'We are lost:' Fox News suffers ratings slump while staffers fret about post-Trump future

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(CNN Business) A version of this article first appeared in the "Reliable Sources" newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.

"We are lost," a Fox News insider remarked to me recently, and there are lots of data points to back up the assertion.

Nielsen numbers for the month of January were released on Tuesday, and Fox ranked third in the three-horse cable news race for the first time since 2001. Furthermore, CNN was the No. 1 channel across all of cable.

Think about it this way: January was one of the biggest months of political news in a generation, yet Fox couldn't capitalize. Instead of competing by promoting correspondents and putting news coverage front and center, the network prioritized ever more outrageous, ever more extreme opinion. "Tucker Carlson Tonight" essentially expanded to "Tucker Carlson Day and Night."

That may very well prove to be Fox's best bet from a business POV. "Win back a base audience that disdains the news by ignoring the news and affirming their views 24/7" makes sense from an economic, if not ethical, standpoint. But for the time being Fox is floundering in third place, and it's shocking to see. The lack of editorial leadership is palpable, according to numerous sources at the network. And even in its weakened ratings state, Fox is reflecting and propelling the radicalization of the GOP...

Reporting over pontificating

Here's how The Daily Beast's team described Fox's "nosedive" on Tuesday: "Signaling a seismic shift in the media landscape as defeated former president Donald Trump hibernates in strangely silent exile at Mar-a-Lago, Fox News' two-decade-long winning streak came to an abrupt end Tuesday while rivals CNN and MSNBC claimed the No. 1 and No. 2 rankings, respectively, in all of cable television. Fox News' embarrassing third-place showing is the continuation of a downward trend in which the right-leaning outlet lost 2020's fourth quarter to CNN and alienated Trump-supporting loyal viewers by calling Arizona early for Joe Biden during its election-night coverage."

Certainly, there are many reasons for these trendlines. The Fox base's frustration in the election outcome is one. The availability of Newsmax as a Fox alternative is another. The scrambled politics of this moment, with President Biden visibly trying to work with Republicans, is yet another.

The public's demand for news is another big reason. Between the pandemic, the transition of power, and the insurrection, many people want reporting ahead of pontificating, and CNN is built for that. Fox is not. (Just count the number of CNN bureaus versus Fox.) Fox is actively avoiding the news when producers believe bluster will rate better -- on Tuesday night, for example, CNN and MSNBC showed the US Capitol ceremony for police officer Brian Sicknick while Fox stuck with Sean Hannity's screech fest. Laura Ingraham only briefly showed the ceremony when Biden visited the Capitol to pay his respects...

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