Conservative media consumers run the opinion gamut. How is conservative media responding?

Fox viewers believe QAnon conspiracy theories and the fact that Joe Biden legitimately won the election in equal parts.

The author(s)
  • Sarah Feldman Senior Data Journalist, US, Public Affairs
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The first term of the Trump presidency is ending. After being a megaphone for the president, Fox and others in conservative media are looking for their next act, too, one that will ultimately be complicated by a president with both waning approval and a cult-like following. Where does conservative media and its viewers go from here?

Finding the balance between those two camps is no small feat, and it hinges on how the media interacts with its viewers.

For starters, conservative media watchers hold, in some ways, conflicting views on some key issues, like the election and the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol. The number of conspiracy theorists match evenly with those who rightfully believe Donald Trump legitimately lost the election, new Ipsos polling finds.

For example, 25 percent of people who get their news primarily from Fox or online conservative outlets believe that Antifa or left-wing terrorists were the ones that broke into the Capitol, something that primetime Fox hosts like Laura Ingraham devoted airtime to on the day of the attack. On the other hand, one in four conservative media followers also think there is no evidence of widespread voter or election fraud that affected the 2020 presidential election. Unsurprisingly, a similar share (28%) believe Joe Biden legitimately won the election.

Beliefs conservative media watchers hold

For niche conservative online outlets or social media sites, doubling down on the most extreme, but clickable, content is not a problem. They can afford to cater to a hyper-devoted base, and the fringe theories that may come with that. But, for a TV network, their success hinges on ratings and attracting a wider audience.

This poses a particular problem for Fox, the most popular segment of conservative media. Over the past year, the pandemic, the presidential election, and the riot all worked to drive these competing camps of Fox viewers from the network. Following the riots and the division within conservative media, Fox fell behind CNN and MSNBC in viewership ratings for the first time in two decades, as viewers moved to more fringe new sites after the network called the election in Biden’s favor.

A similar dynamic played out after the riot in D.C. when Fox tried to be the network of the “Stop the Steal” Trump supporter and the non-violent conservative. The network oscillated between condemning the anti-democratic behavior and the violence to pushing conspiracy theories about Antifa driving violence at the attack.

They finally settled on omitting Trump from the narrative. Following Trump’s Twitter account suspension, Tucker Carlson went on the attack lambasting social media companies for their assault on civil liberties. Yet, Carlson only mentioned Trump twice in his hour-long primetime spot.

That may have been wise. About half of Fox or conservative media viewers (54%) believe Trump’s social media accounts should not have been suspended, while about four in ten back some form of action to curtail Trump’s social media presence following the attack.

 What comes next for this corner of the media world?

It’s not an easy dance. President Trump’s approval ratings slipped to new lows. At the same time, many conservative media followers (65%) still trust President Trump and believe he should’ve been in office for another four years.

What’s clear is that the tone and tenor of non-violence is a winning one. Three in four Americans (76%) want to see a smooth transition up six points from last month (70%). A majority of Fox News viewers want to see a smooth transition, up 10 points from last month.

As a new president begins his term, Fox and other conservative media will be forced to reconcile the differing realities they have helped shape for their viewers. How they interact with a post-insurrection, post-president Donald Trump remains an open question.

The author(s)
  • Sarah Feldman Senior Data Journalist, US, Public Affairs