The five biggest media stories of 2021
It was a busy year for the news media in 2021, as the industry moved past the Trump era while not escaping the COVID-19 pandemic.
Most news organizations dealt with a post-Trump slump in ratings and traffic, while a few saw their fortunes soar.
It was also a busy year for media deals and mergers.
Here are the five biggest stories.
Fox navigates a post-Trump world
Fox News ended the year as the most watched and influential cable news network in the country despite the absence of former President Trump in the White House and a steady stream of controversy surrounding the work of its leading prime-time host.
As Trump soured on Fox’s news division toward the end of the 2020 election cycle, alternative conservative outlets One America News and Newsmax briefly emerged as a home for Trump’s most loyal supporters.
Yet by the end of the year, little hand changed. Fox celebrated an industry best 1.3 million people in total day viewers in 2021, leading all of cable news for a sixth consecutive year.
A watershed moment for Fox in the post-Trump media ecosystem came this fall when Tucker Carlson, the network’s top-rated prime-time host, published a three-part miniseries for its streaming service focusing on the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol by Trump supporters.
The series, which features at least one subject who suggests the attack could have been a “false flag” operation orchestrated by the U.S. government, was met with forceful backlash from media watchdogs, lawmakers in both parties and within Fox’s own ranks.
Carlson’s special project prompted the resignation of a pair of longtime contributors to the network, Stephen Hayes and Jonah Goldberg, who argued the project had crossed a line editorially that they did not want to be associated with. Fox has said they did not plan to renew Hayes’s and Goldberg’s contracts when they were up.
Anchors Bret Baier and Chris Wallace also reportedly shared their objections to Carlson’s “Patriot Purge” documentary series with Fox News Media CEO Suzanne Scott and the company’s president of news, Jay Wallace.
Wallace announced in December he was leaving “Fox News Sunday.” The veteran broadcaster said nothing about Carlson or the editorial direction of Fox’s opinion programming when he announced his departure, but he is joining CNN’s new streaming service.
CNN fires Chris Cuomo
Cuomo’s ouster from CNN came after months of criticism surrounding his chummy interviews with his brother, former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), and the subsequent bombshell revelations detailing how he helped his sibling fight accusations of sexual misconduct.
CNN fired Cuomo last month after it said the prime-time anchor had misled them about the extent to which he helped his brother’s aides protect him from the allegations.
Documents from New York state’s attorney general revealed Cuomo had used his contacts in the national press to find out if any additional accusers were talking to reporters or considering going public against his brother, a serious breach of journalistic ethics.
CNN’s firing of Cuomo also came just days after the network was made aware of a sexual misconduct allegation against the anchor by a former colleague at another network, an accusation Cuomo has denied.
CNN has not announced a full-time replacement for Cuomo, whose show occupied the network’s 9 p.m. hour and had experienced sluggish ratings before his departure.
Ozy Media crashes
A September bombshell report in The New York Times by columnist Ben Smith sparked one of the quickest shutterings of a digital media company.
Ozy Media announced in October it would close after the Times revealed a top executive at the company had attempted to deceive potential investors. The company’s chief operating officer, Samir Rao, had reportedly impersonated a YouTube staffer during a conference call with potential investors from Goldman Sachs. Co-founder Carlos Watson later apologized to Goldman Sachs and said Rao had gone through a mental health crisis.
But the backlash to the Times report was swift and sparked the resignation of several Ozy board members and top journalist Katty Kay, who said she had been “looking forward to working with the talented young reporters” at Ozy but “did not expect this!”
Last month, the Times reported Ozy is currently the subject of a federal investigation following the scandal.
Politico and The Hill are sold
Both Politico and The Hill, two leading news outlets covering politics and policy in Washington, D.C., were sold during the third quarter of 2021.
German publisher Axel Springer announced in August it had purchased Politico from former owner Robert Allbritton. Axel Springer did not disclose the price of sale, but several reports have suggested the deal was for upward of $1 billion.
“As I have often said, I would only welcome a new investor that reflected my values and Politico distinctive company values,” Allbritton said at the time of the sale.
A week earlier, it was announced that Nexstar Media Group, which owns and operates dozens of television stations in major markets across the nation, had purchased The Hill from previous owner Jimmy Finkelstein for $130 million.
Axios reported this week Finkelstein is considering starting a new media venture in the coming months.
Newsrooms struggle to come back from COVID-19
Since the beginning of the pandemic, national newsrooms have been largely closed to most employees who do not need to be in the office to perform their duties.
Several outlets like The Washington Post, CNN and The New York Times have eyed “soft” reopenings of their offices during 2021 or offered a hybrid approach to employees that have allowed them to work some of the week from home and other days in the office.
As vaccines became more widely available and local governments loosened restrictions on local businesses and public places, it appeared many of the nation’s top newsrooms could be close to returning to normal operations.
But variants of the coronavirus have complicated reopening efforts, with CNN announcing over the weekend it was closing its offices to employees who do not need to be in person to do their jobs, regardless of vaccination status.
Fox Corporation announced this week it was requiring all employees who work in its New York City headquarter offices to receive at least one coronavirus vaccination shot by Dec. 27 and is scrapping the option of regular testing for employees who wish not to be vaccinated.
“Even though the overwhelming majority of Post employees have already provided proof of vaccination, I do not take this decision lightly,” Washington Post publisher Fred Ryan wrote to staffers in September as he announced all Post employees will need to provide proof that they have been vaccinated if they plan to return to the paper’s newsroom. “However, in considering the serious health issues and genuine safety concerns of so many Post employees, I believe the plan is the right one.”
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