Shortly after Barack Obama was elected president, Roger Ailes, then the chairman and CEO of Fox News, moved into action.
“I see this as the Alamo,” Ailes said, invoking the 1835 battle for Texas’ independence from Mexico.
Ailes, who died in 2017, was speaking to conservative host Glenn Beck, who once recounted the conversation as a prism through which Ailes viewed the role of the conservative movement in the Obama era.
“If I just had somebody who was willing to sit on the other side of the camera until the last shot is fired, we’d be fine,” Ailes told Beck.
The election of Donald Trump eight years later would go on to be regarded as Ailes’ greatest triumph: an apex of the politics of grievance, largely rooted in race and nationalism, that Fox News dedicated itself to as America was led by its first black president.
A recent New Yorker investigation provided the most comprehensive view to date of the relationship between Fox News and the Trump White House, unpacking with fresh details how the network transformed from a conservative-friendly news channel to a mouthpiece of the president.
As Fox News contended with the ensuing fallout, another firestorm unfolded: two of the network’s primetime hosts – Jeanine Pirro and Tucker Carlson, among Trump’s most vocal proponents – drew widespread backlash for a series of controversial comments.
But while the Trump presidency has ushered in a new era at Fox News, dubbed by many as a dramatic shift in the network’s posture and programming, the sea change did not begin with the current occupant of the White House.
Media watchdogs instead described 2009, the year Obama was sworn into office, as an inflection point at Fox News. If its mission had previously been designed to cater to a Republican audience, the rise of on-air personalities appealing to the far right steered the network into a decidedly combative fold.
“A lot of the Fox viewers obviously were skeptical of Obama,” said Joe Peyronnin, an associate professor of journalism at Hofstra University.
“No news channel reported on Obama being from Kenya more than Fox, and not being an American. No news channel more went after Obama’s transcript from Harvard or Occidental College,” he added, pointing to some of the unsubstantiated attacks on the former president’s background.
“Part of mobilizing a voting populace is to scare the hell out of them … I heard things on Fox that I would never hear on any other channel.”
Photograph: Bill Pugliano/Getty Images
While Fox held an openly conservative bent since its inception – and was a chief attack dog of the Clintons in the 1990s – it was in the aftermath of Obama’s election that overtures to white identity politics grew from subtle to overt.
As Obama ascended to the White House, Sean Hannity, who previously hosted a debate-style program with his liberal counterpart, Alan Colmes, began solo anchoring his eponymous show that over the years has given risen to conspiracy theories and promoted an openly-hostile posture on immigration.
And that same year, Fox News brought on Beck, who by his own admission warned Ailes that his commentary might be too incendiary for television. With a daily audience of more than two million, Beck became a household name by scribbling conspiracy theories about Obama and the left on a chalkboard during his evening newscast.
“This guy is, I believe, a racist,” Beck would go on to say of Obama in July 2009, during an appearance on Fox & Friends.
Beck’s comments came after Obama said police “acted stupidly” by arresting Henry Louis Gates Jr, a prominent Harvard scholar of African American culture, outside his home.
“This president, I think, has exposed himself as a guy, over and over and over again, who has a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture,” Beck added. “I don’t know what it is.”
Entangled in much of the commentary, a dominant theme emerged: the implication that Obama, at his core, was not truly an “American”.
Some of the network’s on-air talent repeatedly referred to the president by his full name – Barack Hussein Obama – which some former Fox News employees said was by design.
As the US weathered the aftermath of the 2008 economic recession and financial crisis, the network’s message to its viewers was clear: Obama, it was said, would bring “socialism” to the country’s doorstep.
Trump understood Fox’s audience and basically swindled it out from the rest of the Republican partyMatt Gertz, Media Matters
Leading the anti-Obama fringe was a real estate developer by the name of Donald Trump, who was given his first true platform on Fox & Friends, the morning talk show that remains to this day one of the president’s primary sources of information.
Trump, who during the Obama years was in the spotlight as a reality TV star, would regularly phone into the program to unleash tirades against the president. Trump escalated his attacks in the lead-up to Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign, zeroing on the false claim that the president was born in Kenya, and demanding the release of his birth certificate.
