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Ever since it launched in 1996, Fox News has prided itself on its outsider credentials. Hosts such as Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity and Megyn Kelly refer disdainfully to the “mainstream media”, meaning outlets like the New York Times and NBC News — a club Roger Ailes, the channel’s chairman and chief executive, believes is overwhelmingly liberal. Fox News, he has suggested, operates outside the mainstream media and acts as a counterweight: he once told the Financial Times the channel would “treat the conservative view with the same respect as we have for the liberal view”.
It is a measure of 2016’s extraordinary Republican primary race that the most successful cable news network in America, and a favourite of conservative voters, is at war with Donald Trump.
About 60 per cent of its viewers identify as conservative and 88 per cent of “consistent conservatives” trust Fox News’s output, according to Pew Research. But rather than assiduously court Fox News and its audience, the GOP frontrunner has attacked it as if it were any other establishment institution in a presidential campaign that has surfed a wave of populist anger.
Mr Trump boycotted last week’s presidential debate— the final one before Monday’s Iowa caucuses — after Fox rejected his calls for Ms Kelly to be replaced as a moderator. Then he called a statement it released about his withdrawal “a disgrace to good broadcasting and journalism” and got into a Twitter slanging match with Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, the Saudi billionaire who is a significant shareholder in Fox News’s parent company, 21st Century Fox.
With pillars of the Republican establishment including Jeb Bush and John Kasich taking a beating in national polls, the 2016 race is not following the traditional primary script. Neither is the way the race is being covered by media outlets that are aimed at conservative voters.
“The party and the conservative movement is going in a protectionist and nativist direction,” says Stephen Moore, a co-founder of the Committee to Unleash Prosperity, a conservative advocacy group. “So much of the conservative punditry out there is anti-free trade, anti-immigration and anti-Reagan. Trump has picked this up and it’s being fed by the media and some of the more demagogic pundits.”
Mr Trump has won support from across the conservative media spectrum, from websites such as Breitbart to Fox News commentators, including Mr Hannity. But talk radio has been the most vocal — and the most effective — forum for populist candidates, with hosts such as Rush Limbaugh leading the drumbeat against the Republican establishment.
“Talk radio is a rifle shot form of communication with the base of the Republican party. It’s unfiltered,” says Craig Shirley, a Ronald Reagan biographer and a founder of Shirley & Banister Public Affairs, which has represented many conservative clients, including the National Rifle Association and Tea Party Patriots.
“Fox News has to remain a news organisation, whereas talk radio is less encumbered by that responsibility so can be more partisan.” He points to divisions among the most popular talk radio hosts. “Mark Levin is for Ted Cruz yet Laura Ingraham is for Donald Trump. Rush [Limbaugh]has praised both.”
Candidates from the establishment wing of the Republican party have avoided talk radio, he adds. “[Jeb] Bush doesn’t go on any of those shows. John Kasich doesn’t go on them either, or Marco Rubio. They will go on CNN or Fox but they won’t go on talk radio. But Trump always does.”
Talk radio’s saviour
There is little doubt that the Trump campaign has attracted vast numbers of disillusioned Americans and galvanised television viewers. Ratings for the official presidential debates on Fox News, its sister network Fox Business, CNN and MSNBC have broken records at a time when the audiences watching non-news channels are shrinking because of cord-cutting — the cancellation of pay-TV subscriptions in favour of cheaper online alternatives, such as Netflix.
Talk radio suffers from similar problems. In 2009, there were 59.3m people tuning into US talk stations at least once a week, according to Nielsen, the research company: by 2015, the number had fallen to 49.8m. Annual advertising revenues for news and talk stations fell close to 7 per cent in 2014 to $1.4bn, according to BIA/Kelsey, a media and advertising research group — significantly more than the 1.25 per cent advertising fall that hit music stations.
News and talk “is not as strong as it once was”, says Mark Fratrik, BIA/Kelsey’s chief economist, adding that controversial comments from talk show hosts and competition from other forms of media have contributed to the slump.
“Talk radio as an industry has collapsed [and] audiences have disintegrated,” says Christopher Ruddy, the chief executive and editor-in-chief of Newsmax Media, a conservative media group. “The response of a lot of talk radio hosts has been [to become] more and more ideological and to focus on some of these core themes.”
Hosts have stoked populist fires such as illegal immigration. “Talk radio has been focusing on issues like deportation of immigrants,” adds Mr Ruddy, referring to one of Mr Trump’s most popular and recurring campaign themes. “We can’t deport 11m immigrants and it’s crazy politically — we can’t win without [Hispanic voters],” Mr Ruddy says.
