One year after Roger Ailes' departure, Fox News thrives as an unabashed Trump booster

Stelter: Fox & Friends is a Trump infomercial
Stelter: Fox & Friends is a Trump infomercial

When Roger Ailes resigned from Fox News one year ago, critics questioned whether the network could stay dominant without its visionary founder.

One year later, Fox News remains the most-watched network on cable news and one of the most powerful forces in American politics. The brand that Ailes built has retained its loyal following and proven stronger than the scandals it endured, or the talent it has lost, or been forced to drop, since Ailes left amid a flurry of sexual harassment allegations, which he denied.

But something has also changed: Under its new leader, Rupert Murdoch, Fox News has consistently served as a booster for the President of the United States.

The network's primetime hosts -- Tucker Carlson, most of the co-hosts of "The Five" and, most notably, Sean Hannity -- have become almost unfailingly loyal to Donald Trump, and reflexively dismissive of his faults and missteps. Their allegiance has at times made Fox News seem like a government mouthpiece, more wedded to a presidential administration than perhaps any major media organization in modern American history.

Murdoch and Trump talk several times a week, several White House and Fox News sources told CNNMoney, and it is not uncommon for Trump to be heard saying "get me Rupert" when he has something he wants to discuss with the media mogul. Murdoch enjoys the proximity to power, sources on both sides said. Though he may have disagreed with Trump during the early days of the 2016 campaign, he relishes his ability to call the president -- or be called by the president -- at almost any time.

The close relationship between Trump and Murdoch has inspired Fox's most influential on-air personalities to be more emboldened in their own embrace of the president, as well as their opposition to those who question or criticize him, Fox News sources said. 

News that reflects negatively on the president -- from the Russia investigation to his failure to repeal Obamacare -- is often downplayed or ignored. When positive news about Trump is hard to find, Fox's primetime hosts will dedicate multiple segments to berating the mainstream media for what they describe as an anti-Trump bias. Of late, the shows have also been running negative coverage of Hillary Clinton, despite the fact that she stopped running for president eight months ago and is no longer a public official.

Related: Fox News turns to Hillary Clinton amid negative news for Trump

For some of these hosts, the most severe criticism of President Trump has been a gentle appeal to him to rein in his use of Twitter.  "He's not a perfect person," Hannity once said of the president on the "Hugh Hewitt Show." "The difference between Trump and, say, other politicians... they'll say anything to get elected, he just stuck to what he believed in. And maybe that's a fault."

Fox News and its parent company 21st Century Fox, where Murdoch is executive chairman, did not comment for this article.

When Ailes launched Fox News in 1996, conservatives considered it an antidote to the liberal elitism of the mainstream media. It quickly drew a loyal, mostly conservative audience and became a powerful megaphone for Republicans and the conservative movement. By the time he resigned, on the same day Trump accepted his party's nomination for president, Ailes's network had helped move the right-wing to the forefront of American politics.

It's impossible to tell how Ailes would run Fox News today -- he died in May -- but high-level sources there believe the network would feel different were it still under his control. Ailes had long used Fox to set the terms of the conservative agenda and the political narrative. Today, these sources said, it feels like Fox News is following the lead of the White House.

Ailes' resignation last July -- and the sexual harassment allegations that forced it -- threw his network into chaos. In the months that followed, it lost top talents like Bill O'Reilly (who also faced sexual harassment allegations, which he has denied) and Megyn Kelly (who decamped to NBC). It also lost veteran executive Bill Shine, a longtime Ailes deputy often described by on-air talent as a figure central to the network. The fact that Fox News survived all this is a testament to the power of the brand Ailes created.

But today's network feels different to many staffers. The embrace of Trump has upset many of the network's journalists, who feel that their earnest reporting efforts and critical analysis are overshadowed by opinion hosts like Hannity and Carlson, and the co-hosts of the morning show "Fox & Friends," a staunchly pro-Trump program that the President watches regularly.

Those fault lines are beginning to show on air. Last Friday, Shepard Smith, long an independent voice at the network, criticized the White House for what he called repeated lies and "mind-boggling" deception on Russia, and then -- in an apparent shot at Hannity -- said there were still people out there who believed the media was "making it up." Hannity returned fire on his radio show Monday, saying Smith was a friend and that Fox had differing viewpoints, but that Smith was "so anti-Trump." Smith responded in a statement to Mediaite: "Sometimes facts are displeasing. Journalists report them without fear or favor."

Related: Fox News' Sean Hannity calls colleague Shep Smith 'so anti-Trump'

The trials of the Trump administration are not covered without fear or favor on Fox News in prime time. On Monday night at 9 p.m., while every other major news network was covering the breaking news about the collapse of the Republican health care bill, "The Five" led with a discussion about O.J. Simpson's upcoming parole hearing, which was then three days away. Half an hour later, the panel was discussing Caitlyn Jenner's possible Senate bid. (The show did address the bill's collapse, but it was hardly the focus.)

At 10 p.m., Hannity dedicated the majority of his show to Hillary Clinton and to assailing the media for not covering what he portrayed as her scandals, especially what he described, with scant evidence, as collusion between Democrats and Ukraine.

The following morning, the leading headlines on the websites of The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, NBC News and ABC News were focused on the collapse of the health care bill. The Fox News website led with, "CLINTON'S SECRET? Hillary Sided with Russia on Sanctions as Bill Pocketed $500G in Moscow."

After Ailes resigned last year, some industry observers assumed the Murdochs might move the network closer to the center of the political spectrum. Trump's politics did not align with the worldview of Murdoch's sons, 21st Century Fox CEO James Murdoch and co-executive chairman Lachlan Murdoch, nor even with the worldview of the elder Murdoch. The network was also trying to keep Megyn Kelly, who prized journalism over opinion.

The assumption was woefully misinformed, sources close to the Murdochs told CNNMoney. The Murdochs are businessmen, and Fox News was a profit machine. Over 20 years, Ailes had created a brand loyalty for Fox News that was the envy of the industry. To squander it would amount to malpractice. So the Murdochs embraced it.

When asked how to characterize Murdoch's relationship with Trump, one administration official told CNNMoney, "He's all over him."

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