The cast of "Fox & Friends," Steve Doocy, left, Ainsley Earhardt and Brian Kilmeade, on the set of the Fox News Channel on March 3. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
President Trump is pretty adamant about his disdain for the news media. But he knows who his friends are.
For four years before he ran for president, Trump called into the Fox News Channel morning show “Fox & Friends” every Monday and was given an unfiltered forum to present his views. When the show’s co-hosts Steve Doocy, Ainsley Earhardt and Brian Kilmeade interviewed him at the White House on Feb. 27, Trump said, “Maybe without those call-ins somebody else is sitting here.”
The designation as the president’s favorite cable news program is not a badge of honor in journalism circles. As a freewheeling talk show for the conservative Fox News audience, “Fox & Friends” has long been maligned by liberal media watchdogs and lampooned on “Saturday Night Live.”
But supporters of Trump’s brand of populism are making “Fox & Friends” their morning destination. The show had its best month ever in February, averaging 1.7 million viewers, according to Nielsen, a 46% gain over the same month a year ago.
The program is riding a trend in which viewers are moving toward political talk in the morning as the frenetic activity of the Trump administration dominates the national conversation.
MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” was up 34% in February compared with a year earlier, averaging 847,000 viewers. CNN’s “New Day” was also up 46% to 639,000 viewers. Both programs have a heavy Washington focus, but a far more skeptical view of Trump.
Ad revenue on the three shows has seen substantial gains as well. Ad revenue for “Fox & Friends” rose 33% to $12.5 million during the fourth quarter of 2016 compared with the same period a year earlier. “Morning Joe” increased ad revenue 67% to $8.3 million, and “New Day” rose 59% to $9.1 million in the fourth quarter, according to data from Standard Media Index.
The audience lift occurred as Nielsen data showed a shift away from the broadcast network shows. In February, NBC’s “Today,” ABC’s “Good Morning America” and “CBS This Morning” were collectively down 1 million viewers compared with last year.
NBC News Chairman Andy Lack attributed the loss to the broadcast network morning shows’ mission to serve a wider audience that goes beyond viewers obsessed with the activities in Washington.
“I think people who are particularly interested in political news are not getting as much as they want,” Lack said. “Some of those people might have been watching broadcast and they are moving to the cable side.”
When Trump has a good day, he does really well on “Fox & Friends.” The day after his widely praised address to Congress, rock anthems “My Hero” by Foo Fighters and Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s “Takin’ Care of Business” accompanied the segments on his speech.
When the story is not so good for the administration — such as the executive order on immigration that was blocked by the courts — the missteps are reported by the opinionated co-hosts with commentary that provides, at minimum, the benefit of the doubt.
The Monday after the weekend in which Trump made his unsubstantiated charge that his predecessor, President Obama, had wiretapped Trump Tower, the veracity of the claim was not seriously questioned until it was done by a guest, former CIA Director Michael Hayden.
“Fox & Friends” will also find Trump-friendly stories not seen elsewhere. Last week, the co-hosts interviewed a writer for a conservative magazine who was made fun of by TBS late-night host Samantha Bee for having what she called “Nazi hair.” It was later learned that he was suffering from brain cancer and Bee, popular with Trump detractors, had to apologize. Trump approvingly tweeted the story to his 26.4 million followers when it aired.
Such exchanges are exactly what conservatives who watch Fox News — the top-rated cable news network — want in the morning, according to veteran TV news executive Jonathan Klein, who led CNN from 2004 to 2010.
“They are an unwavering fan club that helps those conservative viewers kick off the day the right way in their minds and they just stick to it,” Klein said. “You want a group of friends who see the world the way you do, who you want to hang out with. For the Fox viewers, those three are it.”
Earhardt, who replaced Elisabeth Hasselbeck on “Fox & Friends” a year ago, sees the show’s mission as providing a counterweight to the harsher coverage that Trump gets from other outlets.