Alienating Hispanic voters might be bad politics come the presidential election in November but, for now, anything associated with the Trump campaign generates ratings — which for talk radio companies is good for business.
“I’m not so sure these companies care about losing the general election,” says one prominent GOP fundraiser. “As far as their business models are concerned they are strong, if not stronger, when they are part of the bitter opposition.”
In a party riven with division between establishment grandees and Tea Party activists, who better than a popular television star to unite its warring factions? “He is the ultimate creation of the media as the first reality TV candidate to run for president,” says Mr Moore.
Television is Mr Trump’s natural forum — he was the celebrity boss on The Apprentice for more than a decade. “He’s a great communicator,” says Mr Ruddy. He is also a savvy user of social media, using Twitter to respond to perceived slights from the media, ranging from Ms Kelly at Fox News to the National Review, the conservative magazine that published an anti-Trump cover story with contributions from a range of heavy-hitters. He responded in a series of tweets, saying the magazine was “dying”, “failing” and “over”.
He does not limit his criticism to conservative media outlets. “The tax scam Washington Post does among the most inaccurate stories of all,” he tweeted last week, in response to an article in the newspaper, now owned by fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos, the Amazon chief executive. “Really dishonest reporting.”
Critical articles in liberal publications only serve to help the Trump campaign, says Mr Ruddy. “The liberal media appears to be very much against him [and] the grass roots are reacting to that by coming to his support. It’s not really about what he believes but that he is being attacked by liberals which means he must be good.”
Mr Trump’s boycott of the Fox News debate initially struck many as detrimental to his campaign. But people who have followed him closely hailed it as a sign of strength.
“I heard people on Fox last night talking about this. ‘Who does he think he is? He can’t control the media,’” Mr Limbaugh, talk radio’s biggest star for more than a decade, told his listeners last week. “I’ve got news for you: he is controlling the media, and it’s his objective. He controls the media when he’s not on it. He controls the media when he is on it. He controls the media when he’s asleep. Nobody else has been able to do anything like this short of the Kennedys, and they’re pikers compared to the way Trump is doing this.”
For his rivals the media’s relentless focus on the frontrunner has made it difficult for other candidates to break through. George Pataki, the former governor of New York who ran a shortlived campaign for the 2016 Republican nomination, called the race “the weirdest election campaign I’ve ever been involved in”.
Mr Pataki mentions a report that suggests the Trump campaign received 50 per cent of daily media mentions for all candidates, Democrat or Republican.
“That can’t be about seeking to learn which candidates have the best experience and vision on the issues,” he says. “It’s all about ratings because they have Trump on and there’s a viewer frenzy to see what stupid thing he’ll say next. That doesn’t help viewers make an informed decision about the election.”
If the success of the Trump campaign has exposed new faultlines in the Republican party it may have also changed how campaigns use the media. The fragmentation of the media industry and the growth of conservative-leaning websites and digital operations have helped, not hindered, Mr Trump because he can bypass traditional gatekeepers to get his message out. “Now, you can get your news from a thousand different places,” Mr Moore says.
For a company like Fox News and the liberal leaning MSNBC channel the “polarised base is the key”, says Mr Ruddy. “As the old saying goes: in niches there are riches.”
If the Republican party continues to fracture will those niches shrink? There is no sign of that happening yet. Fox News is the most lucrative unit in Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox, generating more than $1bn in annual operating profits, according to MoffettNathanson, a research firm, and has capitalised on the drama surrounding Mr Trump’s withdrawal from the Fox debate. The feud was covered relentlessly by newspapers, websites and on TV by rival stations, giving candidate and network plenty of free publicity.
Boycotting the final debate did not hurt Mr Trump. CNN screened his alternative event, staged to raise money for veterans’ causes, and his name topped Google searches for GOP candidates that evening. Fox News, meanwhile, pulled in around 13m viewers, more than the previous debate, which was hosted by its sister network, Fox Business, but well shy of the 24m who tuned in to watch the candidates — including Mr Trump — last summer.
If he fails to win his party’s nomination, he would be wise to consider his media options, such has been the impact of his campaign.
“Trump is as big a force as any media platform,” says Dan Senor, a former senior adviser to Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, who ran on the Republican ticket in 2012.
“If he loses the race then, from a business perspective, what he should do is create his own conservative news channel. It would be incredibly popular.”