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Boycotted. Criticized. But Fox News Leads the Pack in Prime Time.

In one sense, this has been a difficult period for Fox News: a star anchor fired after being accused of sexual harassment, a lawsuit depicting a misogynist workplace, a top writer exposed as a racist internet troll, advertiser boycotts and outrage after Tucker Carlson called protesters “criminal mobs” and questioned the patriotism of a senator who lost her legs in Iraq.

In another sense, business has never been better.

In June and July, Fox News was the highest-rated television channel in the prime-time hours of 8 to 11 p.m. Not just on cable. Not just among news networks. All of television. The average live Fox News viewership in those hours outstripped cable rivals like CNN, MSNBC and ESPN, as well as the broadcast networks ABC, CBS and NBC, according to Nielsen.

That three-hour slot is a narrow but significant slice of TV real estate, and it is exceedingly rare for a basic-cable channel to outrank the Big Three broadcasters, which are available in more households and offer a wider variety of programming.

Even the return of live sports did little to stop the momentum: The Fox News programs hosted by Mr. Carlson and Sean Hannity drew more live viewers than competing baseball and basketball games, including a Yankees-Nationals matchup on Opening Day.

Fox News’s big summer has been boosted by a rise in audience for news programming in general, an increase driven by interest in the pandemic, civil rights protests and the presidential election. ABC, CBS, and NBC, meanwhile, have more reruns on the summer schedule; the coronavirus has suspended most TV productions; and viewers are being lured away by streaming services and on-demand Hollywood movies.

But the Fox News ratings also demonstrate the size and resilience of America’s audience for pro-Trump opinion, and the loyalty of Fox News viewers who shrug off the controversies that routinely swirl around the network.

“Massive news events that conservatives view through a highly partisan lens are driving the ratings, and none of the controversies really land with loyal Fox News viewers,” said Nicole Hemmer, a scholar at Columbia University and a historian of American conservative media.

Lachlan Murdoch, the executive chairman of Fox News’s parent company, bragged on an earnings call last week about the network’s “astronomical” ratings. He also said its ad revenue was up from a year ago — a reminder that Fox News, for all the flak it takes from critics, politicians and the advertisers that fled Mr. Carlson, remains an unrivaled profit engine for the Murdoch empire.

Complaints that Fox News prime-time hosts downplayed the coronavirus — and, in the case of Laura Ingraham, encouraged the use of hydroxychloroquine, a drug shown to be useless, and even dangerous, for Covid-19 patients — made little difference.

“The belief that hydroxychloroquine is something between a therapeutic and a miracle cure is wildly popular in conservative media, especially talk radio,” Ms. Hemmer said. “Tucker Carlson’s controversies have never really hurt his ratings, though they have cost him advertisers.”

Two days stood out when Fox News ratings fell significantly: the funerals of George Floyd, the Minnesota man who died after a police officer pinned him to the ground during a routine stop, and Representative John Lewis, the towering civil rights figure.

Like its rivals CNN and MSNBC, Fox News carried the memorial services live. During Mr. Floyd’s funeral, viewership on all three networks dipped. On both occasions, the drop in Fox News’s audience was stark, down to numbers more typically seen during overnight hours. (CNN and Mediaite previously reported on the ratings dips.)

Over all, viewers have shown a strong appetite for news on politics, public health and natural disasters.

The evening newscasts on ABC, CBS and NBC are notching their biggest audiences in years. David Muir’s “World News Tonight” on ABC has been a standout: In July, its episodes were the top 18 telecasts across all of broadcast and cable television, drawing more viewers than usual summertime ratings leaders like NBC’s “America’s Got Talent.”

All three of the network newscasts, which air at 6:30 p.m., draw more viewers than Fox News’s prime-time shows, with Mr. Muir more than doubling Mr. Hannity’s average in July.

Cable channels define prime-time as 8 to 11 p.m., but the Big Three broadcasters include the 7 p.m. Sunday slot in their average prime-time audience counts. That is when “60 Minutes” airs on CBS — another news show that is hugely popular with viewers — and the broadcast networks’ definition of prime time allowed CBS to eke out a win against Fox News in June and July.

