- Eliza Relman/Business Insider
- Ainsley Earhardt, the latest addition to “Fox & Friends,” is Fox’s new go-to for interviews with the president and his family. A culturally conservative Christian southerner, Earhardt says she speaks for, and to, the unseen and uncelebrated “forgotten man” of middle America. Authentic and charismatic, she’s connecting with viewers in record numbers on the program dubbed “the most powerful TV show in America.”
The footage of the massive bombing is a bit fuzzy, but unmistakable.
Behind it, Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue” crescendos as the camera pans to a row of smiling hosts perched on a white couch.
“That video is black and white, but that is what freedom looks like. That is the red, white, and blue,” says “Fox & Friends” anchor Ainsley Earhardt.
Fox’s celebration of the US military dropping the “mother of all bombs” – the most powerful non-nuclear bomb in its arsenal – on an ISIS cave complex in Afghanistan last April provoked widespread criticism among liberals nauseated by what they saw as the glorification of war.
But to Earhardt – the beloved co-host of the most-watched morning show in America – the story is, in fact, black and white: it’s about good guys killing bad guys.
And the good guys – the patriotic, God-fearing Americans who make up her loyal and growing audience – agree.
Earhardt discovered early on that she was a natural on screen. Discouraged by her parents from majoring in theater, she chose the journalism school at the University of South Carolina, where she reported for and anchored a student-run daily news broadcast.
“I loved every second of it,” she said in an interview with Business Insider.
After graduation, she hoped to get a job at a local station somewhere in New York state to better position herself to one day live and work in New York City, a lifelong dream. Plus, she figured, a few years up north would help diminish her southern twang.
“I knew no one in New York City was going to hire me if I had a southern accent,” she said.
But her mentor at USC convinced her to start with what she knew. So Earhardt took a reporting job at the local CBS affiliate in her hometown of Columbia, where she turned neighbors into sources and won the town magazine’s “Best Personality of the Year” award.
In 2004, Earhardt jumped to a bigger news operation in San Antonio, Texas. And just 18 months after that, she got a call from the big leagues. Fox News was impressed with her tapes. So she jumped on a plane and found herself in a room with Roger Ailes, the late founder of Fox News and perhaps the most powerful man in media.
Ailes saw something special in Earhardt and offered her a job.
- Eliza Relman/Business Insider
‘I got the job for being Ainsley’
Earhardt, 41, has called New York home for a decade now, but she could never be mistaken for a native.
“She’s a southern gal – she has that Scarlett O’Hara ‘Gone With the Wind’ kind of a drawl,” said Marvin Hurst, a reporter who worked with Earhardt in San Antonio.
And she doesn’t try to hide it. The identity Earhardt once feared would undermine her credibility in New York media instead makes her relatable to Fox’s viewers, many of whom hail from the South and Midwest.
Culturally conservative and a self-described “traditionalist,” Earhardt sees herself as a voice for “the forgotten man” of middle America – the same white, working class communities that President Donald Trump appeals to.
“I’ve had discussions with my friends who are New Yorkers here that see things differently than I do and sometimes that makes for awkward conversation at the dinner table,” Earhardt said. “I did grow up in a southern Christian background and I have friends from all walks of life, but I will never forget from where I came.”
Earhardt is a study in authenticity. She’s disarmingly earnest and preternaturally extroverted, treating everyone she meets like an old friend, both on and off camera.
During a recent segment with Bill Bennett, the former education secretary under President George W. Bush, Earhardt discovered Bennett’s wife had attended Columbia College in South Carolina at the same time that Earhardt’s mom was a student there. During the break, she called up her mom, on speaker phone, to ask if they had known each other. It turned out they hadn’t, but that didn’t dampen Earhardt’s enthusiasm.
“Tell your southern cute wife I say hello,” she told Bennett cheerily as he left the studio.
“She’s got personality for days,” Jehmu Greene, a liberal activist and “Fox News” political analyst, told Business Insider of Earhardt. “It’s more than that she’s charming, it’s that she really does know how to make a connection with whoever she’s interviewing.”
Always seated between her older, sometimes grumpy co-hosts, Brian Kilmeade and Steve Doocy, on what they call the “curvy couch,” Earhardt’s easy laugh and friendly banter draws the viewer in. While Kilmeade and Doocy, both 20-year veterans of the show, can at times seem awkward or tired, Earhardt is sympathetic and enthusiastic.
“She comes right through the television,” said Deborah Knapp, a veteran anchor who mentored Earhardt at the station in San Antonio. “It’s a rare quality to connect with people like she does. And the way she appears is exactly who she is. Ainsley is just full of goodness. I think people pick up on that, and people are attracted to that.”
