Throughout the Obama presidency, Fox News existed comfortably on the airwaves as something as familiar, and dull, as the loyal opposition. By day, the network broadcast news gathered in a serious way, if spiced up with some vervier transitions than CNN might have. By night, a suite of programming reiterated familiar conservative positions, often cherrypicking small local-interest stories to magnify as parables. The network’s opinion slate was opposed to Obama in a knee-jerk manner, but the lack of seismic news throughout his presidency allowed them to make a case that had no room for surprise or controversy. It was an object of interest for liberals, but not one of active protest. Often times, there seemed little worth saying about a network that had become so familiar.
Now, though, Fox News is in an interestingly existential moment. Its past identity is falling away in favor of a beast with many of the same rhetorical techniques, but different goals. In the months after the election of President Donald Trump, the network was outflanked on the right by ascendant voices like Breitbart – which had firmly backed his MAGA movement. And in the absence either of the late chairman and CEO Roger Ailes or signature opinion host Bill O’Reilly (both of whom left the network after allegations of sexual harassment or misconduct), Fox News has been playing a game of catch-up on the opinion side, ramping up genuine-seeming anger in an effort to meet viewers —and one very powerful viewer in particular—on what was once the fringe. (Fox was the most-watched cable news network in the first quarter of 2018, proving it’s changing along with the appetites of its core viewership.) The network’s critics on the left, existing in the most robust climate for protest in a generation, are emboldened to strike back.
Fox News’s uneasy existence — pushing up to the edges of the conversation, and in so doing opening itself to real criticism — is exemplified by Laura Ingraham, who returned to her show The Ingraham Angle after a week of hiatus Monday night. Ingraham had left the air amid widespread criticism; she’d mocked Parkland, Fla., school shooting survivor David Hogg for not getting into UCLA, and Hogg encouraged her advertisers to pull their spots from her show. Advertisers including Bayer, Hulu, and Johnson & Johnson did so. Ingraham’s return to the air made no mention of Hogg or of the Parkland story; there was plenty of room, though, for a long narrative to be spun about the “Stalinist” tactics of Ingraham’s critics.
In Ingraham’s telling, she was being criticized for being conservative, or being bold. There was no specific reason, but the generalities were flattering to her and endlessly degrading to those who’d spoken out against her. She referred to “bullies on the left aiming to silence conservatives” and to an ongoing “contraction of free speech all around us.” “Many of you have become accustomed to editing yourselves, let’s face it,” she said. “Expressing views that just five or ten years ago were considered mainstream can now get you fired. It can cause you to lose a promotion, or you could be branded a hater, or yes, you can get boycotted.”
It’s a neat way for Ingraham to lump her own story along with the resentments of her imagined viewer, and it flatters both parties as brave. But continuing to express mainstream thought from a decade ago is precisely the opposite of what Fox News is up to; it’s not Ingraham’s expression of views that got her boycotted, it’s her decision to express those views by mocking and deriding a high-schooler who recently survived a school shooting. But rather than defusing the situation, Ingraham doubled down, announcing on her Monday show that she will be running a continuing series of segments on threats to the First Amendment, like the one she faced down when her speech was met with more speech.
This pattern—a threat to Fox News met with shock-and-awe defense tactics—has played itself out before in recent memory; in November 2017, Keurig announced that they were pulling ads for their coffee makers off of Sean Hannity’s Fox News show after he referred to an alleged sexual advance by Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore on a teenage girl as “consensual” on the radio. The climate of resentment around Fox News has grown so great in recent months that Hannity viewers broadcast their destruction of their Keurig machines across social media.
In that case, Keurig backed down, with the CEO of the company apologizing for giving “the appearance of ‘taking sides.’” Similarly, the late-night star Jimmy Kimmel backed down in his recent feud with Hannity, apologizing for vulgar tweets he’d directed at the Fox News host. (On Monday, Hannity accepted his apology and noted that his research team had assembled an unflattering montage of Kimmel’s worst on-air moments in case Kimmel should decide to criticize him again.) Fox News’s loyal and devoted viewership makes it a losing game for many entities to face them down, even as it’s grown safer to take swipes at them that might never have happened five years prior.
The increasing momentum of the Ingraham boycott — whatever happens going forward — seems to prove how powerfully entrenched the network’s new style of provocation has become. Ingraham is able to stay on the air despite many of her advertisers having fallen away. And rather than reflecting on her statements about Hogg, she’s delivering a sermon that goes well beyond Fox News’s old right-wing pieties.
Ingraham on Monday blazed a path of ire with stemwinding lectures that invited the audience to join her in resentment against the “other.” The great—or terrible—news for Fox, is that the “other” isn’t just in this case the old bête noires—a college professor or backbench legislator worth picking on for an easy laugh. The Parkland cause has transfixed the nation and garnered widespread, mainstream support; it cannot have been a hard decision for the Bayers of the world to see a woman mocking a Parkland teen as something other than a good business partner. Ingraham has a lot of enemies to fight back against. And, increasingly, the news network that made its name broadcasting to wide swaths of America finds itself relatively alone.