Any hopes among Biden administration officials that the second impeachment trial of Donald Trump would not consume the nation were dashed this week.
A year after Trump was acquitted in his first impeachment trial, the appetite for Trump content remains strong. Early TV ratings showed that millions of Americans tuned in to the opening day of the trial, exceeding the 11 million who watched the first day of last year’s trial.
In addition to the cable news networks – CNN, MSNBC and Fox News – traditional channels such as CBS and ABC also cleared their schedules to provide live coverage. The notable exception was Fox. While the Fox News channel did cover most of the proceedings – though it broke off on Wednesday, just as Democrats presented new footage from the Capitol riots – its regular channel was running the Dr Oz show.
The end of the Trump presidency has presented a conundrum for Rupert Murdoch-owned Fox News.
The network was founded 25 years ago under the editorial leadership of Roger Ailes, the disgraced TV mogul whose genius was to identify an opening for right-wing punditry in the then emergent cable news world.
Ailes understood that Fox News did not have to appeal to as many as Americans as possible; it needed simply to appeal to the half of the country that didn’t agree with “everything they hear on the Upper East Side of Manhattan”, as he once put it.
Although Fox News thrived during the Obama presidency as millions of conservative Americans sought validation for their Republican world view, the arrival of Trump was a gift.
With his polarising opinions and ability to stir up grievance, Trump was a natural fit for Fox. Early in the presidency Murdoch threw his lot in with the president, serving up a daily diet of pro-Trump news, but mostly opinion.
During his four years in office, the breakfast TV show Fox and Friends was Trump's go-to morning fix. The president gave more interviews to Fox than any other network, while a revolving-door relationship evolved that saw Trump administration officials hired by Fox and vice versa. Trump's friendships with hosts such as Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham were legendary.
Relations soured around the election. Fox’s decision to call Arizona for Joe Biden before any other network infuriated Trump, who phoned Murdoch directly. The truth is that the wily Australian had already accepted that Trump was going to lose.
Ratings figures show that the network is struggling to adapt to a post-Trump reality. In January it fell behind CNN and MSNBC for the first time in 20 years. Fox is also facing a threat from the right, as pro-Trump viewers gravitate towards niche networks such as Newsmax and One America News Network, though both channels are minnows in the cable news landscape.
More troubling for Fox is a series of lawsuits.
This month software company Smartmatic sued Fox for $2.7 billion over bogus claims made on air about voting machines used in November's election. Several Fox News presenters – as well as contributors such as Trump lawyers Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell – aired conspiracy theories about Smartmatic and a rival voting system, Dominion, to argue that the election was rigged.
In fact Smartmatic provided election technology in only one Los Angeles county for the 2020 elections. Among the theories populating right-wing media was that Hugo Chávez, the deceased former president of Venezuela, was involved in Smartmatic technology that allowed votes to be changed. The link? Smartmatic's founder, Antonio Mugica, was born in Venezuela.
In a sign of the legal jeopardy Fox may be facing, the network last week fired Lou Dobbs, one of its most high-profile presenters on its Business channel, who was named in the suit. Similarly a Newsmax presenter cut off MyPillow founder and Trump ally Mike Lindell live on air when he began speaking about election fraud last week.
“The election results in every state were certified. Newsmax accepts the results as legal and final. The courts have also supported that view,” the presenter said, reading from a prepared statement.
Whether the Smartmatic suit is successful remains to be seen. There are hopes that it could help stop the spread of disinformation, but defamation laws are less restrictive in the US, where the right to free speech remains sacrosanct.
In its motion to dismiss, lawyers for Fox said that the suit “strikes at the heart of the news media’s first amendment mission to inform on matters of public concern”. Whether the courts agree may have a profound impact on the way news is reported in the future.