But Fox News was the king of 8 to 11 p.m., in part because conservative viewers have few options for right-wing political commentary. Smaller networks like Newsmax and One America News have tried to siphon off viewers but lag far behind.

MSNBC, whose liberal prime time is an ideological inverse to Fox News, has increased its audience from a year ago. But Rachel Maddow, once neck and neck with Mr. Hannity at 9 p.m., has fallen behind all three of Fox News’s prime-time stars in total viewers. Ms. Ingraham, who appears in the less desirable 10 p.m. slot, has drawn more viewers than Ms. Maddow for many months.

Fox News won praise this summer thanks to several news-making interviews with President Trump, including Chris Wallace’s grilling on “Fox News Sunday” and an interview with Harris Faulkner in which Mr. Trump struggled to address racial grievances. Even Mr. Trump’s June forum with Mr. Hannity yielded headlines when the president could not name a policy priority for a second term.

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Credit…Julie Jacobson/Associated Press

But the network’s critics say the language of its prime-time hosts can be reckless. Mr. Carlson has faced a particular backlash since Mr. Floyd’s death in Minneapolis in late May sparked nationwide demonstrations for civil rights.

Major advertisers, including the Walt Disney Company, T-Mobile and Poshmark, boycotted his program as Mr. Carlson denounced the protesters as violent anarchists. Later, the host called Senator Tammy Duckworth, a wounded veteran, a “moron” and questioned her patriotism. In recent days, Mr. Carlson called former President Barack Obama a “greasy politician” and wondered if Mr. Floyd’s death had been caused by drug use rather than being pinned to the ground by a police officer.

Mr. Carlson’s ratings have never been higher. And based on Mr. Murdoch’s telling, the boycott had little effect on Fox News’s bottom line. Mr. Carlson’s show has virtually no major sponsors, but many ads were redistributed to other programs on the network. Fox News also continues to make a fortune in so-called carriage fees, the money paid by cable and satellite providers to keep the network in their lineups.

Fox News vigorously defends itself from critics who say its news coverage is biased or its commentators are extreme. When a writer for Mr. Carlson, Blake Neff, resigned in July because of racist and sexist messages he had posted in an online forum, Fox News’s chief executive, Suzanne Scott, publicly denounced his conduct as “abhorrent.” Mr. Carlson issued a halfhearted mea culpa, saying Mr. Neff’s posts were “wrong” but also warning that his critics would be “punished.”

Mr. Murdoch was made aware of Mr. Carlson’s on-air remarks before the broadcast, according to two people with knowledge of the exchange, which was reported earlier by The Daily Beast.

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Credit…MSNBC

CBS remains neck-and-neck with Fox News in the 8 to 11 p.m. slot, and could still take the summer crown.

On Wednesday, however, CBS aired what should have been a major draw: the two-hour season premiere of the reality show “Big Brother,” a rare new episode amid a raft of summer reruns.

“Big Brother” was seen by an average of 3.7 million live viewers. “Tucker Carlson Tonight” lured 3.9 million and “Hannity” just shy of four million — the most-watched telecast of the night.

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Fox News Stars Trumpeted a Malaria Drug, Until They Didn’t

For a month’s stretch, the Fox News star Laura Ingraham relentlessly promoted the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine to her nearly four million nightly viewers.

The drug was “a game changer” in the fight against the coronavirus, the conservative anchor declared. She booked recovered patients to describe their “miracle turnaround” — “like Lazarus, up from the grave,” as Ms. Ingraham put it. Anyone who questioned the drug’s efficacy, she said, was “in total denial.”

“I love everybody, love the medical profession,” the host said on April 3, after listing off public health experts who questioned the cure. “But they want a double-blind controlled study on whether the sky is blue.”

But as of last Wednesday, Ms. Ingraham was no longer talking about hydroxychloroquine, and she didn’t bring it up on her show for a week.

