The uneasy truce between Donald Trump and Fox News

A network emblematic of the American right has forged a delicate new relationship with the former president

Early this year Donald Trump participated in a live town hall event on Fox News.

In previous years, this would not be a surprise, or even noteworthy. As president, the former reality television star and obsessive cable news viewer made Fox an extension of his White House, where he installed a large flatscreen TV in the president’s private dining room next to the Oval Office. Sit-down interviews and phone calls into live Fox broadcasts were part of the everyday fabric of Trump’s presidency.

But this time was different. It had been nearly two years since Trump had appeared live on Fox. Bad blood between the two sides had spilled into public view, with Rupert Murdoch-owned media properties branding Trump a “loser” and the former president deriding Fox for “always attempting ... to only show negatives on MAGA & TRUMP”. The break-up shook the US’s conservative mediasphere.

Despite all this baggage, Trump agreed to show up to a convention centre in Des Moines, Iowa, on the evening of January 10th, where voters asked him questions about his bid for re-election live on air, moderated by Fox presenters Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum.


During the programme, Trump could not resist a dig at the broadcaster. In response to a tough question from a supporter, the former president replied: “I am very glad that you started off by saying you’re with me ... I figured maybe Fox would have written that question [otherwise].” But days later, Trump was boasting about the ratings for the event. “They did very well the other night with that wonderful town hall, thank you very much.”

Since then, the frosty relationship between Trump and Murdoch – the two most powerful forces in US conservatism – appears to have thawed.

Trump has ramped up his presence on Murdoch’s network, appearing or calling in several times since January’s town hall. An increasing number of Trump allies and campaign officials appear regularly on the cable news network’s flagship programmes.

In turn, observers say Fox has opted to deliver its viewers what they want: more Trump. After flirtations with Republican challengers like Ron DeSantis – with the Murdoch-owned New York Post newspaper last year offering a front page branding the Florida governor “DeFuture” – Fox has again embraced the former president, if reluctantly.

Every media outlet in the world is grappling with how to cover Trump, as his public pronouncements become more stuffed with exaggerations and false claims, and as he attempts to run for president while also appearing in courthouses, having been charged with dozens of felonies.

But the dilemma is perhaps most vexing for Fox News, as it looks to preserve its place as the artery of the American right. While the rest of the US media faces declining trust and a broken commercial model that has resulted in mass lay-offs across the sector, Fox has, for the most part, remained a staple of the conservative media diet.

Despite fears that its tensions with Trump would harm ratings, the channel still trounces its competitors in popularity. It averaged 1.3 million viewers a day in the first quarter, compared to just 467,000 for CNN and 814,000 for MSNBC.

But while Fox wants to hold on to that lead, it knows there are risks associated with getting too close to Trump. The broadcaster last year agreed to pay nearly $800 million to settle a lawsuit brought by voting technology group Dominion, which accused Fox of defamation after it aired false claims of election fraud in 2020. A $2.7 billion lawsuit brought by voting company Smartmatic is still live.

“[Fox has] been caught between their not liking Trump, and at the same time, Trump being the game,” says Jon Miller, a former top Murdoch lieutenant and current chief executive of Integrated Media. “Fox has to come around and embrace Trump as fully as they did last time, and inevitably will. But they’re a little bit caught, because they don’t want to outright lie.”

People close to the Murdochs say the network’s move back into the Trump camp was inevitable after the president cleared the primary field to become the Republican nominee for the White House, and is now polling in many cases ahead of the current Democratic president Joe Biden. “It’s a f**king disaster for Rupert if Trump wins and Fox is not on side,” says one US media boss who has dealt closely with the Murdoch family in the past. “This is a big moment for Fox.”

Unparalleled influence

Rupert Murdoch has had relationships with every US president since John F Kennedy, but has never been known to be a fan of Trump. When Trump told Murdoch he planned to run for president in 2015, the billionaire reportedly “didn’t even look up from his soup”.

Yet Trump’s administration gave Murdoch unparalleled influence, even by his own standards. In 2016, the year Trump was elected president, Fox News became the most-watched cable channel on all of US television.

