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A year ago, it would’ve felt pointless to imagine Fox News without its mastermind (Roger Ailes), its marquee star (Bill O’Reilly), or its young dynamo (Megyn Kelly). And it would’ve been laughable to imagine those three gone as the network scores record ratings, all while under one President Donald Trump.
And yet: Here we are.
O’Reilly and Fox News split on Wednesday, just months after Kelly left for NBC and almost a year since Ailes was similarly ousted. Both Ailes and O’Reilly had been accused of numerous counts of sexual harassment.
At any other moment in time, the loss of that kind of talent would be a serious issue for the channel. Fortunately, Fox News can turn to its biggest star of all: Trump.
And turn to him they definitely have. No cable news has ever been watched like Fox News was watched in early 2017, and there’s no doubt that they’ve got The Donald to thank. The Trump Effect helped news networks broadly, but Fox News is enjoying a particular run of success as the channel of choice for anyone who wants to Make America Great Again.
That success could not be timed better, providing cover as the channel goes through a dramatic transformation spurred by the rise of James (and to a lesser extent Lachlan) Murdoch, the sons of Fox News founder and acting CEO Rupert Murdoch.
Notable how the Trump Ascendancy and Administration coincided with massive regime purge at the top of Fox News. As if it were long overdue https://t.co/mKCZ74ynPt
— Janine Gibson (@janinegibson) April 19, 2017
With its biggest talent in flux and its management undergoing a refresh, it’s little surprise then that Fox News has been all too happy to head which way the hot air is blowing.
Trump and Fox News have been cozy for years, though election season saw some tension as Trump and Kelly sparred during debates and in the press. For years, Fox had been a kingmaker for Republicans—an outlet politicians courted. Trump turned that on its head, highlighting what had been a growing rift between Fox News and anti-establishment conservatives.
Now, the main source of the tension, Kelly, is gone. In her place is Tucker Carlson, who the New Yorker noted has staked out the "anti-anti-Trump" position, and the heir apparent to O’Reilly, as Carlson reportedly slides into the 8pm slot. Carlson actually proved to be a ratings improvement on Kelly, particularly among the younger viewers that Fox News desperately needs (though: who knows what Kelly would be pulling in, considering the circumstances).
If Kelly was a legitimate foil to Trump, O’Reilly at least provided some sense of independent thought. With Trump, O’Reilly played the role he often did with conservative leaders—skeptical enough to seem leveled, yet friendly enough to please the audience. O’Reilly remained on Trump’s good side to the point where the president provided an unprompted vote of support as sexual harassment allegations swirled around O’Reilly.
As it stands, the biggest voices left at Fox News are unapologetically pro-Trump. After Carlson, there’s Sean Hannity, who might be Trump’s most loyal surrogate. And of course the morning show, Fox and Friends, which seems to have developed a symbiotic relationship with the president.
Could Fox News find a moderate voice to fill O’Reilly’s slot? Certainly. Will it matter? Probably not.
O’Reilly’s exit comes as Fox News is still well-watched, but faces considerable pressure from those that find the channel just too darn liberal. Digital outlets in particular—Breitbart, Infowars, IJ Review, the Daily Caller, and plenty others—have emerged to challenge the conservative establishment (and that definitely includes Fox News). Most of those outlets tend to think Trump is pretty great, and that the only thing worse than a liberal that hates Trump is a #NeverTrump conservative.
Meanwhile, the notion that Fox News has tacked hard into the pro-Trump camp isn’t much of a secret even among conservatives. For now, Fox News is putting the discussion show The Five at 9 pm.
And okay, even if Fox News does find someone who pushes back on the Trump administration—and somehow maintains O’Reilly’s ratings—it’s highly unlikely to change the channel’s broader pro-Trump bent.
For now, that bent is working, and it’s working at a time when the Murdochs need time to rebuild. Fox News hasn’t changed overnight, and O’Reilly’s departure is another (albeit momentous) step in a direction that the younger Murdochs have been pushing the channel. Trumpism is just a convenient and rather natural way forward.
Which is how the downfall of Fox News’ marquee star, the loss of its dynamo, and the removal of its mastermind has somehow ended up benefitting both Trump and Fox News. Just what they’re going to accomplish with this progress, however? Another question entirely.