‘Fox & Friends’: Influence comes with the president’s ear


NEW YORK (AP) — It’s the epicenter of television journalism, the most influential news show on the air. But “Fox & Friends” doesn’t feel that way.

Fox News Channel’s day-opener seems much like it has for 20 years, a peppy talk show about news that advances a conservative point of view, and is mocked by some critics for a lack of intellectual rigor.

The difference now is that one of its regular viewers is the most powerful person in the world, who takes his cues from what he sees.

SYMPATHETIC MINDS

“Fox & Friends” originates from a cavernous, two-story Manhattan studio that overlooks Sixth Avenue, where the push of a button sends banks of lights or even a chandelier descending from the ceiling. During a break in the show one day, Steve Doocy bites into a Chick-fil-A breakfast sandwich. Brian Kilmeade scrolls through a tablet and Ainsley Earhardt pulls on a green coat to ward off an early spring chill.

Roughly 1.5 million people watch “Fox & Friends” each day, more than its counterparts at CNN and MSNBC and less than half the audiences for “Good Morning America” or “Today.”

Donald Trump is no stranger to the three hosts — he was a weekly guest to talk about the news before he ran for president — so it doesn’t surprise them that he still follows the show.

“As much as he might like us, and I think he does, I think it’s mostly he understands our audience,” Kilmeade said. “That’s why he ran for president. He didn’t run for president to be king of New York, or king of Washington. He knows we have a lot of viewers and he relates best to our viewers.”

Trump’s tweets and actions frequently correspond with segments on “Fox & Friends.”

His move to send National Guard troops to the border with Mexico came after the show reported on a caravan of immigrants headed north. When “F&F” hosts denounced the recent spending bill as bloated the morning after it passed, Trump threatened a veto. Puzzling tweets about a U.S. spying law up for renewal so confused lawmakers that Democratic Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia tweeted the bill “is something the President should have known about long before he turned on Fox this morning.”

It’s no exaggeration to say that “Fox & Friends” anchors and commentators have effectively become White House policy advisers, Mike Allen noted in the influential Axios newsletter.

Earhardt, the show’s newcomer, said it would be arrogant to think that the hosts are telling the president what to do.

“I guess in the back of my mind I occasionally think he could be watching,” she said. “But it doesn’t affect anything that I say, my opinions or how I report the news.”

“We give our opinion,” Doocy said. “We’re not in the policy business.”

YOU TALKING TO ME?

The awareness that Trump is watching is occasionally evident on the air. “You know what, Mr. President, that’s a good point,” Doocy said after reading one of Trump’s tweets in February. Analyst Andrew Napolitano offered advice earlier this month when the topic of Trump being interviewed by Special Counsel Robert Mueller was raised. “Stay away from that, Mr. President,” Napolitano said.

Trump has spoken directly to the show, like in one tweet: “Thank you to @foxandfriends for the great timeline on all of the failures the Obama Administration had against Russia!” And he appeared to answer when Kilmeade said Trump made a mistake to use a vulgarity to refer to African countries. Trump tweeted that morning that his words were tough but “this was not the language used.”

While some Fox personalities are known to dine with or talk regularly with Trump, the hosts say they haven’t spoken with him since he’s been president.

In Washington, lawmakers frequently try to get airtime on Fox when they are trying to get Trump’s ear on policy matters, said congressional aides who sought anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss private thinking.

That’s not the only way to deliver a message. “Fox & Friends” earned nearly $9 million in advertising revenue in January, up from $7.3 million in January 2017, according to Kantar Media, a clear sign of the show’s increased stature. With demand up, Fox says it has substantially increased its rates and welcomed new advertisers.

Gavin Hadden, “Fox & Friends” executive producer who worked his way up the ranks in a dozen years with the show, said he was unaware of instances when it seemed clear a guest was trying to communicate with the president. He’s concerned it could affect the quality of the show if the president’s interest became a preoccupation.

“We put the same show on the air that we have for years,” Hadden said. “We’re trying to have a conversation with the American people. We’re not trying to lecture them. We’re trying to relay the stories to them that we think they care about most. And if one of those people happens to be in the White House listening, good for him.”

ZIGGING AND ZAGGING

President Roger Ailes? When Fox’s late CEO was alive, “Fox & Friends” was widely seen as his primary vehicle for expressing the political message he wanted to emphasize that day. Think of the power he’d have with Trump listening.

Today’s “Fox & Friends” has more news, and fewer lifestyle segments, than it used to have but that’s primarily a function of the times. It essentially runs on a formula carefully honed over two decades, and Hadden said he listens closely to viewers to deliver what Fox believes they want to hear.

The show’s opinions are less heavy-handed than baked in. Guest host Pete Hegseth, for example, introduced a story about a Democratic proposal on gun safety by saying, “If they can’t take away your guns, they want your bullets.” Frequent topics include immigration, sanctuary cities and disrespect for the flag or military.

What doesn’t get talked about is also significant. On a day when much of Washington speculated about the future of EPA chief Scott Pruitt because of reports about his spending, “Fox & Friends” didn’t cover the story. That day’s show did include segments on an Indiana town where the economy was so strong it couldn’t fill jobs, and a North Carolina man who spoke up to local legislators about gun restrictions.

The morning after 22 million people saw a “60 Minutes” interview with Stormy Daniels about her alleged affair with Trump, the story dominated other news programs but was mentioned briefly on “Fox & Friends” news rundowns. Ask the hosts why the story got relatively little play, and they offer different theories. Doocy said the show likes to zig when others zag, Earhardt said Fox recognized it might be an uncomfortable subject for families tuning in, while Kilmeade suggested Daniels made little news.

Kilmeade said “Fox & Friends” is an alternative to the “hate” for Trump that he believes is clearly evident on rivals CNN and MSNBC.

“It’s not like, ‘I disagree with him.’ … It’s like, ‘this guy is unworthy, he’s unqualified, he’s unhinged, he’s mentally unbalanced,’” Kilmeade said. “Really? Because you don’t agree with him? Because his approach is different? Can you have respect for the people who put him into office? At the very least, dissect what he’s saying and not ridicule him personally or his family.”

CRITICS

Presidents are usually cognizant of how they’re being covered; President Lyndon Johnson had three television sets installed in the Oval Office to watch the evening news and famously worried that he lost the support of the American public when CBS anchor Walter Cronkite editorialized against the Vietnam War.

The degree to which “Fox & Friends” directly influences Trump is highly unusual, said Mitchell Stephens, a New York University professor and journalism historian.

“It’s definitely a hall of mirrors effect with Fox and President Trump,” Stephens said. “They are building their audience with his supporters, so they are positive toward him, with a few honorable exceptions. He wants the praise, so it works for him. One fears that reality itself is getting lost in the hall of mirrors.”

The show attracts some vivid vitriol from critics. The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple wrote that the “stupendously idiotic” show is essentially “‘Hannity’ with smiles.” Columnist Richard Cohen said that “it is to journalism what pornography is to sex.” The New York Times’ Charles M. Blow denounced it for a “kindergarten-level intellectual capacity.”

Hadden and the show’s anchors said they don’t believe the show’s critics actually watch it.

The criticism annoys one conservative, Tim Graham of the Media Research Center watchdogs. “I have been in many Hampton Inns over the years and people watch it over breakfast,” he said. “It’s a pleasant, perky show.” He wondered where people who didn’t want to begin their morning with a steady stream of attacks on Trump would turn to besides “Fox & Friends.”

“We’re the only channel doing what we’re doing,” Earhardt said. “There isn’t anyone else. There is a need for that. There is a need to represent middle America, and I think we do that. With that, comes the support of the president.”