There’s an observation in a new book about Donald Trump’s tenure in national politics that is critical to understanding both him and his relationship with Fox News. The book, from the New York Times’s Peter Baker and the New Yorker’s Susan Glasser, explores how Trump’s emergence in 2015 flummoxed the network and its then-emperor, Roger Ailes.
“What Ailes saw in Trump that he did not see in any other Republican politician of recent years,” Baker and Glasser write, “was someone who connected with the Fox audience even more than Fox did.”
This is unquestionably true, as polling would later make clear. Trump’s skill in the 2016 Republican primary was that he spoke the language of the angry right wing as a native. He, like them, was a Fox News fan who found himself lured further to the fringe by sites such as Breitbart. Trump had a regular gig as a contributor to “Fox & Friends” before he announced his candidacy, and his ability to speak to the Fox News audience served him very well in building a core base of political support after he did. For Fox News, though, this was not ideal: Here was a platform larger than theirs, competing for the same audience.
So the network spent the four years of Trump’s presidency mostly echoing and amplifying the antics and rhetoric of the president their base loved. Fox News Republicans became the beating heart of Trump’s support. The play worked pretty well … until Trump lost his reelection bid and demanded that his universe of loyalists pretend he hadn’t. Suddenly the balancing act that Fox News had been managing — keeping Trump supporters happy while not collapsing into outright misinformation — became increasingly wobbly.
As Baker and Glasser report, the period immediately after the election forced Fox News executives and stars to choose between what the audience wanted to hear and what it needed to hear. Reality, they write, did not always win that fight.
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It began when Fox News’s decision desk called the state of Arizona for Joe Biden. This was an aggressive call by any standard. No other network joined them, viewing the race as too close to call. The Fox News team was relying heavily on data and assumptions that would later prove to be incorrect or flawed, including data from the Associated Press, which also made an early call. Fox News’s experts predicted on election night that the votes weren’t there for Trump to close his deficit. He almost did.
Fox News’s on-air talent wasn’t in a position to debate the nuances of the numbers with the team making the call, but Trump’s campaign staff was. So they started working the phones, seemingly contacting anyone at the network who would pick up. Baker and Glasser report that Fox News anchor Bret Baier was among those hearing from Trump’s team.
In an email to higher-ups sent two days after the election, he reportedly wrote: “This situation is getting uncomfortable. Really uncomfortable. I keep having to defend this on air.”
“He accused the Decision Desk of ‘holding on for pride,’” Baker and Glasser write, “and added: ‘It’s hurting us. The sooner we pull it — even if it gives us major egg — and we put it back in his column the better we are in my opinion.’” As the authors of the book note, Arizona couldn’t be put “back” into Trump’s column, because it was never there in the first place.
In a statement released Tuesday through a Fox News spokesperson, Baier sought to re-contextualize the comments.
“In the immediate days following the election, the vote margins in Arizona narrowed significantly and I communicated these changes to our team along with what people on the ground were saying and predicting district by district,” the statement read. “I wanted to analyze at what point (what vote margin) would we have to consider pulling the call for Biden. I also noted that I fully supported our decision desk’s call and would defend it on air.” (This doesn’t conflict with the book’s reporting, as Glasser pointed out in a response sent to The Washington Post.)
But it’s Baker and Glasser’s reporting on Fox executives that’s more condemning about the network’s post-election efforts.
For example, they write, early in the morning after the election, the network’s CEO “suggested that Fox should not call any more states until they were officially certified by election authorities,” meaning that the network would not be in the unhappy position of having to tell its audience of Trump fans that their president had both lost and was misleading them about this reality.
Other top executives agreed with this strategy, though it was not implemented. Instead, the network reportedly dragged its feet. When other networks called Nevada for Biden, Fox News President Jay Wallace blocked the network from following suit, Baker and Glasser write. After all, with Arizona already going for Biden, adding Nevada to the Democrat’s total would make Fox News the first network in the country to call the election against Trump.
Needless to say, this is not how news organizations are supposed to work. If Fox News was confident about its Arizona call, which it was enough to not retract it, it should have similarly followed the lead of its decision desk on calling Nevada and, with it, the election. But the post-election period was fraught for the network, as Baker and Glasser note, with upstart networks unconcerned about repeating Trump’s falsehoods biting at their heels. (In an interview with the New Yorker in November 2020, the CEO of Newsmax admitted flatly that telling Trump’s base what it wanted to hear was good for his network’s business.)
With Trump’s diminished voice on the national stage, Fox News has been under less pressure to kowtow to his rhetoric and complaints. It still recognizes the preferences of its viewers, of course; when the network declined to broadcast the prime-time hearings held by the House select committee probing the Capitol riot, host Laura Ingraham attributed the decision to the desire to “cater to our audience.”
But, as 2024 approaches, Trump’s voice is once again growing louder. Fox News may again find itself torn between what actually happened and what Trump and his supporters wish had happened. And if the post-election period of 2020 is any guide, what actually happened may not always be what ends up on air.
Aaron Blake contributed to this report.