The network developed a symbiotic bond with the Trump administration. Trump was said to consult with Fox’s hosts at that time, including Sean Hannity and Lou Dobbs, on matters of policy. More than a dozen former Fox executives and on-air contributors joined the Trump administration and his campaign operations. They included Kimberly Guilfoyle, a former Fox News presenter who later became engaged to his son, Donald Trump Jr, and played a key role in the former president’s 2020 campaign.

But that election, which Trump continues to contest, appeared to be a turning point in the relationship. The network’s decision to call the state of Arizona for Biden on election night in 2020, ahead of its competitors, infuriated Trump, prompting him to ask friends: “Why do you think Rupert attacks me so often?”

In early 2021, after the storming of the US Capitol by Trump supporters, Murdoch said he wanted to “make Trump a non-person”, according to legal filings. “We have to lead our viewers which is ... not as easy as it might seem,” he said.

Murdoch tried to make good on that promise. In 2022, Murdoch’s New York Post cast “Trumpty Dumpty” as a deluded election loser, with a front page featuring a picture of the former president tumbling from a brick wall. Days later, when Trump announced his third bid for the White House, the tabloid brushed it off with a headline, “Florida man makes announcement,” and a small item buried on page 26.

At the same time, the legacy of Fox’s proximity to Trump continued to dog the Murdochs, in the form of costly legal battles and embarrassing internal communications. Last April, Fox parted ways with one of its most popular hosts Tucker Carlson, in part over private messages that he had sent criticising Fox’s management that were made public in legal filings.

But as Trump gained ground in opinion polls, and DeSantis’s presidential bid flamed out, Murdoch has appeared to resort to cosying up to Trump once more.

In the final days of his campaign, DeSantis slammed conservative media, and Fox News in particular, for doing Trump’s bidding. “They don’t hold him accountable because they’re worried about losing viewers,” DeSantis told reporters in Iowa. Days later, after DeSantis finished in a distant second place behind Trump in the Iowa caucuses, a crowd of supporters at an election night party for the Florida governor broke into a chant of “f**k Fox News”. Even so, DeSantis has appeared on Fox News “approximately 50 times” since September, according to Fox.

The personal relationship between Trump and Murdoch, however, remains “very tense,” according to Chris Ruddy, the chief executive of rival broadcaster Newsmax and a longtime friend of Trump.

“They’ll just make accommodations with each other,” says Ruddy, who sees Trump frequently as a member of the former president’s Mar-a-Lago resort. His approach towards Fox isn’t personal, he adds. “Trump sees them as media outlets, and he rides all the platforms.”

Some conservative viewers also remain suspicious of the network, with some of the former president’s most passionate supporters viewing it as disloyal to their hero.

Insurgents such as Ruddy’s Newsmax, as well as newer and more controversial outlets like Right Side Broadcasting Network and One America News Network, have looked to capitalise on the faction of Americans who view Fox News as too moderate.

At a Windham, New Hampshire, polling station in January, a number of voters casting their ballots for Trump in the state’s primary said they had stopped watching Fox News in recent years.

Gabe Toubia (61) said he “dumped Fox News” after the 2020 election, “because I saw how they turned”. Ted Maravelias (55) said that he “used to be a Fox guy” but added: “The day that they fired Tucker Carlson is the day that I fired Fox News.” Maravelias said he had turned to Newsmax. “I know what is going on.”

Murdoch appears to have miscalculated not just Trump’s staying power – but also the influence Fox has on its viewers.

“The Dominion lawsuit showed that Fox is beholden to its audience. So they’re following, not leading”, says Eliana Johnson, a former Fox producer and current editor of the Washington Free Beacon, a conservative online news outlet backed by billionaire Paul Singer. “It’s not the Fox News that it once was, but it still is a major force in the [Republican] party”.

Cash crunch

The value to Trump of the relationship with Fox News should not be discounted. It was the mainstream media, with Fox at the vanguard, that allowed him to supercharge his populist political stardom.

Analysis from MediaQuant, a firm that tracked media coverage for candidates and computed their dollar value based on advertising rates, found that in the year leading up to November 2016, coverage of Trump had “earned” the equivalent of nearly $5 billion in “free” media – almost twice as much as Hillary Clinton.

