Why has Trump turned against Fox News? It's an episode of "Succession" in real life

Trump's attacks on his pet network aren't just about bad poll numbers. Behind the scenes, there's HBO-style drama

By Heather Digby Parton


Published September 4, 2019 9:30AM (EDT)


I wrote on Tuesday about Trump's allegedly "innovative" strategy to attack the media, pointing out that conservatives have been doing this for decades. They've been "working the refs" of the mainstream media since before Richard Nixon's day. Trump even has an enemies list, although his wrinkle on that authoritarian impulse is to tweet out the names of the people he considers enemies while Nixon had the good grace to keep it secret.

Trump has recently seemed a bit confused about all this. Perhaps the stress is getting to him. But lately he's been "working the refs" at Fox News, apparently upset that they have had the temerity to interview people, at least once in a while, who express views opposed to Trump's. He's been exploding about this on his Twitter feed:

That's not how it's supposed to work. Fox News has always allowed Democrats to come on the air from time to time in order to keep up the pretense that it's a legitimate news organization. They even used to feature some liberal-leaning pundits just so they could say they were "fair and balanced."

This was always nonsense, of course. The whole point of the network was to provide a right-wing media outlet to benefit the Republican Party. As Russell Crowe, playing Roger Ailes in the recent Showtime "The Loudest Voice," put it:

Cable is about one thing: niche. The loyalty of a passionate few. We need to program directly to the viewer who is predisposed to buying what we're trying to sell. In politics it's called "turning out the base. "If we can do that, then they will never change the channel. And what is that niche? Well, I think it is conservatives. It's roughly half the damn country.

The show is based on the book of the same name by Gabriel Sherman about Ailes and Fox News.  I don't know if that quote is taken from that research, but it certainly conveys Ailes' vision. After years of pummeling the mainstream media for being liberal, conservatives had prepared the ground for a right-wing news network posing as an objective news organization. In order to maintain that fiction, it was important that they at least pay lip service to some objectivity in the news side even as their bombastic opinion stars like Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity fed the audience the red meat that Ailes knew would keep them coming back for more.

Ailes supported the Trump campaign — after resisting it at first —but he was in the middle of his own horrific sexual harassment scandal and in failing health. He was forced out of the network before Trump was elected and was relegated to helping the candidate prep for the debates against Hillary Clinton. (That reportedly didn't go well, although the parties involved didn't agree on why. ) But prior to that falling out, there had been talk that Ailes and Trump were planning to start a new TV network if Trump lost the election. Obviously that didn't happen although if Trump is defeated in 2020 there's a good chance that plan will be revived in some form. It's impossible to believe that Trump will be able to let go of the media spotlight. He would certainly have a built-in audience, potentially poached from Fox News.

Trump has openly shared his supposed reasons for being hostile to his favorite network. He is angry at recent Fox News poll which show, as do all the other reputable polls, that a large majority of Americans disapprove of him personally and are opposed to his policies. After a recent survey showing that the top five Democratic candidates would beat him handily if the election were held today, he told reporters:

I don’t believe it. I don’t believe it. Every place I go we have lines outside. Fox has changed. And my worst polls have always been from Fox. There’s something going on at Fox, I’ll tell you right now. And I’m not happy with it.

The Washington Post's Aaron Blake pointed out that other polling shows that among those who “strongly approve” of Trump, a vast majority trust Fox News more than any other network. He knows that many of his voters see the poll numbers and may wonder why he's always talking about how successful he is.  So he needs to discredit Fox — forcing his fans to take sides and choose who to believe.

But it isn't just the poll that has him fuming:

That even got Trump fanboy Brit Hume's hackles up and he replied, "Fox News isn’t supposed to work for you." Trump can be forgiven for making that mistake. Fox has been slavishly devoted to him since Ailes first set the wheels in motion during the 2016 campaign. Neil Cavuto ranted for some minutes about "integrity" and the like.  But others began fawning to the point of outright delusion:

Rupert Murdoch turned over the running of Fox Corp. to his eldest son, Lachlan, just before the sale of the company's entertainment division to Disney. It hasn't gone all that well. Fox News had already lost a step since Ailes departed and it's been getting worse. It isn't the slick production it once was, largely abandoning its pretense at being a major network and pretty much simply adopting the crude Breitbart-Trump line. There has been nonstop controversy over the network's turn to overt white nationalism, with advertisers leaving in droves. Reporters and pundits are at each other's throats, with the channel's biggest star, Sean Hannity, in open revolt.

Meanwhile, the younger, supposedly more liberal son, James Murdoch, who was responsible for the embarrassing phone hacking scandal in Britain, is said to be increasingly "troubled" by the direction of the network and is thinking of taking some of his billions and buying a rival network (as well, perhaps, as a comic book publisher.) There have been reports of Rupert possibly coming back to right the ship, despite his age and his health problems.

As in the HBO drama "Succession," which is clearly based on the Murdoch clan, the saga of Trump and Fox News is really about the extreme ineptitude and weakness of second-generation heirs to great fortunes. As Lucy Prebble, a writer and executive producer of the show, told the BBC, “Everybody is a coward, everybody is an idiot and everybody is trying to cover their back almost all of the time." That sure does sound familiar.

The writer Hugh Montgomery observed that "Succession" is “part of a reckoning with the particular strain of rich white men who continue to have a grip on the Western political and media establishment — and have, arguably, or very clearly, abused that power to monstrous effect.” I'm afraid that reckoning still has a way to go.

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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