One of the more important lessons I’ve learned about the current state of political media came about ten years ago while I was working at iHeartRadio. Funkmaster Flex, the famous and influential Hot 97 DJ, had taken to Twitter to attack the Power 105.1 program director, Cadillac Jack, in brutal terms.
Flex probably felt threatened by the sudden rise of the new Power 105.1 morning show, The Breakfast Club and took shots at his rival New York City radio station. Since Power 105.1 was an iHeartRadio channel, I brought the criticism up to Cadillac Jack to see if or how we should respond. He was mostly humored by Flex’s insults and told me we should just ignore it.
Coming from the “conflict sells” side of things, I pressed why he was opting to ignore this golden opportunity, to which he replied, “Never get in a fight with a guy holding a microphone.”
I’ve thought about that advice a lot recently, especially in context to the ongoing fight between former President Donald Trump and the network that is most responsible for his rise to political power, Fox News.
Trump has long treated Fox News like an organization that owes him something. He sees the relationship as transactional: Trump brings Fox News ratings, and Fox News should therefore treat Trump with reverence. In recent months, that has manifested in public flogging of the network over perceived slights —which can be as small as Fox covering a poll that has Trump’s lead in the Republican primary slipping. Trump has responded by ramping up his attacks on Fox founder Rupert Murdoch.
The relationship isn’t all sour. Trump is quick to promote those on the network who defend him, like rage caricature Mark Levin, a host Fox just rewarded with another hour of weekend programming. Trump gave his first interview with a proper journalist in years to Fox News anchor Bret Baier, and has participated in town hall events with his friend Sean Hannity. So Trump’s “anger” at Fox News isn’t so intense that he’s ignoring the ever-powerful cable news network.
Trump is clearly trying to browbeat Fox News into fawning coverage — as he has done regularly over the years. But things are different now than they were when he descended down the golden escalator in 2015. Trump, in 2023, faces 91 felony indictments that range from absurd to incredibly damning. He has been found liable in a civil suit for what the judge called “rape” of writer E. Jean Carroll.
In a bizarro twist, these devastating facts are mostly ignored on Fox News. What’s more, Fox News has refused to hit back or respond in any way to Trump’s constant barrage of criticism leveled at the network — they mostly ignore it. It should be noted that Fox has long had an unspoken policy of ignoring Trump’s swipes — a guideline in harmony with the adage: “Never get in a fight with a guy holding a microphone.”
Here’s the thing: Fox News is also holding a microphone. And while I don’t want to get into a “size matters” debate, the Fox microphone is exponentially larger than Trump’s.
Fox’s years-long supplication to Trump has created an image of the network as far less potent than the former president, with no ability to wriggle out of his grasp. Look no further than the evidence gleaned from the Dominion suit to see just how terrified Fox is of Trump and his supporters. What Fox, despite all its mighty power and profits, doesn’t seem to understand is that the viewership and reach of its 24/7 programming is far greater than Trump’s social media following.
Fox News has been the dominant cable news outlet over the past two decades, often boasting higher ratings than CNN and MSNBC combined. Fox News is so mainstream now that it’s rendered the long-derisive term “mainstream media” meaningless as an insult for left-leaning outlets. Fox’s ratings dominance log proceeded Trump’s time in the political spotlight and may long last after he’s left the stage.
Rupert Murdoch has long been known to be conflicted about Trump. In the wake of the disastrous end to his presidency, there was hope that Fox News — and the rest of Murdoch’s media empire — would finally remove the kid gloves and treat Trump as the threat he is. The network’s efforts to do so have largely failed.
If Fox News truly committed to excising the Trump tumor, they could start by treating the former president with a fraction of the criticism shown to the current president, Joe Biden. (Perhaps the most egregious example of the double standard: Biden’s milquetoast jabs at his political opponents are treated as historic scandals on Fox News — proof he is a divisive figure with no ability to unite the country; Trump smearing his rape accuser and calling his political opponents four-letter words? Ignored.)
Fox has thus far refused to do so, because their programming decisions are largely driven by ratings. Yet that’s a feckless approach driven by fear of angering the majority of its audience that still supports Trump — and will turn to Newsmax or another extremist digital outlet committed to promoting Trump and ignoring any reasonable criticism.
Here’s the thing, though. Fox News is far more influential and powerful than any one politician. If the network wanted, it could reveal to viewers just how incompetent, corrupt, and personally abusive Trump is. It will undoubtedly be a painful transition, but the obviously right thing to do in the long term: Fox remains the highest quality cable news network for conservative news and opinion. It could regain the viewers lost over time as the country moved on from the near-octogenarian Trump, and probably make up for the lost Trump loyalist set with moderates delighted to see the network finally come to its senses.
I recently spent a few days in my home state of Kansas for a golf outing with college friends, the vast majority of whom are Republican, and some of whom have asked why Fox News has given Trump such a pass. My only answer was that they’ve been afraid to anger their viewers. It appears to be the only rationale and is making matters worse for them (not to mention expensive: The Dominion suit cost nearly one billion dollars.)
Anyone who has played a little bit of golf knows that when you duff a shot or hit into a bunker, the best move is to take your medicine, hit it back in the fairway, and play for a bogey. The idea that you can hit a miracle shot from the rough or sand trap almost always backfires and leads to a much higher, worse score.
It’s time for Fox News to heed that same approach. No magic shot will correct Fox News’s past journalistic transgressions and put them on par with “fair and balanced” coverage of Trump.
After all, their microphone is bigger and much more powerful.
This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.