For decades, Fox News thrived because the people behind it understood what their audiences 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 such as MSNBC and CNN. That’s largely thanks to the likes of Tucker Carlson, whose show “Tucker Carlson Tonight” is one of the top rated in cable news. But on April 24, Fox announced that Carlson leaves the networkand while no explanation was given, 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 lawsuit filed by Dominion Voting Systems due to the network’s promotion of misinformation about the 2020 election. had dominion cited claims about 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 court. The settlement reveals Fox’s greatest strength and weakness: the network’s incredible understanding of what its audience wants and its relentless willingness to deliver just that.
More real than elites
I am a journalism scholar studying the relationship between the news industry and the publicand I’ve been interested in it for a long time Understanding Fox’s call. As a media scientist Reece Peck observes within his book on the network, Fox’s success isn’t so much about politics as it is about style. Fox’s star stations like Carlson found tremendous success by embracing an approach to authenticity as a form of populism.
They presented themselves as more “real” than the “out-of-touch elites” at other news organizations. Journalists have traditionally tried to win the public’s 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.
If Cock notes, Fox broadcasters present themselves as “ordinary Americans … challenging the cultural elitism of the news industry.” So Fox’s appeal isn’t just in its political leanings, but its just-like-you presentation that establishes anchors like Carlson as allies in the fight against the buttoned-up establishment they regularly discredit.
Basically, NPR plays smooth jazz between segments, while Fox plays country.
‘Authenticity’ became a pitfall
This working-class anti-establishment persona embraced by many of Fox’s broadcasters has always been an achievement.
In 2000, Bill O’Reilly, who would eventually become the network pay tens of millions of dollars each yearcalled his show the “show only from the point of view of the working class.”
More recently, Sean Hannity, who is a friend of former President Donald Trump and earns about $30 million a year, denounced the “overpaid” media elites. Peck notes that this stance is purposeful: it emphasizes “the moral purity of Fox, a purity defined in terms of distance from the corrupting power of political and media power centers.”
The Dominion lawsuit, however, showed that Fox, after decades of using this decidedly populist – and often misleading – brand of performative authenticity to earn the loyalty of millions of people, was trapped by it.
Internal communications between Fox broadcasters revealed in the months leading up to the trial’s scheduled start date showed that the network’s major appearances attempted to reconcile their audience’s sense that the 2020 election was rigged with their own skepticism about that lie.
For example, posts made public as part of the Dominion lawsuit showed Carlson that he believed Sidney Powell, Trump’s attorney, was lying about claims of election fraud. But, he added “our viewers are good people and they believe it.” Fox didn’t tell his audience what to believe. Instead, it followed the lead of the audience and presented a false story that matched what the viewers wanted to be true.
Once Fox broadcasters and the Fox audience became connected by the network’s outsider status, those broadcasters felt compelled to follow the public off a cliff of election misinformation and head straight for a defamation lawsuit. The alternative would risk tarnishing his populist persona and, ironically, his credibility with his audience.
Like the New York Times TV critic James Poniewozik noted“The customer is always right. In fact, the customer is the boss.”
A trendsetter and a cautionary tale
The Dominion trial was more than a rare opportunity to see firsthand how dishonest Fox’s talent acted when the cameras rolled.
It is also a cautionary tale for those who see so-called authenticity as a sign of trustworthiness in journalism, and the media in general.
“As a society, we … love the idea of people ‘being themselves'” says scholar Emily Hunda researcher at the Center on Digital Culture and Society at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of “The influencer industry: the quest for authenticity on social media.”
The question many seem to ask themselves implicitly when deciding to trust journalists and others within the media world seem to be shifting from “Does this person know what they’re talking about?” to “Is this person real?”
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 human beings in the first place. These efforts are not always unfair; however, they are always a performance.
For decades, Fox’s enduring 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 disingenuous that authenticity can be.