Her fellow Fox News prime-time stars Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity also cut back on referring to the drug. In fact, since April 13, hydroxychloroquine has been mentioned about a dozen times on Fox News, compared with more than 100 times in the four previous weeks, according to a review of network transcripts.

The shift came as President Trump has dialed back his public zeal for the treatment — and as studies and health experts have increasingly cast doubt on the efficacy of the drug in treating coronavirus.

On Tuesday, a study of 368 Veterans Affairs patients showed that the use of hydroxychloroquine was associated with an increased risk of death. Mr. Trump’s own medical team, including Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s leading expert on infectious diseases, has urged caution about hydroxychloroquine, noting the drug’s potential adverse effect on patients with heart troubles.

Ms. Ingraham declined to be interviewed for this article. On Wednesday, after this article was published online, she opened her Fox News program by dismissing the results of the Veterans Affairs study, calling it “shoddy,” “shockingly irresponsible” and “agenda-driven.”

“What’s driving this blind obsession to disprove the effectiveness of a drug that is being used right now, tonight, in medical centers across America?” Ms. Ingraham said, above an onscreen graphic that read “The Truth About Hydroxychloroquine.”

She added: “Is it triggered by pure hatred of Trump? Of Fox? Of me?” (Ms. Ingraham prefaced her remarks by reminding viewers: “I’m not a doctor; I don’t play one on TV.”)

Since mid-March, hydroxychloroquine has been a staple of the right-wing news media venues that Mr. Trump follows closely, including Rush Limbaugh’s radio show and Fox News prime time.

Ms. Ingraham was an early and enthusiastic advocate. On April 2, she told her viewers that “nearly all the experts that I’ve talked to, and the studies I’ve read, review this information, the evidence, and at this point, it’s come across as pretty much of a game changer.” The next day, she met with Mr. Trump in the Oval Office to personally pitch him on the drug.

Doctors around the country have prescribed hydroxychloroquine to patients for weeks despite the lack of rigorous trials. Some physicians say, given the speed and severity of the coronavirus, they are turning to any medicinal tools they can to save lives, even as little evidence has emerged that hydroxychloroquine is a panacea. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York has allowed that, “anecdotally,” doctors have seen positive results from the treatment, while reminding people that reliable data may take months to collect.

On Fox News, though, Ms. Ingraham acknowledged those caveats in passing, leaving an impression that a skeptical bureaucracy was keeping Americans from benefiting from a miracle drug.

On April 9, she began her program by mocking the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Robert Redfield, for “essentially dismissing, trashing” hydroxychloroquine “despite all of its success stories.” She told viewers that the doctors booked on her program that night — “my medicine cabinet” — would “set the record straight.” (Fox News said on Wednesday that Ms. Ingraham’s segments about hydroxychloroquine always included a doctor or recovered coronavirus patient.)

Later on the show, she interviewed a patient, Billy Saracino, who, by his account, recovered from the coronavirus because his wife was inspired by “The Ingraham Angle” to help arrange a prescription for hydroxychloroquine.

“It is amazing that the left and the medical establishment is still in total denial about the potential of these decades old drugs,” Ms. Ingraham said.

Within a week, she had stopped talking about the drug on-air.

Mr. Hannity, while not as prominent a hydroxychloroquine cheerleader as Ms. Ingraham was, also highlighted the use of the drug, at one point citing a study that, he told viewers, showed “hydroxychloroquine is rated now the most effective therapy by doctors, over 6,300 of them surveyed, for coronavirus.”

Mr. Hannity, who likes to remind viewers that he is “not a doctor,” routinely asked guests whether they would take hydroxychloroquine for treatment if they were infected with the disease.

Fox News, the country’s top-rated cable network, carries outsize influence among viewers who flock to its popular opinion programs. Hydroxychloroquine was first cited on the network during a late-night news show on March 11. The mention jumped to prime time a few days later, when a guest named Gregory Rigano praised the drug to Mr. Carlson and Ms. Ingraham.

