Internal Tensions Flare And Ratings Dominance Ebbs At Fox News

May 28, 2017
Originally published on May 30, 2017 8:56 am
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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Fox News found itself in an unusual place recently - not at the head of the pack. Earlier this month, rival MSNBC took first place in weeknight primetime cable news for the first time. And internal tensions have flared at Fox over coverage of the Trump administration, complicating its future. NPR's David Folkenflik reports.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Listen to the rekindling of this old office bromance (ph).

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GLENN BECK: You leave cable news and Rachel Maddow is now the number one person on cable news, and MSNBC won cable news for the week. What's happening there? I know you...

FOLKENFLIK: That's Glenn Beck with Bill O'Reilly - a pair of exiled Fox News hosts chatting on Beck's podcast the other day.

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BECK: Is this beginnings of Fox actually having to really work hard to hold its place?

BILL O'REILLY: Their problem. Fox News has a problem. There's no doubt about it. Whenever you lose key personnel in any industry - sports, media - you better have a plan.

FOLKENFLIK: A bunch of folks are gone. Founder Roger Ailes was forced out last summer in a sexual harassment scandal. He died earlier this month. O'Reilly was also caught up in his own sexual harassment scandal and was bought out of his contract last month.

Former President Bill Shine accused of enabling both men - he left earlier this month. And there are others missing, too, including this high-profile star about to make her debut across the street at another network.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Sharp, strong journalism and the power of NBC News.

FOLKENFLIK: Megyn Kelly left Fox for NBC last year after her bombshell accusations that Ailes harassed her, too, sealed his professional fate.

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MEGYN KELLY: We have to tell this story.

FOLKENFLIK: Fox News has always seemed so confident about the story it wants to tell. Now it seems tentative, unsure of itself. During the primaries last year, Fox through much of its weight behind Donald Trump as it became increasingly clear he would be the Republican nominee.

Now Trump is fending off investigations. Jesse Watters is a new host of the primetime show "The Five." Here's how he dismissed the scandal over the president's firing of then FBI Chief James Comey.

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JESSE WATTERS: This is a scandal with no video, with no audio, with no sex, with no money, with no dead bodies. It's a boring scandal.

FOLKENFLIK: Fox's ratings have not eroded. In fact, audiences are up over last year. There's just so much going on with so many crises that news junkies and Trump critics are turning into MSNBC and CNN far more than usual.

Ailes rapped Fox in red, white and blue and made sure issues were cast in black and white - triumph or travesty. Sean Hannity proved a near perfect disciple. Of late, he has embraced a conspiracy theory involving the killing of a young Democratic National Committee staffer.

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SEAN HANNITY: I am not going to stop trying to find the truth. That's what we do here every single day. That effort is not stopping in any way, shape, matter or form.

FOLKENFLIK: Hannity spoke early last week after Fox News retracted its own report on the staffer Seth Rich. Fox had reported that Rich had leaked thousands of emails to WikiLeaks himself. Intelligence officials say they believe the leak was actually engineered by hackers for the Russians.

Yet, Hannity had pushed the unfounded claim and also suggested without any evidence that Rich's death was tied to the leak of the emails. He offered no retraction or apology. He said, instead, he would back off for now out of respect for the family. Hannity's antics caused heartburn within the network and outrage outside it.

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HANNITY: I serve at the pleasure of the Fox News Channel. And I am here to do my job every night. I'm under contract long as they seem to want me.

FOLKENFLIK: Hannity took the end of last week off as several big name advertisers, including Cars.com and insurance company USAA, said they would no longer pay for commercials on his show. But that boycott doesn't seem to be spreading much. And Hannity promised to be back this coming week. Even so, it's worth remembering O'Reilly's departure started much the same way - a public outcry, advertiser boycotts, and a vacation. David Folkenflik, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.