Thursday, January 21, 2021

Fox lays off staffers, boosts opinion; easier than competing with 'real journalism,' says its former chief political reporter

Fox News is shaking up its staff, in what employees say is a bid to revive ratings among its core conservative audience. On Tuesday the network laid off nearly 20, including political editor Chris Stirewalt, who oversaw and defended Fox's election-night projection that Joe Biden won Arizona.

Bill Sammon, the senior vice president who oversaw Fox's election night "decision desk," wasn't laid off, but he announced his retirement Monday. The move is due in part to what Fox co-founder Rupert Murdoch and other network leaders see as a mishandling of the Arizona projection, Sarah Ellison reports for The Washington Post.

The Arizona call was "the first strong indicator that Trump’s re-election hopes were imperiled after an evening of otherwise encouraging early results," Ellison reports. That "enraged the Trump campaign and altered the narrative of election-night media coverage. Trump allies publicly voiced their displeasure with the network call, while others attempted to pressure Fox to abandon it. Even some of Fox’s opinion hosts cast doubt on the projection. The Arizona call became a flash point among Trump supporters, some of whom threatened to abandon the network. Indeed, as the president continued his baseless attacks on the election results, smaller outlets such as Newsmax cornered the market on the story and saw big increases in their audience."

In the opening weeks of 2021, Fox was in third place behind CNN and MSNBC for overall viewership. Meanwhile, since the election, Greg Kelly's 7 p.m. show on Newsmax has increased its viewership 452%. That's still only 621,000 viewers, but the trend may be worrisome to Fox. 

"Fox’s 7 p.m. hour has traditionally been reserved for news coverage," Jeremy Barr reports for the Post. "But in a shake-up that has raised concerns within its news division, the network last week announced it would bump veteran anchor Martha MacCallum from that slot — part of a larger shift toward the conservative-leaning punditry programming that made Fox the most-watched cable channel in 2020."

The move "quietly shifted the balance of programming, from one that gave a slight majority of its time to news — 11 hours compared with nine for opinion — to an even split," Barr reports.

Carl Cameron, who retired as Fox's chief political correspondent in 2017, told Barr that the move is a bid to regain viewers lured away by Newsmax. "They want to restore their conservative base. They’re going to serve the people who brought them to the dance," Cameron said. "Conservatives are going to want to hear what’s wrong with Joe Biden. It’s easier for Fox to beat Newsmax and everybody else back into the woods than it is for them to try to compete with the real journalism networks."

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