“Tucker Carlson Tonight” had identified Mr. Rigano as an adviser to the Stanford University School of Medicine, but the school has since said that Mr. Rigano has no affiliation with the institution; he has not been back on Fox News.

On Wednesday, Dr. Mehmet Oz, a frequent guest on Fox News, appeared on “Fox & Friends” and spoke about the Veterans Affairs study that showed no clear positive benefit of treating the coronavirus with hydroxychloroquine.

At first, Dr. Oz offered some caveats, noting the study was not a controlled trial and focused on “older and quite a bit sicker patients.” But pressed by the co-host Brian Kilmeade, Dr. Oz conceded that “the fact of the matter is, we don’t know.”

“There’s so much data coming from so many places,” he told viewers, “we are better off waiting for the randomized trials Dr. Fauci’s been asking for.”

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After Another Year of Trump Attacks, ‘Ominous Signs’ for the American Press

On Twitter, President Trump deployed the phrase “fake news” 273 times this year — 50 percent more often than he did in 2018. He demanded “retribution” over a “Saturday Night Live” sketch, declared that Washington Post reporters “shouldn’t even be allowed on the grounds of the White House,” and accused The New York Times of “Treason.”

Four American journalists were barred from covering the president’s dinner with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un. The administration argued in court that it had the right to ban a reporter from the White House. The daily White House briefing ceased to exist. And a new press secretary rarely spoke in public outside of Fox News.

Mr. Trump’s vilification of the news media is a hallmark of his tenure and a jagged break from the norms of his predecessors: Once a global champion for the free press, the presidency has become an inspiration to autocrats and dictators who ape Mr. Trump’s cry of “fake news.”

For those who wondered if Mr. Trump might heed the concerns of historians and First Amendment advocates — who say his actions have eroded public trust in journalism, and perhaps the very concept of empirical facts — 2019 provided a grim answer.

“Intimidation and vilification of the press is now a global phenomenon,” the former Fox News anchor Shepard Smith, who quit the network this year after disagreements about its Trump coverage, said at a gala last month. “We don’t have to look far for evidence of that.”

Few presidents have affected the perception of journalism like this one. A Pew survey this month found that Americans’ confidence in news coverage is closely correlated to their opinion of Mr. Trump. Forty percent of Republicans who strongly approve of the president’s job performance said that journalists have “very low” ethical standards, versus only 5 percent of Democrats.

Mr. Trump has long oscillated between taunting, cajoling, criticizing, and manipulating the journalists who cover him. Asked by The Times in January about his views of the free press, Mr. Trump replied in contradictory ways, deeming the news media “important,” “beautiful,” “so bad,” and “unfair.”

And when he was confronted by the publisher of The Times, A.G. Sulzberger, about a rise in threats against reporters since he took office, Mr. Trump declared, “I don’t like that,” before quickly returning to his grievances. “When you get really bad stories, where it’s not true, then you sort of say, ‘That’s unfair.’”

By year’s end, Mr. Trump had referred to the press on Twitter as “the enemy of the people” in 21 tweets, up from 16 tweets in 2018.

To Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, these rhetorical attacks have rippled outward. Globally, Mr. Simon said in an interview, at least 30 journalists were jailed in 2019 under charges of reporting false news in 2019.

“We view that as governments around the world taking advantage of the Trump ‘fake news’ framing and using that as a pretext of imprisoning journalists,” Mr. Simon said. “The dissemination of that rhetoric has only increased in the last 12 months. It’s having a very negative effect.”

Domestically, journalists in Washington say Mr. Trump’s behavior this year has only deepened their unease.

Jonathan Karl, the president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, cited the attempt by the administration to ban a journalist — Brian Karem of Playboy magazine — from the White House grounds. The episode mirrored an incident in 2018 where Trump aides revoked the credentials of a CNN correspondent, Jim Acosta, and falsely accused him of “placing his hands” on an intern. (Both journalists’ passes were restored by the courts.)

For Mr. Karl, who reports for ABC News, the year’s “most chilling moment” came when a video that depicted Mr. Trump as a mass murderer, shooting and stabbing members of the press, was screened at a retreat for the president’s supporters at the Trump National Doral Miami resort.