Trump also soaked up the attention over speculation that he would mount a presidential bid, but ultimately chose not to run in 2012. He nonetheless remained a fixture on Fox News, leaning heavily on the network’s audience when announcing his campaign for the Republican nomination in 2016.
By then, observers said, the groundwork had already been laid.
“They created this sense of urgency among its viewers that whatever Barack Obama was doing was going to be damaging to the structure of America,” said Matt Gertz, a senior fellow at Media Matters for America, a progressive media watchdog.
“I see Trump as seizing on that sense of complete confrontation and using it to appeal to the very sorts of people that Fox appealed to for years.”
Photograph: Brendan McDermid/Reuters
Throughout the Obama presidency, Fox News segments began to draw heavily from right-wing sources such as InfoWars and Breitbart News, often pushing unsubstantiated claims designed to stoke fears about race relations, Muslims and immigrants.
Alisyn Camerota, a CNN anchor and former host at Fox & Friends, said the unfounded claim that Muslims are seeking to bring Sharia law to America became a fixation of the network.
“When I worked at Fox, sharia law was one of their favorite bogeymen. Roger Ailes was very exercised about sharia law,” Camerota said in a CNN broadcast last week.
“And so we did a lot of segments on sharia law. None of them were fact-based or they didn’t – there was no emphasis on them being fact based.”
Camerota’s comments were made as Jeanine Pirro, a Fox News anchor and one of Trump’s most ardent supporters, was widely condemned for questioning the hijab and patriotism of congresswoman Ilhan Omar, one of the first Muslim women elected to the US Congress.
In a segment that aired last week, Pirro said: “Omar wears the hijab, which according to the Quran 33:59, tells women to cover so they won’t get molested.”
“Think about it: Omar wears a hijab,” she added. “Is her adherence to this Islamic doctrine indicative of her adherence to sharia law, which in itself is antithetical to the United States Constitution?”
Fox News condemned Pirro’s remarks in a statement. Nearly a week later, the network pulled Pirro’s show, Justice with Judge Jeanine, from the air, citing “scheduling matters”.
Several advertisers cut ties with Pirro in the wake of her remarks, as well as Tucker Carlson, one of Fox News’ other primetime hosts.
Photograph: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images
Carlson came under fire after derogatory comments he made about women and minorities were recently unearthed from his appearances on a radio show between 2006 and 2011.
Taking a page from the president, Carlson refused to apologize and instead pushed back against criticism:
“We’ve always apologized when we’re wrong, and will continue to do that,” he said. “That’s what decent people do. They apologize. But we will never bow to the mob. Ever. No matter what.”
Trump has routinely referred to Democrats and the media as “the mob”.
The president, for his part, expressed support for Pirro, tweeting on Sunday: “Bring back @JudgeJeanine Pirro. The Radical Left Democrats, working closely with their beloved partner, the Fake News Media, is using every trick in the book to SILENCE a majority of our Country. They have all out campaigns against @FoxNews hosts who are doing too well.”
Trump’s tweet raised eyebrows for its timing – two days after a terrorist attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, left 50 dead and 50 others wounded.
The relationship between Trump and Fox News, Gertz said, was “more dangerous than ever and more powerful than ever”.
“It’s not because Fox is doing something particularly different than it’s done in the past,” he said.
“It’s because Donald Trump is in the White House and is working in this synergy with the network,” Gertz added. “The ears of the most powerful man in America are listening to what Fox has to say.”
Bill Kristol, who worked as a Fox News contributor for a decade until 2013, said the network had undeniably escalated its “whipping up of ethnic resentments, racial resentments, and the deep state”.
But the onus, he said, was ultimately on the individual who sits in the Oval Office.
“You can have a very irresponsible cable network, you can have talk radio and social media,” Kristol said.
“If the president of the United States is echoing it, repeating it, reinforcing it, that’s the huge difference,” he added.
“The fact of Trump makes the fact of Fox more serious and dangerous.”