 precinct machines had more ballots in their bins than the counters had registered. None of the machines had fewer ballots than counted. None of those 21 machines had more than five extra ballots in the bin, but that still proved that somehow the counter was not counting all of the inserted ballots. A count of signatures from each of the 21 precincts showed enough signatures to cover all of the ballots in the bins. Gore picked up 151 votes in the hand recount. No one will ever know how many of the originally non-counted ballots were Gore votes, only that Gore gained on Bush in Volusia County after the hand recount. Roughly 500 ballots were considered to be either overvotes or undervotes. Each was considered by the canvassing board. If the overvotes and undervotes accounted for all of the additional 151 Gore votes, then roughly 325 were for Gore and 175 were for Bush. Statistically possible, but unlikely in such a close race. Again, no one will ever know. The goal was to get an accurate hand recount, not find out why the machines might have been off in their counts.
One hypothetical way to manipulate the vote in favor of Republican candidates is to insert a subroutine that uses a random number generator each time the machine reads that a Democratic candidate has been selected by a voter. Most random number generators from that timeframe used a four-digit generator (0-9999). If the subroutine was coded to ignore the Democratic vote whenever one of 50 preselected numbers randomly came up, then five in 1000 Democratic votes, at random, would not be counted. I am not saying this is what was done, or that any other type of manipulation was done. I am saying that it can be done, and that Republicans know how to do it, because their coding experts know more than I do.
After the 2000 election, a lawsuit was filed, seeking access to the software. The company argued that allowing access to its software could reveal its coding secrets to the public, making the software worthless, as anyone could steal its code and put the company out of business. The trial judge agreed. No independent expert reviewed the software to determine if such a subroutine was used.
Dominion, by filing suit against Fox News, revealed its software in discovery. Apparently, no such subroutine was found by Fox lawyers or their experts.
He got no severance pay, and the rest the liars on that show need to be fired also. They poisoned the public with their lies and propaganda. I hope all Fox’s law suits shut them down for good.
What can of human can do what Tucker did everyday lie to his followers and behind the scene call them idiots for believing him. He got what he deserved and as shady as he is, he will join the Cult party a long with Jordan, MTG and all the other propaganda spreaders who are trying to destroying our country.
There needs to be criminal charges filed against all of them, and then maybe it will stop.
john stove says
You talk about the propaganda arm of the Republicans…..emails and texts showing total disgust with Trump, Guliani, Powell and all other lunatic lawyers and yet they still try to tell the world that the “Election was stolen”……”Trump is the best president ever”…..total bats**t crazy. All the crap they have been spewing is catching up to them and they are being exposed as the pathetic liars they are (just like Trump).
Buh-Bye Tucker…..lots of luck finding your next fascist propaganda medium
I hope this is the beginning of the end for the lying fox machine.
Also the real idiotrasis has been fired. Don Lemon is gone . YAHOO.