Los Angeles Times
How Fox News treats viewers as snowflakes
The TV network has tried to protect its brand as a safe space for the MAGA audience.
If you search for “safe space” on the Foxnews.com website you’ll get over 46,000 results. All of them aren’t about those woke snowflakes who need trigger warnings and cry rooms. But a lot of them are.
For instance, in 2017, shortly after the inauguration of Donald Trump, Tucker Carlson grilled a college professor about a student who came into her classroom crying about the election. “As the adult shouldn’t you say, ‘You know, it was an election, and it was democratic, and nobody got cancer, nobody died, and maybe you should toughen up a little?’ ”
Would that Carlson and the rest of Fox’s leadership had a similar attitude toward their own audience, whose average age is 56.
“A little more than a week after television networks called the 2020 presidential election for Joseph R. Biden Jr.,” the New York Times’ Peter Baker reported, “top executives and anchors at Fox News held an after-action meeting to figure out how they had messed up.”
The primary mess-up was the network’s decision to call Arizona for Joe Biden at 11:20 p.m. on election night. The call infuriated the Trump campaign and viewers alike.
Save for Washington managing editor Bill Sammon, who also served on the “Decision Desk” that made the call, attendees at the meeting believed the Arizona announcement hurt Fox’s “brand” — not because they got it wrong, or even because they got it right. It hurt the brand because it hurt people’s feelings.
That’s it. Calling Arizona had no real-world effect. Arizona’s polls — and polls everywhere except for solidly Democratic Hawaii — were closed. It was a bit like telling a fan who recorded the Super Bowl that his team lost before he had a chance to finish watching the game. It was mean, but no one wanted to tell the audience to “toughen up.”
Of course, Trump himself was angry for another reason. He’d encouraged his voters to vote on election day so he could claim to be ahead that night and declare victory before mail-in votes were counted the next day. He thought he could then win in the courts or Congress. As Stephen K. Bannon admitted before the election, this was always the plan. But the Arizona call made it harder to claim he was ever beating Biden.
It’s unclear whether some Fox opinion hosts were complicit or simply useful idiots in this scheme. But there’s no evidence the executives were in on any of that. Their overriding concern was simply not to hurt the feelings of the viewers and thereby lose them to upstart proTrump rivals One America News Network and Newsmax, which were all too happy to be safe spaces for election fraud lies.
At the meeting, Martha MacCallum, who co-anchored election coverage with Bret Baier, said of the Arizona call, “There’s just obviously been a tremendous amount of backlash, which is, I think, more than any of us anticipated.” A “loud faction of our viewership” saw the call as an affront, she said.
“We are still getting bombarded,” Baier said. “It became really hurtful.”
Both MacCallum and Baier argued for a “layer” of decision-making that would take into account the “implications.”
Thanks to revelations from Dominion Voting System’s defamation lawsuit against Fox (where I was a contributor for over a decade), we know that Fox leadership believed that protecting Fox’s brand as a safe space was more important than reporting the news — specifically claims that the election was “rigged.” Indeed, even expressing the opinion that Trump’s claims were nonsense was frowned upon.
Sammon resisted retracting the call, to the consternation of Fox Chief Executive Suzanne Scott. In an email to a colleague, she complained that Sammon failed to understand “the impact to the brand and the arrogance in calling AZ” and it was his job “to protect the brand.” Sammon believed his job was to, well, do his job as a journalist. He and Chris Stirewalt, the political editor (and my colleague at the Dispatch), were forced out because they violated the audience’s safe space.
In 2018, Fox revealed a new slogan, “Real News. Real Honest Opinion.” In the promotional ad, Carlson says, “Fox is the one place where dissent is allowed.”
But when Jacqui Heinrich, a Fox reporter, fact-checked a Trump tweet claiming the election was stolen, Carlson, who privately acknowledged that his honest opinion conflicted with what viewers were being told, texted colleagues: “Please get her fired.” He added: “It needs to stop immediately, like tonight. It’s measurably hurting the company. The stock price is down. Not a joke.”
Humor, of course, is in the eye of the beholder, but it’s hard not to chuckle at all the mockery of “safe spaces” now.