“If you watch the mainstream media, more often than not nowadays after the election there is a lot of negativity and not telling both sides of the story, especially when it comes to Donald Trump,” she said. “Clearly he was elected and most of our viewers on both sides of the aisle would say that they want to give him a fair shake.”
Earhardt, 40, is from South Carolina, one of the red states that went big for Trump in the 2016 election. A Southern drawl occasionally trickles through her smooth on-air delivery. She is a deeply religious Christian who takes Bible study class and talks freely about her faith on the air, a rarity on big New York-based TV news outlets.
There is clearly a market for Earhardt’s worldview. Last year, she wrote “Take Heart, My Child: A Mother’s Dream,” a children’s book for Simon & Schuster inspired by Scripture quotes her father wrote down on cards and placed on the breakfast table every morning during her childhood. The book sold out its first printing of 200,000 two days after its release and shot to No. 1 on Amazon — ahead of former Fox News star Megyn Kelly’s memoir “Settle for More.”
Kilmeade, 52, maintains that Trump has not always gotten a free pass on his program. “When Donald Trump said George Bush lied about weapons of mass destruction, I let him know that is absolutely not true,” he said. “When he went after Megyn Kelly, I defended her, not because we were friends, but because he was wrong about her ratings and her skill.”
Kilmeade also disapproves of Trump calling the news media “the enemy” even though “Fox & Friends” was excluded from that declaration.
“It makes me uncomfortable,” he said. “I think the best way for him to answer his critics is to be successful. I don’t think it helps to declare any entity an enemy or to lock anybody out of a press briefing.”
Still, “Fox & Friends” has not received a lot of public praise outside of President Trump. It has also been at the center of some of Fox News’ biggest controversies.
One of its original co-hosts, E.D. Hill, was fired in 2008 when on another program she described a fist bump between then-candidate Barack Obama and his wife Michelle as a “terrorist fist jab.”
She was replaced in 2006 by Gretchen Carlson, whose sexual harassment lawsuit against former Fox News Chief Executive Roger Ailes is still having reverberations through the company, which has paid out settlements to other claimants. (Ailes denied the claims, but was forced out over the matter and 21st Century Fox paid a $20-million settlement to Carlson.)
As for the comedic attention the show received on “SNL,” the co-hosts say they have always been flattered by it, although Kilmeade would prefer to be impersonated by a performer who is slimmer than Bobby Moynihan. But that’s the only thing that bothered him about the sketch portraying him as a gaffe-prone partisan.
“It would be great to Google my name and see a lot of positive stories and reviews, but I got over that a long time ago,” said Kilmeade, who has written two bestselling history books and is currently at work on one about Andrew Jackson. “If everyone loved me and no one watched that wouldn’t make me feel good. I’m just glad to be in the game. Right now, we matter.”
Klein notes that Kilmeade and his cohorts have survived the taunts aimed at them over the years because the “Fox & Friends” audience does not judge them by the standards of a conventional news program.
“As we’ve seen with conservative approval ratings of President Trump, partisan conservatives are more than willing to forgive flubs as long as you talk the talk,” Klein said.
But “Fox & Friends” has avoided any major mea culpas lately. That may be due in part to what some in the TV news industry believe is a slight shift in tone at Fox News since 21st Century Fox Chairman Rupert Murdoch took over for the ousted Ailes. The cable network’s commentators are seen as being pro-Trump without embracing some of the extreme conservative positions held by Ailes.
“It’s an administration point of view that they are focused on,” NBC’s Lack said of Fox. “With Roger it was more anti-establishment.”
The “Fox & Friends” co-hosts say their only mandate is to be themselves and there has been no call by management to rein in their views. Doocy, 60, also said he doesn’t worry about whether the show’s identification with Trump could become a negative if his presidency stumbles.
“We put it out there,” Doocy said. “We’re not going to stick our head in the sand and not cover the big news of the day.”