Note: This was originally published as the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer
As Trump and his supporters in the White House pursue a series of increasingly desperate rear-guard maneuvers aimed at overturning the election results, there are reports that the soon-to-be former president is planning to launch his own media venture. Mike Allen of Axios wrote in his newsletter on Thursday that Trump “has told friends he wants to start a digital media company to clobber Fox News and undermine the conservative-friendly network.” According to Allen, a source with detailed knowledge of Trump’s plans said that he “plans to wreck Fox, no doubt about it.” Trump was apparently livid that Fox News was the first major network to call the state of Arizona for Joe Biden on election night, and has been berating the network both privately and publicly ever since. Vanity Fair reported that Trump called News Corp. founder Rupert Murdoch to scream at him after the network said Biden won Arizona, and demanded the network retract its prediction, but Murdoch refused.
In a recent piece for the Los Angeles Times, writer Stephen Battaglio argued that the odds of Trump launching and being successful with a competitor for Fox News are extremely slim. Even with Trump behind it, introducing a new cable network right now “would be a difficult climb in the current TV landscape, where consumers have shifted away from pay TV subscriptions,” Battaglio wrote. “As the universe of traditional pay TV customers slowly but steadily diminishes, getting operators to pay a license fee to carry a new channel would be a major challenge.” However, Allen said that his sources say Trump is planning a digital-only channel that would stream online rather than being carried on cable networks. Trump would likely charge a monthly fee to his fans, those sources said, and would aim to either take away viewers from or replace Fox Nation, the $5.99-a-month streaming digital offering owned by Fox News.
Among the other details that Allen’s sources shared with the Axios writer were that Trump is planning to use the mailing and cellphone lists that he has accumulated (and paid for) during his election campaigns, which would theoretically provide a rich source of potential leads for marketing messages for this new digital offering. However, at least one legal expert says that doing this could actually be illegal, since it’s against campaign finance laws to take data that was originally generated and owned by a campaign and use it for personal purposes. “This is one of the few portions of the campaign finance laws that are routinely prosecuted criminally,” lawyer Marc Elias said. Of course, as more than one person noted in their responses to this observation, Trump has repeatedly breached these kinds of ethical rules already, both before and during his presidency, so it’s difficult to see why he would stop now.
If the talk about a “Trump TV” launch sounds familiar, that’s because there was similar speculation in the run-up to the presidential election in 2016. Until the final numbers were released, the consensus in many circles was that Trump was going to lose badly, and his post-election plans were said to involve the launch of a Trump-themed media entity. That was why he brought on Steve Bannon and Fox News creator Roger Ailes as advisors, reports said. Vanity Fair quoted sources saying Trump had “become irked by his ability to create revenue for other media organizations without being able to take a cut himself.” CNN’s Brian Stelter said Trump might want to “launch a new television channel, or launch a new giant website, a new subscription service,” and the New York Times reported that Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner had explored either starting their own media entity or taking a stake in an existing one.
None of that came to pass, obviously. But the current speculation sounds a lot like what happened in 2016, albeit with more of a “going head-to-head with Fox” focus this time. Could it happen? Of course it could. As for whether it would be successful or not, skeptics note that there have been other similar attempts, including the Sarah Palin Channel, a digital subscription effort launched by the former vice-presidential candidate after the 2012 election, which vanished without a trace. Then there was The Blaze, the media entity launched in 2011 by Glenn Beck, which hired dozens of staff for its web and radio ventures, but never became much of a media force, despite the relatively massive following Beck had when he was at Fox. Neither he nor Palin were ever president, of course, so Trump’s platform beats theirs by a mile. But whether he could ever convert those fans into paying subscribers — and whether he is even serious about attempting to do so — is very much an open question.
Here’s more on Trump and the media:
Doomed: Asawin Suebsaeng, who reports on Trump for The Daily Beast, said on Twitter that even if the former president does decide to launch some kind of media channel, it is likely doomed. “He couldn’t get any measurable number to leave Fox for [One America Network] over four years, so I think Trump TV has a great chance of being Palin TV, the thing you invariably forgot had even happened,” he said. “Trump keeps saying that Fox is forgetting what got them where they are today, but insane, email-chain racism existed long before 2015, so I think Fox News will be fine.”
A cudgel: New York Times media reporter Ben Smith said he thinks it’s best to see Trump’s talk about a standalone media entity as a combination of a stick to beat Fox with and an enticement to potential partners. “Best to see it as likeliest a) a cudgel against Fox (which could backfire) and b) maybe a licensing exercise, in which OANN and Newsmax and maybe others bid for his name,” Smith said. Joe Wiesenthal of Bloomberg TV said Trump could succeed if he surrounds himself “with serious media operators, as opposed to clowns and random hangers on.”
