More Cruz: Let's face it, Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes have turned Fox News into the Donald Trump network

One more tidbit from this morning’s tirade. Silly me, I thought tomorrow would be the Day of Recriminations for Republicans. Cruz couldn’t wait.

Hey now, Megyn Kelly’s pretty anti-Trump. No, wait, I forgot: Trump is the star guest for Kelly’s big network special later this month, where they’ll officially bury the hatchet in primetime for big ratings. If you’re looking for Trump critics on Fox, there’s still … I don’t know. Bret Baier’s all-star panel for, like, 20 minutes during the daily dinner hour?

I’ve given up hope that Cruz will refuse to endorse Trump this fall no matter how many Cruz family members Trump smears, but I’d bet there’s a nonzero chance once he’s out of the race that he’ll take a little “break” from Fox News appearances — or, at least, a break from Hannity appearances. Dylan Byers, from Fox rival CNN, has his number:

Critics debate whether [Hannity has] spent more time interviewing Trump or Cruz, but that is hardly the salient point. What matters is that he always offers Trump — who increasingly looks poised to be the Republican nominee, and therefore Hannity’s pick for president — robust praise and safe harbor from criticism.

In his interviews, Hannity frequently cites areas where he agrees with Trump, or where he thinks Trump was right about something, then asks him to expand on it. Many questions function as a set-up for Trump to discuss anything he wants: “If you win Florida and Ohio, you are well on your way to the nomination to be the Republican nominee for president,” Hannity said during a March interview. “How would that make you feel?”

Hannity often ignores or defends Trump from criticism. When he interviewed Trump in the heat of the controversy over of his failure to disavow the Klu Klux Klan, he never asked Trump about it. After the CNBC debate, Hannity said to Trump: “I felt [moderator] John Harwood was extraordinarily unfair to you and attacking you… I’ve got to imagine that that’s pretty aggravating for you. What’s your reaction to it?”

Hannity thinks his critics cherry pick these examples, but there are many cherries to pick.

Indeed, although Byers omits the more salient point that since the start of the tea-party era Hannity has styled himself as a principled conservative in the Ted Cruz mold. This isn’t just a matter of a Fox News host going into the tank for a candidate who repels true-believing conservative ideologues, it’s that Hannity himself is supposed to be one of those ideologues. Yet here we are. Some at Fox, writes Byers, fear that Hannity “is destined to become indelibly linked to a man and a movement that will not be looked upon favorably by history.” Given the amount of griping about him on conservative social media, I can pretty much guarantee that, at least among the anti-Trump right. And I’ve got a hunch members of Team Cruz, if not the candidate himself, feel the same way. Case in point, this morning I joked on Twitter, “Gonna be disappointed if Hannity doesn’t give some careful consideration to this Cruz/Oswald theory today.” Among the people who retweeted that was Brian Phillips, Cruz’s rapid response director and a man who’s criticized Hannity on Twitter before. Hard to see how these now broken bonds between conservative pols and the “conservative” cable network are healed, but memories tend to be short among political players who find some usefulness in each other. If and when Cruz needs Hannity’s audience again, he’ll suck it up and show up. I think.

One question, though: Does Cruz still need Hannity’s audience? This is a big deal.

CNN ranked #1 in cable news in prime time in April. CNN beat Fox News for the fifth time in the last eight months in M-Su prime time (four of the past eight in M-F prime) among adults 25-54. The last time CNN had this many prime time wins in an eight-month period versus Fox News was over 14 years ago (Nov. 2001).

My guess is that’s less a function of conservatives abandoning Fox News en masse and more a function of the primaries and the daily events related to them qualifying as “major news events.” CNN always sees a ratings spike when something big happens as people who don’t normally watch cable news hear about it and say, “Quick, turn on CNN!” That’s the name they know as a byword for up-to-the-minute news so that’s where they turn. I’ll bet most of CNN’s surge is due to huge audiences on nights when primaries are being held and larger-than-usual audiences tuning in daily to find out whatever nutty thing Trump said that day. If so, their recent advantage in the demo over Fox will fade this winter. I do think there’s something to the idea of anti-Trump conservatives switching off Fox in disgust at their Trump boosterism, though. I was a steady watcher for the past 10 years and finally switched to CNN six weeks ago. Other conservatives have been chattering about making the same move. I don’t know if they can measure ideologically-driven audience churn but I’d interested in those numbers for Fox and CNN. Whatever else happens after these primaries, their viewers are going to be different than they were 12 months ago.

Update: Johnny Dollar e-mails to urge caution about CNN claiming to have beaten Fox in the key demo. They arrived at that result only by using non-standard metrics and “blended data.” As I say, I think the phenomenon of conservatives quitting Fox in disgust over Trump boosterism, while real, is overstated in explaining any surge in CNN’s ratings.