When President Trump attacks most news outlets, there is an air of glee in his tweets, a lusty relish he reserves for those he has deemed true enemies. But when he attacks Fox News, as he did Thursday, his tone becomes one of bewildered disappointment. “@FoxNews doesn’t deliver for US anymore,” he moaned. “It is so different than it used to be.”
It’s an understandable disappointment, coming on the heels of a Fox News poll that showed 51 percent of Americans want Trump impeached and removed from office. The president sees Fox News as part of his propaganda arm, an institution full of advisers, friends and future administration officials. And since it is those things, it can be confusing when even the mildest criticism airs.
But recently, Trump has been pairing his criticisms of Fox with threats. “We have to start looking for a new News Outlet,” he tweeted in August. “Fox isn’t working for us anymore!” On Thursday, he followed up his anti-Fox News tweets with one in favor of a competitor : “Thank you to @OANN One America News for your fair coverage and brilliant reporting. It is appreciated by many people trying so hard to find a new, consistent and powerful VOICE!”
More than any other in Fox News’s history, this is a threat with teeth. Somehow even more pro-Trump and less journalistic than Fox, OANN, or One America News Network, is on the way to becoming Trump’s favorite network — and as a result, one of Fox News’s biggest challengers. And it’s doing so by taking a page right out of Fox’s playbook.
Fox News appeared on the scene in 1996 with two major advantages: an underserved market and powerful friends. At the time, there was no cable news network that specifically catered to the conservative audience that had flocked to Rush Limbaugh’s wildly popular radio show, which went national in 1988. Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes, Fox’s founders, believed they had identified a market with vast potential.
Launching a cable news network required more than deep pockets and a good idea. As Fox News was getting ready to go on the air, it found itself shut out of a major market, New York City. So Murdoch turned to a powerful Republican ally: Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Giuliani strong-armed Time Warner, the city’s cable provider, and ensured that as Fox News took off, New Yorkers could tune in. Four years later, the network developed close ties with the George W. Bush campaign (Bush’s cousin, John Ellis, was the head of the “decision desk” at Fox News on election night in 2000) and the Bush administration. Fox News could now claim powerful friends and political influence.
Fox News also had a clear adversary: CNN. Murdoch had been at odds with CNN founder Ted Turner for more than a decade and was looking for a way not only to best his nemesis but to discredit his work. What better than a channel that would sneer at the “Clinton News Network” for its rampant “liberal bias?”
Fox News was soon setting the agenda for major stories from the Monica Lewinsky scandal to the recount fight in 2000 to the tea party protests in 2009. In the process, it became a key institution of Republican power.
When OANN began broadcasting in 2013, it didn’t immediately challenge Fox, which was so dominant that the notion of an effective threat from the right seemed laughable. Instead OANN joined other new outlets that sought to broaden the range of right-wing offerings. There was the Blaze, launched by conservative host Glenn Beck in 2012 after he left Fox. Popular right-wing sites like Newsmax and Breitbart started their own networks, too. These outlets sensed a market beyond Fox: viewers who liked border walls and birtherism and other ideas that seemed fringe to the mainstream but fascinated the base.
An anti-establishment wave was rippling through the conservative base, aimed not just at the Republican Party but at leaders in the conservative movement. In 2012, when they were challenging Mitt Romney for the Republican presidential nomination, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum — both former Fox contributors — openly attacked Fox as too moderate.
While nonconservatives grew more concerned about the network’s power over GOP politics, conservatives were worried that Fox News had become too soft, too invested in Republican Party successes and not enough in conservative priorities.
Now OANN is hoping it can make Trump its own powerful ally, as Giuliani was for Fox years ago — and make Fox the adversary that CNN was for Murdoch.
Though Fox News transformed to become more Trump-friendly after the election, OANN outmaneuvered it: From the day Trump launched his campaign, the network has been aggressively pro-Trump, and Trump has rewarded it in kind, tweeting about it 34 times in the past four years — far less than he has about Fox, but quite a lot for a relatively unknown cable outlet. By 2019, his support had become so apparent that mainstream news outlets began referring to OANN as “Trump’s new favorite network.”
OANN prides itself on lavishing the president with praise. Last year, it ran the documentary “Trump@War,” directed by former presidential adviser Steve Bannon, which, the ad copy boasted, “highlights the challenges faced by President Trump and his supporters with political adversaries and the mainstream media as the President fights to fulfill his campaign promises to the American people.” The network’s anchors frame stories in language that could have been penned by Trump himself, introducing packages with lines like: “The president keeps another promise, slashing regulations to a historic low.” Coverage is rife with the conspiracy theories that circulate widely in Trumpland, from accusations that the Obama administration spied on Trump’s campaign to stories that Muslim immigrants have caused a spike in crime in Britain.
The idea of a network that’s Trumpier than Fox isn’t new: In the last few months of the 2016 campaign, when it seemed likely that Trump would lose, rumors began burbling about Trump TV — a new network that would carry not just the conservative message but the Trump message. It had a brief preview: Tomi Lahren, who had gotten her start on OANN in 2014, appeared on a Facebook Live feed of “Trump TV” in October 2016 — a shot across the bow of Fox News lest it consider a more moderate direction in the wake of a failed Trump campaign.
Trump, of course, wound up with other demands on his time after the election, so the rumored launch never happened. And OANN on its own hasn’t unseated Fox News. But the impeachment inquiry creates genuine dangers for Fox: Already, fissures are developing between those who report and those who opine. The new Fox News polls have intensified this by making clear how shaky the president’s position is. OANN does not have this baggage and increasingly runs anti-Fox stories alongside its pro-Trump ones (a recent piece positioned Fox as the “Never-Trump network” — a sign that OANN, previously reluctant to go after Fox, now has fewer qualms).
There have been no high-profile Fox defections to OANN; Sean Hannity still advises the president; the heavily watched evening opinion lineup is still all-in for the White House. In many ways, OANN — which is carried on cable and satellite systems that reach about 35 million households, far fewer than the 96 million that Fox reaches — is a cudgel, a way for Trump to show his displeasure and keep Fox in line.
But OANN is the clearest challenge to Fox yet, because it puts pressure on the network to change its coverage and offers a viable alternative if Fox News does stop supporting him as much. If it’s not exactly breathing down Fox’s neck, it could still be the MSNBC to Fox’s CNN: In March, it boasted that it was the “fourth rated cable news network,” a bid for mainstream status (though those figures come from ComScore, not Nielsen ratings, because OANN is not counted by Nielsen). Should Fox continue to disappoint the president, OANN has an opening — and soon Trump’s new favorite network could become Trump voters’ favorite, too.