Just last week, Trump could set the news agenda across the Western world with a tweet, shaping the reporting equally for both right-wing and more fact-based journalism.
Now, he’s on the fringes, the media fragmentation he concealed is falling out into the open as the media shifts in response to the Joe Biden transition.
In the large right-wing Anglo-sphere media — particularly dominant in Australia due to News Corp — fact-based journalism is proving too hard a sell. Faced with a flight of its loyal viewers to more extreme outlets like NewsMax and the One America News Network, Fox News has slipped from the leading cable news supplier, falling behind the centrist CNN and the more progressive MSNBC.
It’s tricky for Fox: it makes money by being must-have programming for cable companies. Now, it’s being wedged between the social licence of “news” and losing its audience to new digital players.
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This week, the Murdochs bowed to their Trumpian audience, with an internal Fox purge reflected in three core programming changes: moving from 8pm to 7pm the turnover from daytime news to after-dark opinion (with a new program for Trump’s current interviewer of choice Maria Bartiromo); giving a greater opinion focus to “news” with its choice of day-time programmed guests and presenters; and moving on the key players who, with a foolish reliance on data instead of the Trumpian fraud narrative, decided to called Arizona for Biden on election night.
In that continual cultural to-and-fro within the Murdoch companies, Fox will become more like Australia’s Sky. Expect that continued “lost cause” election fraud narrative to feature regularly in Sky after dark programming, with its more extreme manifestations fed back to the US audience through social media.
Meanwhile, the more serious right-wing media (led by Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal, but including some “never-Trumpers”) is pivoting to critique the incoming Democratic administration with traditional debt-and-deficit narratives around the Biden COVID-19 relief plan. They’re also pushing anti-migrant rhetoric in response to foreshadowed immigration reform.
Expect these talking points to start popping up in The Australian’s op-ed where they’ll mesh easily with its existing local rhetoric.
The Biden transition is equally challenging for the broader fact-based media, particularly the more serious end: magazines like The New Yorker or The Atlantic, through to national mastheads like The New York Times and The Washington Post, and public radio and digital media like Vox.
All benefited from some sort of Trump-bump as his actions delivered attention equally for both his media friends and foes. This must-watch attention accelerated the US media’s pivot from advertising to reader revenues through subscriptions, memberships and donations.
Can the news media sustain that new-found support under a deliberately low-key and more “normal” administration?
Trump’s refusal to concede (culminating in the Capitol insurrection on January 6) has gifted a bump coda. Even Biden’s US$1.9 trillion COVID relief package did little to shift the media gaze, still mesmerised by the Trump unravelling.
Worse for news media, Democratic control of Congress will diminish the beloved Washington deadlock conflict. The Biden campaign against Trump was based on Napoleon’s simple advice: never interrupt your enemy when he’s making a mistake. The new administration won’t be too upset if the media’s love of conflict drives it to focus on the civil war within the Republican Party.
A return to normalcy may not be all good news. This week, an angle from the The New York Times seemed to suggest we may see a return to the fake media scandals of the Obama years, with a report headed: “Biden Has a Peloton Bike. That Raises Issues at the White House.” (No it doesn’t, according to the story’s third paragraph.)
But there’s no going back. The Trump years splintered the US media (Australia’s too) between an increasingly shrill right-wing voice and fact-based news, one leaning on the semiotics of the craft to provide a thin veneer of credibility, the other desperately hanging on to a centrist objectivity, challenged by an emerging generation’s demand for a journalism of context, built on moral clarity.
Now, without Trump, we’ll see how that plays out.