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The fracturing and expansion of conservative media ahead of the presidential election

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The 2024 presidential election is looking more and more like it's going to be a repeat of 2020 - Trump versus Biden, with Fox News and others in conservative media lining up behind the former president. But in the last four years, Fox has paid hundreds of millions of dollars to settle one lawsuit. It's facing another. And imitators are trying to get a piece of Fox's conservative viewership. NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik has reported on all of this, and he's with us now. Hi, David.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: David, we heard Ron DeSantis say Fox chose to back Trump, and that's why Trump is dominating the primaries. Is that true?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, I mean, look. Give them high marks for audacity. It's true as far as it went in terms of its surrounding Trump now. But Fox started the primary season sort of last spring by embracing Ron DeSantis. You saw him called DeFuture (ph) on the front pages of the New York Post, its sister newspaper tabloid. And Fox then essentially - I wouldn't say it fully endorsed Ron DeSantis, but it gave him a chance to fully audition with the voters. It gave him hour after hour of favorable coverage, of gentle interviews, of, you know, things like announcements, of endorsements - the kind of treatment they, in a sense, gave back to Trump in 2016. And he tanked the audition. The voters really didn't respond. We saw that in polls, and we really saw that starting in Iowa and in New Hampshire.

Trump was actually mad at Fox for the amount of time that they were lavishing on DeSantis because Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch wanted him to have the chance to claim the title. So now Fox is leaping to meet the expectations of its viewers and Trump's voters. It's playing defense for Trump, just as DeSantis is now describing, by picking on DeSantis, by picking on Nikki Haley and by picking on President Joe Biden.

SHAPIRO: Well, if Fox gave DeSantis all of these softballs and DeSantis whiffed, that suggests Fox might not be the kingmaker it once was.

FOLKENFLIK: Look. Fox very much wants to look like a kingmaker, and the truth is just more complicated. If you think about it, in years past, Roger Ailes, the longtime chairman of Fox News, and Rupert Murdoch himself were very interested in having CIA Director David Petraeus take on Barack Obama during his reelection campaign in 2012. There was a little 2016 boomlet around Rand Paul, the Kentucky senator. It's not that Murdoch can dictate or determine who the next candidate is going to be, but they have their favorites. They have their interests. And yet, you know, the Murdochs very much are pragmatists. They want both somebody conservative and somebody they can do business with in the White House. But even if Fox is not a kingmaker, it's a super-important player here.

SHAPIRO: Let's talk about the settlement with Dominion Voting Systems because Fox had to pay close to $800 million for the false claims it made after the 2020 elections. Does that make it less likely that Fox will promote conspiracy theories and lies going forward?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, so there are two things - right? - the question of conspiracy theories and the question of the person that those conspiracy theories are intended to prop up, and that's Donald Trump. Then, as now, you're seeing Fox pivot to this full embrace of Trump. We learned through the evidence that surfaced and became public during the Dominion lawsuit against Fox News that they didn't find Trump particularly palatable. They didn't buy into his supposed populist appeal. The Murdochs, their stars, their executives were chasing after his voters, who were their core viewers.

The biggest change that people will see may well be the departure of Tucker Carlson, his huge audiences and, yes, the conspiracy theories that he was perhaps one of the key figures peddling. But, you know, he's been replaced by Jesse Watters. Consider Jesse kind of a Tucker lite. And he's doing fine - antagonizing liberals, saying truly offensive things and yet largely avoiding outright defamatory claims.

One change I've noticed is that there are these oases of sanity. Neil Cavuto has been pretty consistent about sticking to the facts by and large. But Steve Doocy, one of the stars of "Fox And Friends," one of the key outlets and vehicles through which Trump was able to make his claims and his surrogates were able to make outrageous claims - Doocy has been reminding co-hosts and viewers of inconvenient facts time and again - when failed policies had to do with decisions under the Trump administration, not the Biden years, how well the economy is doing, how scant a lot of the evidence is in the Hunter Biden investigations that Joe Biden did anything wrong.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FOX AND FRIENDS")

STEVE DOOCY: With all due respect, the Republicans need better investigators because they've got a lot of circumstantial evidence, but they have not shown that Joe Biden profited personally...

BRIAN KILMEADE: They're doing great.

DOOCY: ...Or that he broke any rules.

KILMEADE: I vehemently disagree.

DOOCY: It's all circumstantial.

KILMEADE: These are unbelievable. This is so...

DOOCY: Brian...

KILMEADE: No, no, let me finish.

FOLKENFLIK: And so I think that you're seeing Fox basically try to pull itself in moments back from the brink even as it's desperate to give its voters the verisimilitude of the kind of conspiracy theory, QAnon-adjacent matter that a lot of them found so attractive.

SHAPIRO: Other conservative TV outlets are trying to take a piece of Fox News' audience - OAN, Newsmax, etc. How successful are they? Are they a serious threat to Fox?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, I think the reason that they haven't been more successful is that Fox decided to embrace the crazy. I think that's what we saw after the 2020 election, where they allowed election lies to be peddled. And they have tapered and pulled back from that, but they have not utterly rejected a lot of the spurious claims. OAN and Newsmax, nonetheless - and I would say Newsmax more than OAN - have retained a certain kind of audience and a pull. They are an influence on Fox as well as an influence on the more fringy figures in the House Republican Conference, in particular really appealing to the most right-wing of right-wing audiences. And, of course, OAN really has been deplatformed largely after, you know, their most egregious lies about Dominion Smartmatic. And yet, you know, they still go viral online on X and other social media platforms. So they are still participating in what people are hearing and thinking as they go online to consume political content.

SHAPIRO: The conservative media fragmentation or flowering - however you want to characterize it - goes beyond TV. Who are some of the other major players right now?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, I think you got to credit Ben Shapiro, who's really built up something of an empire at The Daily Wire. Charlie Kirk was kind of a student activist, youth activist in far-right circles - CPAC and other elements of the far-right - who has become a media figure as well, both on social media through his radio show and internet presence.

And then there are all these former Fox figures. Eric Bolling is one of the stars of Newsmax. Megyn Kelly, who had a disastrous run at NBC after she left Fox, reinvented herself once more as sort of a hard-right figure. Her own podcast online - she just struck a pretty big deal with Sirius XM. And, of course, Tucker Carlson himself - he's never going to necessarily have the same sway that he had when he was 8 p.m. host on Fox News. But he's got a video program he's attempting on X or Twitter, whatever you want to call it. And he also, you know, still retains enough affinity, affection and influence in right-wing circles that Trump has allowed it to be suggested that Carlson could be one of his potential vice presidential candidates.

SHAPIRO: What does this all mean for Donald Trump?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, at the moment, you know, he is harnessing the energy from all of that anarchic thrust, and he's also getting the embrace of Fox News. So what we're really learning is that Fox, rather than being the kingmaker, is embracing the king after the crowd has decided or almost a little bit like at the Roman colosseum. You know, the emperor looks at the crowd - thumbs up, thumbs down. The fate is decided by the crowd.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik. Thanks.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet.

(SOUNDBITE OF MELANIE MARTINEZ SONG, "VOID") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.