A devout Christian, she brings her faith into conversations about politics in a way that would likely be controversial on other networks. Earhardt says “God bless you” to interview subjects enduring hardships – “How can you not say a little prayer, a silent little prayer right there on set?” – and interviews pastors about immigration policy and NFL protests.
Few subjects animate her more than stories about alleged attacks on Christianity. After a Missouri sheriff’s department was criticized for pasting “In God We Trust” decals on their squad cars, Earhardt argued that the sheriffs shouldn’t be forced to bow to the sensitivities of atheists and agnostics, who make up a minority of Americans.
“What about the majority? I’m so tired of protecting the rights of the minority,” she said. “What about the rest of the country?”
Her audience notices, and they appreciate it.
“Nice to hear the Lord’s name in the news on occasion,” one Tennessee fan commented on the anchor’s Facebook page.
Fox & Friends’ 1.6 million daily viewers have met Earhardt’s toddler daughter, Hayden, who’s made several guest appearances on the show, as well as her husband, a former pro football player, her siblings, and her parents, whose words of wisdom inspired Earhardt’s best-selling children’s book.
As Fox colleague Pete Hegseth once remarked to Earhardt, “America knows you. They know your heart.”
Greene argues that Earhardt’s emotional appeal is unmatched in “mainstream” and liberal media, which haven’t yet figured out how to “cut through the daily political babble and really connect with people’s shared values and connect with their hearts first.”
Earhardt knows it.
“I got the job for being Ainsley,” she said.
Back home in South Carolina, she’s a celebrity. Earhardt recalled her mom calling her one day to say, “I was talking to some of my friends and, Ainsley, I think you might be famous.”
One Facebook fan recently wrote on Earhardt’s page that she had named her youngest daughter after her.
“I love your beauty and grace,” the mother wrote.
- D Dipasupil/Getty Images
‘I’m calling it like I see it’
On a network best known for its often outraged defenders of conservatism, Earhardt presents as a reasonable, but firm voice of moral clarity cutting through the noise of political debate. If Fox & Friends sometimes adopts the simplified, educational approach of children’s programming, Earhardt is the schoolteacher.
Earhardt wasn’t always a political pundit. Before she took her first job at Fox she “did not know the first thing about politics,” she says, and her former colleagues say they never discussed their personal politics on or off air. But over her years at Fox, first as an overnight breaking news reporter and later as a correspondent for Sean Hannity’s show, Earhardt built a political worldview.
Unlike Doocy and Kilmeade, Earhadt makes her opinion known on issues she’s passionate about, but rarely appears aggressive or dogmatic. At times stepping into the role of a peacemaker, she says she’s tired of the anger and division in American politics, often wondering aloud when the country will finally come together.
Johns Hopkins professor Wendy Osefo, a frequent Fox News guest, told Business Insider that during a heated segment in which Osefo debated the merits of removing Confederate monuments from the US Capitol with former Trump spokesman Katrina Pierson, Earhardt acted like an exasperated mother “mediating” a fight between two kids.
But Earhardt is unapologetic in her defense of the military, her faith, and traditional conservative values, and she often displays visible frustration when she laments liberal bias in the “mainstream media.”
“I’m calling it like I see it. If I watch other networks it can be frustrating to see a one-sided story,” she said. “We are inflicting opinion in our newscasts like never before. That was never done and never taught in our journalism classes.”
She doesn’t admit that Fox & Friends also largely tells one side of the story, insisting that she tries to be as fair as possible.
“I do not want to come across as being in the tank for them or kissing their tails,” Earhardt says of the Trump administration. “I mean, I want to be a journalist, I want to ask tough questions.”
But, she adds, “fair” means different things to different people.
“We also have to think about the forgotten man and the audience that we have and what their concerns are and they’re my same concerns too,” she says.
Earhardt attributes the rise of opinion in “mainstream media” in part to the popularity of reality TV.
“We watch reality TV, we like to see real, genuine,” she said. “We want to know what you’re really thinking.”
As on the shows that made the likes of Trump and Kim Kardashian famous, Fox encourages authenticity.
“Like the bosses have always said, you need to be yourself,” she said. “It could affect your career, but our ratings have never been better and so our audience is loving what we’re giving them and what we’re presenting.”
At the end of the day, it’s not Fox that decides, she says, viewers do.
Fox & Friends is, of course, reviled by liberals and media critics, who say it’s a right-wing talk show posing as news and entertainment.
And it’s Trump’s favorite. By The Daily Beast’s count, the president has tweeted about Fox & Friends more than 100 times since taking office, prompting The New York Times to call it “the most powerful TV show in America.”
“The absolute most honest show,” Trump says.
Since Ailes’ ousting last summer, critics say that Fox’s programming arm – which includes Fox & Friends and other opinion-based prime-time shows – has become little more than a Trump infomercial.
Without Ailes, who was “beholden to no one,” media scholar Jeffrey Jones told Business Insider, the show “has turned into an administration mouthpiece.”