A problem: Trump’s bashing of Fox News didn’t start with its Arizona call on election night. The former president has been criticizing the network for some time, including in an interview he did last month with Rush Limbaugh. “Fox is a problem,” Trump said. “When Roger Ailes ran Fox, I mean, Roger had a very strong point of view. It’s totally gone.” Trump added that he thought the network was “going the way of CNN, and they’re going the way of MSNBC, and it’s a shame.” On Twitter this week, he said Fox “forgot the Golden Goose,” in an apparent reference to himself.
Other notable stories:
A bomb explosion in southern Afghanistan on Thursday killed a reporter who was working for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Afghan Service, according to a report by Voice of America. Afghan officials said the journalist, Elyas Dayee, and his brother were traveling to the press club in the provincial capital when an explosive device ripped through their car. Dayee was killed and the blast injured his brother, also a journalist, and two others who were also in the car. Dayee had been reporting from Helmand province for more than a decade for the Afghan branch of the US government’s Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty external broadcast services.
All this week, CJR has been using its Galley discussion platform to do a “slow interview” with Maria Bustillos about her new journalism collective, called Brick House. The collective includes Popula, the alternative arts and culture magazine that Bustillos founded, as well as a number of other outlets including Hmm Weekly from Tom Scocca, The Sludge Report, Preachy, and Olongo Africa, a pan-African literary digest edited by K??lá Túb??sún. Some of the members of the collective were also part of Civil, the cryptocurrency-powered journalism platform that failed to take off.
YouTube pushed back against claims that its platform is helping to promote and spread misinformation surrounding the election, The Verge reports. The company said that its most popular videos related to the election are from “authoritative” sources, and that it takes measures to stop the spread of videos containing false or misleading claims by not showing them in search results or through its recommendation engine. YouTube’s comments appeared to be in response to a tweet from Bloomberg journalist Mark Bergen, who criticized the company’s moderation of election content.
Fox News has confirmed that former pro-Trump commentator John Solomon is no longer affiliated with the network, according to a report from The Daily Beast. Solomon’s work has been controversial even at Fox, where even the network’s own “Brain Room” warned hosts and anchors not to trust his “disinformation” about Trump and news stories like the alleged ties between Ukraine and Biden. Solomon worked for a number of media outlets during his career, including the Washington Post, before joining The Hill, where he pushed stories that alleged Trump was the victim of a “deep state” plot.
Columbia University professor Bill Grueskin writes for CJR about what the media should do after Trump is gone, and how it needs to kick its addiction to reporting on the train wreck that he represents. “This may wind up as the greatest risk of all for the press,” he writes. “Trump, who craves the spotlight the way a kitten craves the sunny corner of a rug, will demand to be seen and heard. It will take every ounce of self-control that journalists can muster to resist his insistence on getting attention and air time. We saw how badly the cable networks, in particular, handled this in the 2016 campaign, with their incessant and uncritical broadcasting of Trump rallies and remarks.”
Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, told an all-staff meeting on Thursday that former Trump White House adviser Steve Bannon had not violated enough of the company’s policies to justify his suspension, even after he recommended that two senior US officials should be beheaded, according to a recording heard by Reuters. Bannon suggested in a video posted on November 5 that FBI Director Christopher Wray and government infectious diseases expert Anthony Fauci should be beheaded and their heads placed on pikes, saying they had been disloyal to Donald Trump.
A Georgia federal court judge rejected a defamation lawsuit brought by Donald Trump against CNN. The case was launched over an opinion piece written by Larry Noble, former general counsel at the Federal Election Commission. Noble took the position that Special Counsel Robert Mueller should have charged Trump campaign officials with soliciting dirt on his opponents. The lawsuit objected to one line in particular which referred to the Trump campaign assessing “the potential risks and benefits of again seeking Russia’s help in 2020.” The judge said Trump failed to show malice.
In October, Gannett offered a round of voluntary buyouts to all its employees. According to a report from Poynter, roughly 600 people opted in and about 500 buyouts were accepted at the end of the process. Gannett, which owns USA Today and more than 250 daily newspapers, is the country’s largest newspaper chain, with about 21,000 employees, 5,000 of whom are journalists. According to Poynter, the list of those who took the buyout offer includes about 60 editors, 19 photojournalists, seven managing editors, three executive editors and 124 reporters.