For decades, Fox News thrived because the people behind it understood what their audience wanted and were more than willing to deliver: television news – or what Fox called news – from a populist perspective.
Fox is consistently the most-watched cable news channel, far ahead of competitors like MSNBC and CNN. That’s in large part due to people like Tucker Carlson, whose show “Tucker Carlson Tonight” has been one of the highest-rated in cable news. But on April 24, Fox announced that Carlson is leaving the network, and while no explanation was provided, it’s safe to say it wasn’t a lack of viewers.
Carlson’s departure came on the heels of Fox News’ US$787.5 million settlement of the lawsuit lodged by Dominion Voting Systems over the network’s promotion of misinformation about the 2020 election. Dominion had cited claims made on Carlson’s program as well as on other shows as evidence of defamation, and Carlson was expected to testify if the case had gone to trial. The settlement reveals Fox’s biggest strength and weakness: the network’s incredible understanding of what its audience wants and its unrelenting willingness to deliver exactly that.
More real than elites
I’m a journalism scholar who studies the relationship between the news industry and the public, and I’ve long been interested in understanding Fox’s appeal. As media scholar Reece Peck observes in his book about the network, Fox’s success is less about politics than it is about style. Fox’s star broadcasters like Carlson found enormous success by embracing an authenticity-as-a-form-of-populism approach.
They presented themselves as more “real” than the “out-of-touch elites” at other news organizations. Journalists have traditionally attempted to earn audience trust and loyalty by emphasizing their professionalism and objectivity, while people like Carlson earn it by emphasizing an us-against-them anti-elitism where expertise is more often a criticism than a compliment.
As Peck notes, Fox broadcasters present themselves as “ordinary Americans … challenging the cultural elitism of the news industry.” So the allure of Fox is not just in its political slant, but in its just-like-you presentation that establishes anchors like Carlson as allies in the fight against the buttoned-up establishment figures they regularly disparage.
In short, NPR plays smooth jazz between segments, while Fox plays country.
‘Authenticity’ became a trap
This anti-establishment, working-class persona embraced by many of Fox’s broadcasters has always been a performance.
More recently, Sean Hannity, who is a friend of former President Donald Trump’s and makes about $30 million a year, slammed “overpaid” media elites. Peck observes that this posturing is purposeful: It emphasizes “Fox’s moral purity, a purity that is established in terms of a distance from the corrupting force of political and media power centers.”
However, the Dominion lawsuit revealed that, after decades of using this distinctly populist – and often misleading – brand of performative authenticity to earn the loyalty of millions of people, Fox became trapped by it.
Internal communications between Fox broadcasters that were revealed in the months leading up to the trial’s scheduled start date showed the network’s marquee acts trying to reconcile their audience’s sense that the 2020 election had been rigged with their own skepticism about that lie.
Messages made public as part of the Dominion suit show Carlson, for example, said that he believed that Sidney Powell, Trump’s lawyer, was lying about election fraud claims. But, he added “our viewers are good people and they believe it.” Fox wasn’t telling its audience what to believe. Instead, it was following its audience’s lead and presenting a false narrative that aligned with what its viewers wanted to be true.
Once Fox’s broadcasters and the Fox audience became bonded by the network’s outsider status, those broadcasters felt compelled to follow the audience off a cliff of election misinformation and right into a defamation lawsuit. The alternative would run the risk of sullying its populist persona and, ironically, its credibility with its audience.
As New York Times TV critic James Poniewozik observed, “The customer is always right. In fact, the customer is boss.”
A trendsetter and a cautionary tale
The Dominion lawsuit was more than a rare opportunity to see firsthand just how dishonestly Fox’s talent acted when the cameras were rolling.
It’s also a cautionary tale for those who see so-called authenticity as a marker of trustworthiness in journalism, and in the media more generally.
“As a society, we … love the idea of people ‘being themselves,’” says scholar Emily Hund, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center on Digital Culture and Society and the author of “The Influencer Industry: The Quest for Authenticity on Social Media.”
The question that many seem to implicitly ask themselves when deciding whether to trust journalists and others within the media world seems to be shifting from “Does this person know what they are talking about?” to “Is this person genuine?”
Media workers have noticed: Journalists, celebrities and marketers routinely share seemingly personal information about themselves on social media in an effort to present themselves as people first and foremost. These efforts are not always necessarily dishonest; however, they are always a performance.
For decades, Fox’s prolonged popularity has made it clear that authenticity is truly valuable when it comes to building credibility and audience loyalty. Now, the network’s settlement with Dominion has revealed just how manipulative and insincere that authenticity can be.