“There are ominous signs,” Mr. Karl said.

The violent video, concocted by right-wing provocateurs, was later disavowed by the White House. But the administration has presided over more subtle rebukes of the press.

The daily White House press briefing was once a ritual of Washington life and, viewed abroad, a potent symbol of accountability in government. In 2017, the Trump administration held about 100 formal briefings; in 2018, that number dropped by roughly half.

Two briefings took place in 2019.

The first, on Jan. 28, began with a barbed greeting from the press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders — “Missed you guys,” she said dryly — and the second, on March 11, ended with shouted questions about Mr. Trump’s involvement with payoffs to a pornographic film star who had alleged an extramarital affair. Ms. Sanders referred to outside counsel and cut the queries short.

“Thanks so much, guys,” she said. No more questions.

In reality, Mr. Trump remained more directly accessible to journalists than several of his recent predecessors. He routinely fields questions during photo-ops and has made a habit of jousting with reporters on the South Lawn of the White House while the presidential helicopter whirs in the background.

But the arrangement is stacked in Mr. Trump’s favor. The noise lets him ignore questions he dislikes. And the events are entirely at Mr. Trump’s discretion, as opposed to a regular briefing where officials must answer for the news of the day.

Ms. Sanders departed the White House in June, signing on as a commentator at Fox News. Her successor, Stephanie Grisham, has yet to hold a White House briefing. For the first five and a half months of her tenure, she granted interviews only to Fox News, Fox Business and the Sinclair Broadcast Group, a regional network that had required its affiliates to broadcast pro-Trump editorials. Ms. Grisham appeared on ABC and CBS for the first time in December, after Mr. Trump was impeached.

Fox News remained Mr. Trump’s news venue of choice, despite the president’s occasional carping about the channel’s insufficient loyalty. Of Mr. Trump’s roughly 70 interviews in 2019, 23 took place on Fox News, according to Mark Knoller, a CBS News reporter and the unofficial statistician of the White House press corps. (Fox Business interviewed Mr. Trump an additional four times.)

Sean Hannity, the Fox News star, interviewed the president on seven occasions. ABC, CBS, and NBC each had one interview; CNN was shut out. The Times had one formal interview with Mr. Trump, and he spoke with The Post twice. Mr. Trump’s bookings ranged widely, from C-Span to Telemundo to right-wing stalwarts like Breitbart News and The Daily Caller. He also spoke with Bill O’Reilly, the former Fox News host who was fired after numerous revelations of workplace harassment.

In the ratings, Fox News ended 2019 far ahead of its competition. Not only did the channel beat its cable rivals, MSNBC and CNN — it was also the highest-rated network on television outside of the traditional Big 4 broadcasters (ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox). Mr. Hannity’s show drew an average of 3.3 million viewers a night, making it the No. 1 program in cable news.

Mr. Smith’s abrupt exit in October shocked his colleagues and offered a glimpse at strains inside the network, where pro-Trump morning and evening programming often clashed with the sometimes critical reporting included as part of its daytime news coverage. The impeachment hearings underscored the divide, with anchors like Chris Wallace acknowledging the damaging testimony against Mr. Trump, even as Mr. Hannity dismissed the process as a “revolting charade.”

Impeachment offered some answers to a question media executives are asking themselves as a new year begins: Will a news-saturated public continue to tune into the Trump Show?

There are early signs of news fatigue. Ratings for the televised impeachment hearings were solid, but they fell short of political spectacles like James B. Comey’s testimony in 2017. Television audiences for the Democratic primary debates dwindled over the course of the year. Over all, cable news viewership was down slightly in 2019, despite all the political drama.

At one point in 2019, even Mr. Trump suggested that he might tune out the news, too. After yet another perceived slight, he conspicuously canceled the White House subscriptions to The Post and The Times.

Like many Americans, though, the president could not bear to look away. Days later, he was back to complaining about the coverage in the papers that he had claimed he would not read.

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