For years, Donald Trump and Fox News were smitten.
The former president would call into the rightwing news channel seemingly whenever he liked. Fox News hosts pumped up every Trump utterance. Trump watched the channel religiously, and in 2019 alone he sent 657 tweets in response to Fox News or Fox Business programs.
Since then, however, things appear to have changed. Trump, as the New York Times has pointed out, has not been interviewed on Fox News for more than 100 days.
A recent Trump speech was largely ignored by the network, and in a sign that Fox News has recognized alternative Republican presidential candidates are available, a Mike Pence address was broadcast live, in its entirety.
With the news channel embroiled in a billion-dollar lawsuit with Dominion Voting Systems over its claims the voting machine company tampered with the 2020 election, Trump’s continuing lies about election fraud seem to have rattled Rupert Murdoch, the media titan who owns Fox News.
Two of Murdoch’s newspapers, the New York Post and the Wall Street Journal, published scathing editorials on Trump in July, the former calling the twice-impeached 45th president “unworthy to be this country’s chief executive again” and the latter branding Trump “The President Who Stood Still on January 6”.
This week the Washington Post reported that Murdoch “has lost his enthusiasm” for Trump.
The channel has begun to give Pence and Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, plenty of air-time, including two primetime interviews in the space of five days recently, the New York Times reported. Tom Cotton, the Arkansas senator who is also said to be jockeying for a 2024 presidential run, has also been a regular interviewee.
But while the apparent bouncing of Trump from Fox News has been enthusiastically covered by media reporters, there are plenty of signs the channel isn’t ready to let its paramour go just yet.
A recent study by Media Matters for America, a media watchdog, found that Fox News continues to discuss Trump far, far more than any of his perceived rivals for the 2024 nomination – specifically, Trump was mentioned on Fox News 8,556 times through January to July, while DeSantis and Pence received 1,083 and 589 mentions respectively.
Angelo Carusone, Media Matters’ president and chief executive, said those findings suggest there has not been a souring. He said there may have been a slight change in tone, and that Trump may not have the same “stranglehold” he once had on Fox News – the days when the channel was seen to be broadcasting to “an audience of one” are probably over – but that the coverage is still overwhelmingly positive.
“You were allowed to attack Donald Trump during the primaries in 2015 and 2016 on Fox News. That doesn’t happen now, at all, ever,” Carusone said.
For his part, Trump has recently expressed his displeasure at Fox News’ output. The 76-year-old, who is known to be emotional, attacked Fox & Friends in July, after its host Steve Doocy suggested a straw poll of potential 2024 candidates that showed Trump with 79% of the vote be taken with a pinch of salt.
Doocy hardly went off on Trump – the host just pointed to other, more scientific, polls that showed Trump lacking 79% support. But it was enough to cause upset.
“Fox & Friends just really botched my poll numbers, no doubt on purpose. That show has been terrible – gone to the ‘dark side’,” Trump posted on Truth Social, his ailing rightwing social media platform.
The Dominion lawsuit could be a reason for Trump’s absence. The company is suing Fox News for $1.6bn, accusing its owner, Fox Corp, and the Murdochs specifically, of allowing Fox News to amplify Trump’s false claims that the voting company had rigged the election for Joe Biden.
In a statement, the news channel said: “We are confident we will prevail as freedom of the press is foundational to our democracy and must be protected, in addition to the damages claims being outrageous, unsupported and not rooted in sound financial analysis, serving as nothing more than a flagrant attempt to deter our journalists from doing their jobs.”
But with the lawsuit ongoing, could be a wise strategy not to allow Trump to repeat those precise claims on Fox News during a live interview.
Asked about Fox News’ relationship with Trump, a spokesperson said: “The debate among the liberal media on this topic is the very reason Fox News exists and is the most watched cable news channel in the country with more viewers of every political persuasion than any other network.”
Still, Carusone believes any cooling on the part of Fox News towards Trump is likely to be temporary.
The channel’s hosts are still engaging in misty-eyed segments where they talk about how Trump would handle issues ranging from inflation to China to the “border crisis” – a Fox News staple. And Trump’s supposed achievements while in office are still championed.
“They’re still fetishizing and fantasizing, it’s just that there’s no longer an audience of one,” Carusone said.
“There are other people in the audience that they care about.”