Can Fox News Survive?

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April 28, 2017 11:43 a.m.
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Let me cut to the chase and tentatively answer the question: Yes, I’m pretty sure Fox News can suvive. At least in some form. But as we see an endless series of leaks and hints about the future of the organization, possible firings, reboots and more, there’s one part of the equation that seems uncannily to evade sustained discussion. That is how the ‘problems’ (a widespread culture of sexual harassment, hostile workplace, discrimination and general law-breaking) are almost umbilically tied to the product itself.

If you’ve watched Fox for years and you found that it wasn’t a hotbed of sexual harassment, pervasive racist attitudes and a generalized sixty-something faux-bro “alpha” culture, you’d have to think you had been scammed, that the big screen talent were somehow hypocrites and frauds. It would be like finding out that Chris Hayes was a major libertarian who funded the Cato Institute and Club for Growth or that Joy Reid had secretly been advising Donald Trump throughout the 2016 election cycle.

Trump speaks during an interview with Bill O’Reilly on Fox News, Friday, Nov. 6, 2015, in New York. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

Obviously there are harassers of all political persuasions, unfortunately. But the simple facts is that lots of Fox’s programming has for years amounted to pro- ass-slapping your colleagues at work propaganda. The idea that the news about Ailes, O’Reilly and seemingly many others is surprising or that it is not inextricably bound up with the product itself is quite hard to sustain.

Rupert Murdoch, second from left, leaves a Manhattan restaurant with Fox News co-presidents Jack Abernethy, second from right, and Bill Shine, right, Monday, April 24, 2017, in New York. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

Today it looks like it may be over for Bill Shine, a top Ailes era executive who in the view of many was tainted by the Ailes regime but was nevertheless promoted after his 2016 defenestration. Revealingly, Sean Hannity is trying to launch a public ‘Justice for Shine’ movement to help Shine keep his job. The Hollywood Reporter reports that the Murdochs are looking to replace Shine and hope to replace him with a woman.

This all makes perfect sense. It’s how you start changing a toxic organizational culture. But again, that toxic culture is inextricably tied to the product itself: a worldview of resentment and provocation, contempt for changing cultural mores about sex, gender, race and a slew of other things. A company or a brand is a function of a relationship between an audience and a product. You cannot easily change the product without changing (or more likely losing) the audience.

To anticipate and correct any misunderstandings, I’m not saying conservatives are harassers or racists. Far from it.  But the charge, frisson and much of the gravitational pull of Fox News has been about a certain kind of cultural politics – resistance to changing cultural mores and how they affect the channel’s core demographic: older white men.

It’s worth considering whether News Corp can clean house at Fox without losing the cultural punch of the product and thus at least to some significant degree losing its hold on the audience itself.

Again, the culture, much more than people want to admit, is the product. That doesn’t mean Fox News can’t thrive under different management and different mores. But I don’t think it’s possible to recognize the scope of the challenge without reckoning with that fact.

 

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