“You can’t raise that much money. Nobody can,” says Mick Mulvaney, a former Republican congressman who was Trump’s acting chief of staff in 2019 and 2020. “That is solid gold.”

That allowed Trump to spend far less on advertising than his political rivals – a dynamic that is playing out again eight years later. The Trump campaign and political action committees supporting him have spent around $63.9 million on ads so far this election cycle, according to the latest AdImpact data, compared to more than $205.8 million spent by the Biden campaign and Biden-affiliated PACs.

Trump – who is also confronting mounting legal bills and a cash crunch for his campaign apparatus – is again banking on the power of so-called earned media.

But things will be different this time. News channels, including Fox, have for the most part stopped blanket coverage of Trump rallies, instead airing only snippets of the former president’s campaign events before cutting away or fact-checking his claims in real time. In February, for example, Fox presenter Neil Cavuto cut away from coverage of a Trump rally and offered a detailed rebuttal of his speech.

However, Trump has a new forum with the potential to grab the attention of TV cameras: the courtroom. The former president faces a growing list of legal problems, ranging from liabilities – including a $450 million judgment against him in a sprawling civil fraud case – to 91 criminal charges spanning four looming trials in New York, Washington, DC, Georgia and Florida.

While few judges have allowed cameras to film proceedings, Trump has seized on his appearances as a way back into the media spotlight, holding impromptu press conferences on courthouse steps. “President Trump cares about television,” Mulvaney says. “But he also knows that there is no such thing as bad press.”

The Trump campaign did not respond to a request to comment for this article. Yet allies insist that the president’s legal woes will help him win over the swing voters and independents who could very well determine the outcome of the election in November – and mainstream media coverage will be a critical way of reaching them.

“If [they] are talking about Trump, if the atmosphere and oxygen is all Trump, then there is not an opportunity for anything else,” says Bryan Lanza, a veteran Republican strategist who was communications director for Trump’s 2016 transition team and is now managing director at Mercury Public Affairs.

Lanza concedes there are more conservative media platforms now than there were in 2016 or 2020 – but says Fox remains “critical” for reaching Republican and independent voters.

“The suburban moms of Philadelphia are not tuning into OAN,” he adds, in a reference to centrist female voters in affluent suburban areas who are seen as a key demographic in determining November’s outcome. “They are tuning into Fox.”

‘Major test’

For this year’s presidential election, the responsibility for managing the relationship between Fox and Trump falls not to Rupert Murdoch but to his son and heir Lachlan.

The 52-year-old, who ostensibly assumed control of the company’s media properties last September, cuts a very different figure to his father.

Lachlan is less interested than Rupert in involving himself in political sweepstakes, according to several people familiar with the matter. He regularly joins Fox News editorial calls, but is more interested in ratings and advertising sales trends than political decisions, they say.

While Rupert, a self-described “journalist at heart”, put himself at the centre of the news, Lachlan is less keen on having his own opinions overflow into the family’s media outlets.

“Lachlan keeps his views to himself, sort of determinedly,” says Paddy Manning, an Australian biographer of Murdoch’s eldest son. “He takes a view that if he starts mouthing off, then his opinions are going to be parroted across the Murdoch media empire, and that would be counterproductive.”

Fox notes that its viewership is not exclusively conservative, and that it outperforms its rivals CNN and MSNBC among independents, reaching some eight million registered independent voters on average per week, according to Nielsen data.

But how Fox navigates the relationship with Trump as the race progresses will set the tenor for Lachlan’s stewardship of the empire. A media executive close to the family says that this election will be “the first major test for Lachlan” as head of News Corp. “This is the first election where Rupert is not in charge. And Rupert’s brilliance was always picking and backing the winners.”

For now, at least, the Fox-Trump reset seems to be holding fast. At an election night party in Mar-a-Lago last month, four large TV screens had been set up in a gilded ballroom at the president’s resort to show results come in as Trump clinched his party’s nomination for a third time. They were tuned to Fox. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2024

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