NEW YORK — At this moment in the 2024 election cycle, complaining about Fox News — even if for different reasons — may be what unites Donald Trump, Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis the most.
At conservative America’s favorite news source, the Republican nomination process is essentially over and has been for awhile, leaving DeSantis and Haley annoyed at perceived favoritism to Trump. Hardly grateful, the former president regularly tears into Fox for what he sees as disloyalty, even ripping his former White House press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, now a Fox contributor.
The discontent illustrates the ongoing importance of Fox News as an agenda-setter that frequently drives, and not simply reflects, Republican politics. No one can get to the top of the GOP’s hill without it.
It’s also a testament to Fox’s power and influence, said Brian Stelter, media critic and author of two books about Fox News.
In a “Fox & Friends” appearance, Haley suggested her questioners seemed eager to “coronate” Trump. Shortly before DeSantis ended his own campaign, he said that conservative media outlets like Fox are afraid to challenge the ex-president for fear of losing their audience.
The past few months were a hard fall for DeSantis, once the beneficiary of so much attention that the Florida governor signed bills for the network’s cameras. He’s made 47 appearances on Fox since last September. Haley had 45 appearances in that time, and Trump six.
“I think they were ready to move on from Trump, but the base of the party was not,” said Erick Erickson, whose conservative talk show airs on 45 stations across the country. “At the end of the day, these are their viewers and they don’t want to alienate them.”
The DeSantis campaign was upset about Fox’s town hall with Trump before the Iowa caucuses, when anchors Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum received criticism for treating their subject gently.
Trump had demanded — and received — a 9 p.m. Eastern time slot on Fox for a Jan. 10 town hall to blunt the impact of DeSantis and Haley, appearing in their only one-on-one debate the same time on CNN. Fox held separate pre-Iowa town halls for DeSantis and Haley, but at 6 p.m. before prime time.
The DeSantis team felt Trump received little pushback from Fox when he decided to skip debates. They were angry that surrogates for the former president showed up at post-debate “spin rooms” even with the candidate absent, said a person close to the campaign who spoke candidly on condition of anonymity.
Frustration boiled over when DeSantis’ campaign manager, James Uthmeier, felt that a Fox graphic didn’t show the extent of the candidate’s appearances in Iowa. “Fox has turned into full-blown Trump TV,” Uthmeier wrote on X, formerly Twitter.
Fox did not make an executive available for an interview for this story. But a representative said that Trump surrogates were on scene post-debate because they had been booked for appearances by other networks. The 6 p.m. town halls weren’t as much a disadvantage as it seemed, since they followed “The Five,” Fox’s most-watched show.
On Jan. 16, the day after the Iowa caucus, Fox’s Laura Ingraham urged both DeSantis and Haley to clear the field for Trump.
“If she drops out today, if she came to terms with the fact that the GOP is a populist party, if she started vigorously campaigning for Trump, she could perhaps rebuild some of the trust that she’s lost with the GOP base,” Ingraham said.
During her testy “Fox & Friends” appearance on the morning of the New Hampshire primary, Haley rebuffed host Brian Kilmeade when he asked what would constitute a strong showing for her that day. Asked by Ainsley Earhardt if she would withdraw if she lost New Hampshire, Haley said she would not. Kilmeade later repeated the same question.
“I don’t care how much y’all want to coronate Donald Trump,” Haley said. “At the end of the day, that’s not what America wants. America wants a choice.”
Kilmeade told her, “I really wonder why you think we’re the enemy.”
One possibility: she had watched Trump give Kilmeade a tour of his plane earlier in New Hampshire. “You look like you’re in fightin’ shape,” Kilmeade said as he greeted the former president. “How much weight did you lose?”
“I get their annoyance,” Erickson said. “They’ve got a right to be annoyed by it, (with Fox) essentially pushing them to bow to a reality that they were not prepared to acknowledge.”
A Fox spokeswoman noted that, in response to Kilmeade’s “enemy” comment, Haley said “because I’ve looked at the media,” implying a broader criticism. She and DeSantis aren’t staying away, though; both accepted invitations to appear on Fox after making their criticisms.
During an interview with New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, a Haley surrogate, Fox’s Harris Faulkner pushed back when Sununu questioned whether Trump’s age had affected his cognitive abilities — a frequent Fox topic when President Joe Biden is the subject.
“The guy is nearly 80 years old,” Sununu said.
“He’s 77,” Faulkner replied.
“Yes, that’s nearly 80,” Sununu said. “We’ll do the math later.”
Faulkner admonished Sununu for calling Trump a coward for not debating. “No name calling,” she said. “We don’t do name calling.”
This is the first presidential campaign since the Dominion Voting Systems lawsuit against the network for spreading lies in its post-2020 election coverage, which Fox settled for $787 million last year. Reams of internal documents released as part of that case showed how Fox executives and personalities greatly feared losing Trump fans in their audience by telling them things they didn’t want to hear.
The same management is in place now.
Last week, a half hour after a New York jury ordered Trump to pay writer E. Jean Carroll $83.3 million for defaming her, Fox’s “The Five” didn’t mention the news. The same hour, MSNBC talked of nothing else. The New York Times put the verdict on its front page Saturday, although not as the lead story.
Meanwhile, Trump has maintained a steady stream of invective about Fox on his Truth Social website.
His attack on his former press secretary came after she noted on Fox that Biden had a fairly good night in New Hampshire and that Trump should turn his attention to the general election. “I don’t need any advice from RINO Kayleigh McEnany on Fox,” Trump wrote on Truth Social, referencing the conservative slur Republican in Name Only. “Just had a GIANT victory … and she’s telling me what I could do better.”
Trump frequently targets “Fox & Friends” host Steve Doocy for the host’s occasional fact checks. “Whatever happened to this guy???” Trump wrote.
“Hard to believe how one-sided Fox is,” Trump wrote in one post. “What a difference from past … No wonder the Republican base no longer cares about them.”
Fox had no comment on Trump’s posts.
“The key for Fox is, are they going to silence the voices that have raised some concerns and skepticism, which they haven’t done so far, and credit to them for doing that,” Erickson said. “Trump is trying to bully and cajole and get people to fall in line so they don’t utter anything critical.”
David Bauder covers media for The Associated Press. Follow him at http://twitter.com/dbauder