Earhardt is often accused of lobbing softballs and heaping praise on her almost exclusively conservative interview subjects, including Trump and Vice President Mike Pence.
In a June sit-down with Pence, she described the Paris Climate Accord as “unfair” to America and asked him how the Obama administration could have thought otherwise. In an interview with Trump, she praised his suggestion that he had taped conversations with former FBI Director James Comey as a “smart way to make sure [Comey] stayed honest.”
While the Times has described the show as a “high-decibel megaphone pointing directly at the Republican base,” Fox & Friends, in fact, reaches much farther into the American electorate. A solid third of its viewers identify as Democrats and independents.
Earhardt argues – and some liberal guests agree – that the left is underrepresented on “Fox & Friends,” and the network more broadly, in part because they refuse invitations to come on.
“Every time I got an interview with the president, I asked for Hillary Clinton, when they were running against each other, to come on, too. Not once did she come on ‘Fox & Friends,'” Earhardt said. “I think if Hillary Clinton had come on ‘Fox & Friends’ she would have gotten so many more votes, especially if she had done it over and over and over.”
Adrienne Elrod, the Clinton campaign’s director of strategic communications, agrees. After hitting it off with Earhardt in mid-2016, Elrod and Kristina Schake, Clinton’s former deputy communications director, began appearing regularly on the show.
“We’ve got to do a better job, as Democrats, communicating to middle America, to people who are watching shows that we may not be putting enough surrogates on,” Elrod told Business Insider.
Surviving amid scandal
While Doocy and Kilmeade have hosted the three-hour morning show since it launched in 1998, Earhardt is the fourth woman to occupy the middle spot on the curvy couch.
The most famous of her Fox & Friends predecessors, Gretchen Carlson, claims she was fired from the network after refusing Ailes’ sexual advances. (She also accused Doocy of sexism and condescension.) Carlson’s lawsuit and $20 million settlement was the first of a series of sexual harassment allegations from other Fox women that eventually forced Ailes out.
But Earhardt is unflaggingly loyal to her former boss, whom she’s said she loved and viewed as a father figure. She credits him for believing in her from the beginning, and promoting her while she was on maternity leave.
She’s also reluctant to criticize any of her former colleagues, including Bill O’Reilly and Eric Bolling, who have since been forced out amid similar allegations of harassment, saying she mourns the loss of her colleagues who have “paid the ultimate price” for their “sins.”
“My thoughts and my prayers are with these individuals because I know them and I love them all,” she said.
Knapp says she’s not surprised by Earhardt’s loyalty to her former colleagues and to Ailes in particular.
“I think there is a naiveté to Ainsley that also may have protected her from some of what was going on,” Knapp said, adding, “Ainsley’s a very loyal person, and if you gave her her break and her opportunity, she’s not someone who would turn on him because of what other people had said.”
- Eliza Relman/Business Insider
Brushing off criticism
It’s hard to ignore that Earhardt is at least a decade younger than her male co-hosts (in Doocy’s case, two decades) – and attractive.
Kilmeade once joked that to recruit women employees, Fox “went to the Victoria’s Secret catalog and we said, ‘Can any of these people talk?'”
To critics, she’s necessary to keep “eyeballs on the screen,” as female Fox News host Harris Faulker has said.
“She’s the pretty blonde woman – she’s the visual,” Jones said. “It doesn’t make me feel good to criticize a woman and reduce her to her looks, and I would never do that except to say that I think that’s precisely the cynical thing that Fox is doing.”
But Earhardt says the criticism of her appearance is unfair and that our society is “far past” giving attractive women a leg up in the workplace.
“The left is so critical of a certain look, yet they’re preaching to be tolerant, so be tolerant of everyone,” she said. “If you’re asking me to go on set without makeup and without my hair washed, you’re asking me to be someone that I’m not … I enjoy who I am. And I’m gonna own it.”
Greene says the critique of Fox women “reeks of sexism.”
“If a woman, Ainsley specifically or any of us, are initially judged solely by our outward appearance and not our substance, that’s the problem,” Greene said. “That’s the battle we’re all fighting for equality.”
But Earhardt isn’t fighting any battle. She simply brushes the criticism off.
Last year, she was coincidentally the subject of a “Saturday Night Live” skit on the very night she had gifted her brother and his wife tickets to see the show. The comedians joked that she looked like a girl hanging out with her dad’s friends, “another blonde” in a regular rotation of female hosts on Fox & Friends.
Earhardt didn’t take offense. At work the next Monday, she joked about it with Kilmeade.
“He said, ‘Well, you’ve been here a year, you only have one more year,’ so I said, ‘Well, I can say anything I want, it doesn’t matter,'” Earhardt said. “So we’ve always laughed that I’m only here for two years. I hope it’s longer than that.”