Inside Fox, staffers believe that C.E.O. Lachlan Murdoch is likely to nudge the network in a less pro-Trump direction. Is this the first step in a larger strategy to sell the newly spun-off company?
Donald Trump’s alliance with Fox News has been one of the few constants throughout his shambolic presidency. But in recent days, that bond has shown signs of fraying. On Sunday morning, Trump criticized Fox after it suspended Judge Jeanine Pirro for delivering an offensive monologue questioning Democratic Congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s patriotism. Later in the day, Trump lashed out at Fox journalists, tweeting: “Were @FoxNews weekend anchors, @ArthelNeville and @LelandVittert, trained by CNN prior to their ratings collapse? In any event, that’s where they should be working, along with their lowest rated anchor, Shepard Smith!” He implored Fox to “Keep fighting for Tucker”—Media Matters had uncovered a series of offensive statements Tucker Carlson had made while calling in to Bubba the Love Sponge’s radio show—“and fight hard for @JudgeJeanine.”
Trump’s attacks on Fox have widened the chasm between the network’s opinion hosts and the news division, which have been fighting a cold civil war since Roger Ailes was ousted in July 2016. Fox journalists, bristling at being branded an arm of the Trump White House, are lobbying Fox News C.E.O. Suzanne Scott and President Jay Wallace to rein in Fox & Friends, Sean Hannity, Lou Dobbs and Pirro. “Reporters are telling management that we’re being defined by the worst people on our air,” a frustrated senior Fox staffer told me. Fox’s opinion hosts, meanwhile, have made the case that Fox’s prime-time lineup not only reflects the audience’s worldview, but is responsible for the majority of the network’s advertising revenue. “We make the money,” an anchor close to Hannity told me.
The outcome of that civil war will be decided by Fox Corporation chairman and C.E.O. Lachlan Murdoch. Rupert’s oldest son took over the smaller media company that emerged out of the Murdochs’ $71 billion deal to sell their entertainment assets to Disney. Though Lachlan hired West Wing stalwart Hope Hicks, staffers believe he is likely to nudge the network away from its close marriage to Trump. Sources close to Lachlan pointed out that Lachlan is a libertarian conservative, not a MAGA diehard, who in private has expressed annoyance at Trump. “He doesn’t like Trump,” one person who has spoken with Lachlan told me. “There’s a lot of talk of the direction of the network changing under Lachlan,” the senior Fox staffer told me.
Sources pointed out the hiring of Donna Brazile and the appointment of Trump critic Paul Ryan to Fox Corp’s board as signs of Lachlan’s view on Trump. “Donna is a shot in that direction. Management knows they have an image problem.” Indeed, at an advertiser sales event in recent days, brands complained to Fox News executives about the network’s association with Trump, a source briefed on the meeting told me. (A spokesman for Lachlan declined to comment.)
Two sources close to Lachlan told me that he has likely waited to implement any editorial changes at Fox News until the Disney deal closes on March 20, for fear of antagonizing Trump into opposing it. (The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer recently reported that Trump had told former economics adviser Gary Cohnto direct the Justice Department to block AT&T’s takeover of Time Warner. Cohn reportedly didn’t act on Trump’s directive.) And the senior Fox staffer cautioned that any changes will be modest, at least at first. “Lachlan is not James,” the staffer said, referring to Rupert’s liberal younger son. (“Fox News will continue to provide a platform for a diverse range of voices in its opinion programming and fair and balanced news coverage as it always has,” a Fox executive told me.)
Another vector influencing the Trump-Fox relationship is Hannity’s frustration with the Murdochs. Sources said Hannity is angry at the Murdochs’ firing of Ailes and Bill Shine, Hannity’s close friend and former producer. Hannity believes the Murdochs are out to get Trump. “Hannity told Trump last year that the Murdochs hate Trump, and Hannity is the only one holding Fox together,” a source who heard the conversation told me. Hannity has told friends that he intends to leave Fox when his contract expires in early 2021, two people who’ve spoken with him said. (Hannity did not respond to a request for comment.)
Ultimately, creating some distance from the president may be the first step in a larger strategy. Some believe it’s only a matter of time before the Murdochs sell Fox News. “Everyone thinks they’re going to sell it. It’s too small to be independent,” the anchor told me.
“Fox has been underestimated dating back to its inception as the fourth major network and continues to challenge conventional wisdom, exceeding expectations as a strategically bold, transformational media brand,” the Fox executive said. “That won’t change.”