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Fox rift widens as 'Modern Family' co-creator Steve Levitan and others blast news coverage of immigration

Fox rift widens as 'Modern Family' co-creator Steve Levitan and others blast news coverage of immigration
Steve Levitan has spoken out about his personal disgust with Fox News. (McClatchy-Tribune/Fox)

Civil war has broken out at 21st Century Fox.

The Murdoch family-controlled media conglomerate that has long thrived as a big tent that includes subversive entertainment shows such as “Family Guy” and conservative viewpoints of news commentators such as Sean Hannity is being pulled apart by partisan politics in the age of President Trump.

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“Modern Family” co-creator Steve Levitan shook the entertainment industry Tuesday with an announcement on Twitter that he would leave Fox’s TV studio, citing his personal disgust with Fox News as the reason. He quickly revised his statement, saying he would make his decision after 21st Century Fox completes the pending sale of its movie and TV studio assets to either Walt Disney Co. or Comcast, which are now in a bidding war for them.

But Levitan’s decision to toss a social media grenade at his longtime employer demonstrates how anger over the rightward tilt of Fox News has been bubbling over among liberals on the studio side. Levitan said on Twitter that Fox News’ “23-hour-a day support for the NRA, conspiracy theories and Trump’s lies gets harder to swallow every day as I drive onto that lot to make a show about inclusion.”

Levitan joined other Fox studio talent — director Paul Feig and “Family Guy” creator and star Seth MacFarlane — in openly expressing disdain for Fox News, an extraordinary rebuke. Though shows such as “The Simpsons” occasionally lampoon Fox News, high-profile creative producers within the company have rarely publicly criticized the news operation so harshly.

Levitan and others were responding to how the channel’s hosts and commentators defended the Trump administration’s decision to separate and detain children who cross the border illegally with their parents — a policy widely deplored by both Republicans and Democrats. Fox News host Laura Ingraham described the detention centers for children along the Mexican border as summer camps — a comparison she later walked back.

“The Hollywood creative community in general has been barely tolerant of the Fox News channel, particularly over the last couple of years,” said Sandy Grushow, who was a Fox entertainment executive for 20 years.

Representatives of Fox News and 21st Century Fox declined to comment on the remarks from Levitan, MacFarlane and Feig.

The issue of immigration enforcement at the border has brought the discontent to a boiling point. “I have made two films for 20th Century Fox and love the people in the movie and TV divisions. But I too cannot condone the support their news division promotes toward the immoral and abusive policies and actions taken by this current administration toward immigrant children,” Feig wrote on Twitter. Feig directed the movies “The Heat” and “Spy” for Fox.

Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, senior associate dean for the Yale School of Management, said creative types at Fox studios probably are speaking out now because they see a sale coming and are eager not to be associated with the news division going forward.

“They can’t wait to be liberated,” Sonnenfeld said. “Among the people I’ve talked to there is equal enthusiasm for Comcast or Disney. They want it to happen now. They want to free themselves from the branding and the identity and move into either of the parent operations.”

Sonnenfeld said the Fox brand has lost its cachet among many in the politically left-leaning entertainment industry.

Fox's broadcasting company — which was born in 1986 during the era when the Big Three networks ABC, CBS, and NBC dominated — once represented edgy, irreverent programming such as “The Simpsons.”

But the prominence of Fox News — the most-watched cable news network since 2002 and the favored outlet of Trump — dislodged that identity years ago.

Even when the Fox broadcast network had the No. 1 prime-time show in TV with “American Idol,” internal studies found that most viewers associated the Fox name with news.

Historically, the makers of Fox entertainment assets have never had to cede to Rupert Murdoch’s conservative political views. For example, while Fox News commentators have frequently criticized the Washington Post, its movie studio was a distributor for “The Post,” the 2017 Steven Spielberg film that glorified the paper’s history and past owner, Katharine Graham.

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One former Fox executive who spoke on the condition of anonymity said the relationship between the entertainment and news divisions was always collegial.

But Murdoch never had a passion for Hollywood, longtime associates say, preferring news and politics. He made his preferences known when he agreed to sell the studio assets. Going forward, his company known as the “new” Fox will include Fox News Channel, the Fox Business Network and its owned and operated TV stations.

The profitability of Fox News is also appealing to Murdoch, especially as scripted programming gets more expensive because of competition from streaming services such as Netflix. Fox News is expected have a cash flow of $1.7 billion with a profit margin of 60% in fiscal 2018, according to Kagan, a unit of S&P Global Market Intelligence.

Fox News coverage carries divergent points of view during its daytime hours. Anchors such as Shepard Smith and Neil Cavuto have been highly critical of the Trump White House and the president’s behavior. But the channel’s high-rated morning programs and prime-time hosts, who frequently account for the most-watched hours on cable, deliver a steady stream of pro-Trump viewpoints and intense criticism of other media outlets that do not cover the president favorably.

MacFarlane was disturbed in particular by Fox News host Tucker Carlson’s assertions that viewers should ignore what they hear from other news sources. MacFarlane, whose programs have earned hundreds of millions of dollars for 21st Century Fox, said he was embarrassed to work for the company.

He backed up his response to Carlson with a $2-million donation to NPR and gave an additional $500,000 to its Los Angeles member station, KPCC.

6:30 p.m.: This article was updated with reaction to the rift in Fox.

3:05 p.m.: This article was updated with Levitan’s statement that he has put off his decision on whether to leave Fox’s TV studio.

June 20, 11:45 a.m.: This article was updated to note that Fox News host Laura Ingraham walked back her remark that compared immigrant child detention facilities to a summer camp.

This article was originally published June 19 at 12:30 p.m.

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