Since the 2020 election, the talk on Fox News has been all about “pivot” — reorienting coverage from former President Donald J. Trump toward the more conventional Republican policies favored by the network’s founding chairman, Rupert Murdoch.
Mr Murdoch said at the time that he wanted to make Mr Trump “inhuman”. And as recently as January, when he was deposed as part of Dominion Voting Systems’ defamation suit against Fox, his feelings hadn’t changed. “I’d still like to,” said Mr Murdoch.
But Fox’s audience — the engine of its profits and the largest in all of cable — may not let him.
Anyone expecting that Fox’s $787.5 million settlement with Dominion this week will make the network coy or gentle is likely to be disappointed. And there probably won’t be much change in how the network favorably covers Mr. Trump and the issues that resonate with his followers.
“How are you going to argue with your hosts not to do things they value?” said Chris Stirewalt, a former Fox News editor and on-air personality who was fired from the network in 2021 and ordered to testify in the Dominion case. “You can’t tell people, ‘Do whatever it takes to get ratings, but don’t cover the most popular figure in the Republican Party.’
After a hiatus from the network that lasted much of 2022, Mr. Trump is returning to Fox News. He has given three interviews with the network in less than a month. The latest, which was taped earlier this month with Mark Levin, will air on Sunday.
Even voter fraud — the problem that led to Fox being sued for billions of dollars by Dominion and another voting technology company, Smartmatic — hasn’t completely disappeared. In Mr. Trump’s recent interview with Fox host Tucker Carlson, he hinted that he had good reason to question the legitimacy of President Biden’s victory, saying: “People can say he won an election.”
Mr. Carlson, for his part, has also recently returned to election denial. “Jan. 6, I think, is probably second only to the 2020 election as the biggest fraud of my lifetime,” he said on air on March 14. (His private text messages, disclosed as part of Dominion’s suit, show him discussing with his producers how there is no proof that the results of the 2020 election were materially affected by fraud.)
Mr Murdoch seems unlikely to make any major changes to any of his Fox properties in the near future. That, said three people who have worked closely with him, would be seen as the kind of admission of wrongdoing that he is unwilling to make. Dominion’s settlement did not include an apology – only a cursory reference to a judge’s findings that Fox had broadcast false statements about Dominion’s machines and their role in a fantastic plot to steal the election from Mr. Trump.
The $787.5 million payout is huge—itself an admission of wrongdoing, as one of the largest settlements ever in a defamation case. But it did not lead to the same degree of personal humiliation as the phone hacking scandal involving Mr Murdoch’s British newspapers. Then, in 2011, he had to appear before Parliament and atone for how his journalists had illegally hacked the voicemail accounts of prominent figures. He had a foam pie thrown in his face and admitted during his testimony: “This is the most humbling day of my life.”
But his quintessentially American news outlet shows little sign of humility. He devoted two short segments Tuesday to news of the Dominion settlement. After that, his coverage quickly returned to the same topics that had been covered since Mr. Biden was elected.
Her news reporting on the surge in migrants along the southern border is featured in the column “Biden’s Border Crisis.” Efforts by Republican lawmakers to pass laws barring transgender girls from participating in school sports teams are getting a lot of attention — when only a small number actually play, and sometimes none at all, in states where the laws are hotly debated. President Biden has been variously portrayed as out of touch, corrupt and weak – especially in his stance on China. Footage of criminals ransacking shops, assaulting police officers and attacking unwitting bystanders is played on a loop – often with perpetrators who are black.
Even Mr. Trump’s lies about rigging the 2020 presidential election have popped up here and there. Last week, right-wing commentator Clay Travis appeared on “Jesse Waters Primetime,” which last year replaced the more right-wing 7 p.m. newscast, and said Mr. Biden “won by only 20,000 votes after they rigged the entire election after hiding everything about Hunter Biden, big tech, big media, and the big Democratic collusion working in his favor.”
Mr. Waters did not correct or respond to these remarks on air.
Stories of voter fraud, often exaggerated and unfounded, were part of the network’s DNA long before 2020. In 2012, Roger Ailes, who founded Fox News with Mr. Murdoch, sent a team of journalists to Ohio to to investigate still-unproven allegations of abuse at the polls after former President Barack Obama defeated Mitt Romney there.
There are some subtle signs, however, that Fox wants to move past the Dominion episodes and the embarrassing revelations of network executives privately downplaying the same fraud allegations they allowed on air. It recently launched a promotional campaign highlighting its team of global correspondents in 30-second commercials. “We’re on a mission to be on the ground and report the big stories,” says one. Tensions between its news department and its prime-time anchors were exposed as part of the Dominion lawsuit, with private messages from late 2020 showing anchors such as Mr. Carlson and Sean Hannity mocked and complained about reporters in the Fox Washington bureau, which would fact-check the former president’s allegations of fraud.
And last week, Fox chose not to renew the contract of one of the most vocal election deniers on its payroll, Dan Boggino, a former Saturday night show host.
A Fox News spokeswoman said in a written statement that the network has “significantly increased its investment in journalism over the past several years, further expanding our commitment to gathering news both domestically and internationally.” The statement added: “We are extremely proud of our team of journalists.”
Mr. Trump undoubtedly remains one of the biggest stories of the moment, putting the network’s leadership in a position it doesn’t find ideal. In his testimony, Mr Murdoch admitted he had privately called the former president “crazy”, “plain crazy” and “unable to suppress his ego”. His personal politics are much closer to an establishment Republican in the mold of Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader for whom Mr. Ailes worked as a media consultant decades ago.
Mr. Trump can still command high ratings, even if he is no longer the singular figure he once was in the Republican Party. His interview with Mr. Carlson, following his arraignment in Manhattan on felony charges, drew an audience of 3.7 million. An interview Mr. Carlson did a few weeks earlier with Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida drew 3.1 million.
In the end, the numbers may prove to be the deciding factor in what coverage Fox gives the former president, regardless of Mr. Murdoch’s preferences.
A former Fox executive, John Ellis, summed up the conundrum the network has with its audience in his bulletin after Mr. Trump announced his 2024 campaign — an event that Fox News broadcast live. “Fox News’ power to influence the outcome of the GOP primary could be decisive,” he wrote. The Fox audience has plenty of Trump supporters, of course, but also plenty of others who might prefer another Republican as the nominee. People who identify as political independents watch it far more than CNN or MSNBC, according to Nielsen data in January and February.
“Trump probably won’t win the 2024 nomination if Fox News is determined to beat him,” Mr. Ellis added. “But to beat it, Fox News has to have the audience’s permission to do it.”
Michael M. Greenbaum contributed reporting.