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Even a slight shift would be tectonic.

In most discussions about the current state of journalism, the way that partisan media influences politics becomes a hot topic for debate. It doesn’t take a genius to notice that America’s intensifying partisan battles have been fueled by opinion-based news that mostly affirms the long-held beliefs of its viewers.

But among the variety of network players seeking primetime dominance, Fox News seems to be by far the most controversial. For years, it has been the holy land of conservative outrage and commentary, lending a hand to the establishment of household names like Bill O’Reilly and Chris Wallace. But although it was popular long before the 2016 election, there’s an argument to be made that its real boom came with the rise of Donald Trump, who has said before that “Fox and Friends” is one of his favorite programs.

Following his election, popular Fox News pundits were finally able to throw their full support behind key political players without having to constantly go on the offensive, and primetime hosts like Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham had an open lovefest with the president and his policies.

For the most part, that lovefest has continued throughout Trump’s first term, despite the seemingly endless controversies that surround him. Trump Jr. is even dating Kimberly Guilfoyle, a former co-host of “The Five.”

Sure, hosts have levied some levels of criticism against Trump, but for the most part, it feels relatively miniscule. The exceptions have been some situations that directly affect the network, like when he went after then-Fox News host Megyn Kelly, or when CNN’s Jim Acosta had his press pass revoked.

Very rarely, if ever, do the mainstream hosts really hold the president accountable for his words and actions, save for the few like Chris Wallace. Maybe they’ll fact check him once in a while, or even say that he’s not going far enough with advocating certain ideological points, but for the most part, there’s not much there.

But as the chaos of the Trump administration seems to have hit a new high over the past few weeks, specifically with the beginning of a government shutdown, some cracks are starting to form in Fox’s seemingly unwavering support of him. It might not seem like a lot now, and maybe it won’t grow into anything more. But it could be a signal that Trump is about to lose his strongest propaganda tool.

After two years in office, it’s starting to get much harder to defend Trump’s actions on a day-to-day basis, especially when it comes to navigating the longstanding processes that have shaped America’s government for generations. In response to that, it feels like there has been a slight shift in the tone that pundits use to talk about Trump.

Tucker Carlson, host of the popular network show “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” said in an interview that Trump was clearly incapable of achieving his key campaign promises because of his lack of understanding of how the system is supposed to work. On one episode of “Fox and Friends” just a few months ago, co-host Brian Kilmeade went off on Trump’s decision to pull U.S. troops out of Syria against the wishes of his advisors.

For a cable network that relies so much on ratings and opinion-based news to drive its profits, it almost doesn’t make sense to start deviating from the inflammatory views some say make them so successful in the first place.

After all, Fox has built its image around the idea of “infotainment.” That is, aside from its actual news programming, it mostly pushes shows that present information in an opinionated way. It relies less on the accuracy of the information and more on the charisma of the host and their ability to stir up their base. Hosts like Sean Hannity aren’t trying to convert liberals to their line of thinking, but instead convince conservatives that they should keep thinking the way that they do.

But what people tend to forget is that Fox News became popular long before the political extremism of the Trump era. Its true following comes not in the fanatics who support Trump, but in the general conservatives who have supported the Republican Party for years.

Despite the fact that Trump is the leader of the Republican Party, most true conservatives would argue that he doesn’t embody the ideology at its core. Anyone can figure that out just by comparing Trump’s policies against those of traditional conservative figures, like Ronald Reagan.

With that in mind, there will come a day when Trump is no longer in office and his influence has waned. When that day comes, Fox News can no longer rely on his supporters, and in order to be viable in the long term, it can’t afford to alienate a conservative base that doesn’t throw its adoration at Trump at every turn.

If nothing else, there has to be a recognition among the hosts of Fox News shows that what is going on in Washington is not normal. It’s not so simple for them to throw their support behind Trump when he continues to invite controversy again and again.

So, their strategy has shifted to attacking the individual Democrats who are trying to take him down. They go after rising stars like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Beto O’Rourke, exaggerating their positions at times in an attempt to promote the us vs. them mentality that has become the standard of modern American politics. And if they keep that up, their ratings will be just fine.

Aside from the future of its viewership, Fox’s turn signifies that it’s willing to take its role as a major media conglomerate more seriously. You’d hope that very few people exclusively turn to pundits like Laura Ingraham for all of their news, but the fact is that Fox News has a lot of influence in the information that people get.

To allow itself to be so heavily influenced by one individual in power would be irresponsible, and as much as people have joked about it, it has been terrifying to think that party-associated networks like Fox are even associated with the concept of state television. As minuscule as a shift in tone might sound, it’s certainly a sign that the media is not completely lost to partisanship.

Writer Profile

Candace Baker

University of Texas at Austin

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