Fox News Channel has figured out that if it caves to social media pressure and advertiser boycotts, it will soon have no shows left in its lineup. FNC’s co-president, Jack Abernethy, recently provided a public statement in support of prime-time host Laura Ingraham, who tweeted an ill-advised insult about Florida high schooler David Hogg, a survivor of his school’s mass shooting. That tweet sparked outrage on social media and a Hogg-inspired advertiser boycott of Ingraham’s show.
Abernethy stated that FNC “cannot and will not allow voices to be censored by agenda-driven intimidation efforts.” That principled stance needed to be made, of course, but pragmatic and cold business angles lie behind the philosophic posturing about censorship and intimidation.
A review of ratings for the Ingraham time slot says a lot about why FNC will keep Ingraham in the anchor seat.
In the three months before the advertiser boycott frenzy, Ingraham averaged 2.5 million viewers per night, consistently winning her 10 p.m. time slot. Then the advertiser controversy got going and Ingraham went on what FNC said was a planned vacation. A week of guest hosts, including Brian Kilmeade, Jason ChaffetzJason ChaffetzBoehner to campaign for House GOP candidates Americans want to protect public lands, Congress should listen Chaffetz: Florida school shooting survivors ‘need a belief in God and Jesus Christ’ MORE and Katie Pavlich, averaged half a million fewer viewers than when Ingraham hosts; FNC lost the time slot to MSNBC on four of the five nights during Ingraham’s absence. Since Ingraham’s return a week ago, the show’s viewership has jumped to 2.7 million viewers per night, more than her average before the controversy erupted.
Practically speaking, if FNC surrendered to pressure created as a result of an upset high school activist — even one who survived one of the worst school shootings in the country’s history — then pretty much all FNC opinion hosts would be vulnerable to boycotts. The reality is that outspoken opinion hosts tend to make outspoken, even controversial comments both on air and on social media. If Ingraham’s lack of Twitter judgment should get her fired, then FNC is basically allowing a 17-year-old to do its prime-time programming. Further, a collapse by FNC brass would surrender the sociocultural struggle FNC was created to engage at its founding — to push back against mainstream media that is viewed as unbalanced by right-leaning and even many centrist news consumers.
After almost two years of personnel turmoil at FNC, Abernethy needs to find stability. The chaos at FNC began with the departure of long-time chief Roger Ailes and included the ousting of high-profile personalities Bill O’Reilly and Eric Bolling. Prime-time firebrand Megyn Kelly took off for NBC; given Kelly’s unimpressive work at NBC, that loss doesn’t look so bad for FNC, but it added to the instability at cable news’ top channel. FNC just can’t rework its ratings-grabbing prime-time lineup over a clumsy tweet.
This tells FNC executives that loyal FNC viewers want to watch Ingraham. It also signals that FNC doesn’t have a ready-made bench of anchor talent to move into prime time. When O’Reilly and Kelly departed, FNC had Tucker Carlson and Ingraham ready to join the starting lineup and both were already recognizable to FNC viewers.
Beyond this particular FNC commotion, however, Americans should ponder the broader implications of community censorship, advertising boycotts and the importance of the free flow of messages, even messages some people don’t like. The free market allows advertisers to put their money in any media outlet they choose, and to pull that money for whatever whim suits them. To maintain consistency, however, advertisers should explain the litmus tests they are using and apply them across all media. Here’s betting that the “bandwagon” advertisers who abandoned Ingraham are right now making commercial buys for other outspoken cable news hosts, maybe even on FNC’s competing channels. No doubt many of those hosts have also tweeted something “offensive.” Or, perhaps, these advertisers are placing commercials in dramas with gratuitous gun violence, or in sitcoms with indecent humor. Once these advertisers start playing the righteous cultural winds, they had better get clean across the board.
The advertisers who pulled commercials from Ingraham’s show want to appear all sanctimonious for siding with an insulted teen. Reports indicate, however, that most (maybe all) of these crusading advertisers simply had their FNC ads moved to other shows on the channel. That’s a pretty hollow gesture, and FNC still gets their money. The reality is that these dozen or more advertisers want to move their products by advertising in front of the FNC audience. If advertisers wanted to make the big statement, they would have abandoned the channel altogether.
One of the advertisers that abandoned Ingraham has reversed course and now says its ads will return to the show. A statement from Ace Hardware indicates it had “incomplete information” when it originally pulled its commercials. The statement went on to clarify that “Advertising on any network or show, is in no way an endorsement from Ace of the content contained or spoken within that program.”
Most media consumers already assume such reasoning, but good for Ace to state its position for the world to see.
Jeffrey McCall (@Prof_McCall) is a professor of communication at DePauw University.