Fox Business has abruptly canceled Lou Dobbs Tonight, its highest-rated show, and a prominent platform for one of the staunchest pro-Trump voices on cable news.
The cancellation, reported by the LA Times on Friday, comes just one day after voting software company Smartmatic filed a defamation lawsuit against Fox Corporation, Fox News, and three Fox anchors — including Lou Dobbs — over false claims that Smartmatic technology was used to commit voter fraud.
It’s not exactly clear why Dobbs’ show was canceled. Some media analysts, including CNN’s Brian Stelter, say that despite his ratings, Dobbs was causing trouble for Fox Business even before his lawsuit, reporting that his insistence on repeating Trump’s false claims about election fraud scared off major advertisers. Fox had previously announced that it had been considering changes to its lineups after the presidential election, and said Friday that the cancellation was part of its planned changes.
“As we said in October, Fox News Media regularly considers programming changes and plans have been in place to launch new formats as appropriate post-election, including on Fox Business — this is part of those planned changes,” a Fox News Media spokesperson said in a statement. “A new 5 p.m. program will be announced in the near future.”
Given these plans for new shows, and the advertiser issues, the emergence of the defamation lawsuit may have accelerated considerations that were already underway.
Dobbs is still on contract with Fox News Media, but the company has no plans to put him back on the air, according to the New York Times. It’s unclear what, if any, actions Fox might take regarding its two other star anchors named in the Smartmatic lawsuit, Maria Bartiromo and Jeanine Pirro.
A right-wing populist who first rose to prominence on CNN, Dobbs was an early backer of the racist birtherism conspiracy theory — which falsely claimed that former President Barack Obama was not born in the US — former President Donald Trump helped popularize. Dobbs later used his Fox Business show to defend the Trump administration and to influence its trade and immigration policies. He also boosted Trump’s disinformation campaign to cast doubt on the results of the 2020 election.
This support for Trump led the former president to release a statement backing Dobbs on Friday: “Lou Dobbs is and was great. Nobody loves America more than Lou. He had a large and loyal following that will be watching closely for his next move, and that following includes me.”
But that support has also placed Dobbs, and his employer, in legal jeopardy. Smartmatic’s lawsuit alleges that Dobbs, as one of Fox Business’ leading hosts, ruined the company’s future earnings by accusing it of rigging the election. For example, on one episode in November, Dobbs responded favorably to Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani, who said during an interview that Smartmatic was founded by people close to the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez “in order to fix elections.”
In a statement sent to Vox, a spokesperson for Fox News Media defended the company’s editorial choices and said, “We are proud of our 2020 election coverage and will vigorously defend against this meritless lawsuit in court.”
CNN’s Brian Stelter described the cancellation of a show as popular as Dobbs’ show as “exceedingly rare.”
“The closest thing to it is when Fox News fired Bill O’Reilly when his secret history of sexual harassment settlements was revealed,” Stelter said on Friday. “There is no sign with that with Dobbs. Instead it’s Dobbs’ extreme content that is the issue and his weakness with advertisers. Of course, he was a sycophant for President Trump, one of Trump’s biggest boosters on TV, and now there is less use for that.”
Fox News is rebuilding post-Trump
As Vox’s Aaron Rupar has reported, Fox News Media’s channels — particularly its main Fox News Channel — have struggled to pivot to a post-Trump reality. While Fox News Channel was regularly the top news network during the Trump administration, that is no longer the case. As Stelter recently wrote for CNN’s Reliable Sources:
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.
It remains to be seen whether Fox News is able to rebound from these numbers. However, it has made changes to do just that — in January, Fox News announced a big shake-up of daytime and primetime lineups, with anchors like Martha MacCallum, Dana Perino, and Bill Hemmer losing their slots and being pushed to shows earlier in the day. Insiders at the network described the moves as demotions and a sign that the network was scrambling to cope with a big post-election ratings slump.
As a channel with a specialty focus, Fox Business never received the same sort of viewership that Fox News Channel did. At the end of 2020, it touted its top shows as having viewership that topped 300,000 (compared to Fox News’ average of 1.53 million viewers in the post-election period). But like the main Fox News Channel, Fox Business was known for besting its rivals, like CNBC — and there is a focus on bringing new shows to the network that can do that. For instance, Larry Kudlow, Trump’s top economic adviser, will soon have his own Fox Business show.