Fox News Hosts Splinter as Chaotic Pennsylvania Primaries Heat Up

Fox News is having another one of its moments.

The network’s internal fissures were on public display this week as host after host, at times seemingly in dialogue with one another, either defended or threw rhetorical spitballs at different candidates in Pennsylvania’s ghost-pepper-hot Republican primary races.

It was a reminder of how the battle for hearts and minds within the G.O.P. is playing out across the conservative news media, an ever-evolving ecosystem that has grown only more complex since Donald Trump’s famous glide down that golden escalator. And it was a sharp illustration of how Fox News grants extraordinary latitude to its biggest stars — with each prime-time show often operating as its own private fief.

Thursday night alone was pretty wild, with Sean Hannity pumping up Dr. Mehmet Oz, Trump’s choice for Senate, and talking down Kathy Barnette, a conservative media commentator whose late surge in the May 17 primary has alarmed Republican Party insiders and thrilled the rambunctious G.O.P. grass-roots in Pennsylvania.

An hour later, Laura Ingraham was defending Barnette against what she called “smears.”

To viewers, it presented the illusion of a real-time debate between warring factions of what remains the nation’s most powerful cable news channel. Fox News did not offer an on-the-record comment by publication time.

“This is the closest thing to a head-to-head competition we’ve seen between two Fox hosts in quite some time,” said Matt Gertz, a senior fellow at Media Matters for America, a nonprofit group aligned with the Democratic Party that monitors conservative news outlets.

“When you’re watching at home, it appears seamless,” said Greta Van Susteren, a former Fox News host, who said that Ingraham probably hadn’t watched Hannity while preparing for her show. “But when I was at Fox, we all had our own real estate, and nobody ever told me what to say or do.”

And it’s not just Fox. Various lesser-known conservative media stars have joined the boisterous public discussion over whether Republican voters should tap Oz, widely seen within the party’s base as a faux Trumper — or Barnette, who comes off as very much the real thing.

On the Full MAGA end of the right-wing media spectrum, the likes of Sebastian Gorka and Steve Bannon were giving softball interviews to Barnette, who rose to prominence largely outside of Fox News. Meanwhile, Hugh Hewitt, a syndicated radio host who once was considered more of an establishment figure but now supports Trump, was endorsing David McCormick, a former hedge fund executive who has appeared to fade in the Senate primary as the other two leading contenders have risen.

“It’s too delicious,” said Charlie Sykes, the never-Trump host of The Bulwark Podcast, who disdainfully refers to the conservative news media as the “entertainment wing of the Republican Party.”

“The irony is that the entertainment wing will build someone up and then realize, ‘Oh, my gosh, we’ve grown a monster,’” Sykes said. “It’s like watching the Republican Party grow a baby crocodile in the bathtub and be shocked when it grows into a beast and starts devouring people.”

The conservative news media has fragmented since the advent of Trump, with the dominant trend being a raucous battle for the former president’s ear and favor. But shrewd observers of the landscape say this year’s midterm elections have ushered in a fresh level of chaos.

“There’s a new intensity around it, I think,” said Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review. “It just feels like everything’s a little more fractured.”

John Fredericks, a Virginia-based radio host who supports Oz and plans to campaign for him next week, said in an interview that while Barnette was a “nice lady,” she would get “blown out in the fall.”

Fredericks predicted that Oz would win comfortably on Tuesday despite Barnette’s sudden ascent in public polls, including in a Fox News survey published this week that turbocharged the conservative news media’s debate over the Pennsylvania primaries.

Kriston Jae Bethel for The New York Times

Internal G.O.P. polling has found that undecided voters are tending to break for the Trump-backed candidate in the last five days or so before a primary election.

Democrats have giddily circulated their own research indicating that Barnette is leading the field in the Senate race by about 10 percentage points, but that survey was conducted before Trump issued a statement reiterating his support for Oz and suggesting that Barnette’s past had not been thoroughly examined.

Much of that scrutiny is taking place within the conservative media, fueled in some instances by allies of McCormick and Oz, who have been promoting hastily assembled opposition research about Barnette in recent days.

During Thursday night’s program, Hannity singled out Barnette’s history of offensive tweets, including Islamophobic and homophobic ones, and said she could not win a general election. Oz, who is of Turkish descent, is a nonpracticing Muslim.

Hannity later wrote a series of tweets aimed directly at Barnette, beginning with: “As you know my staff has reached out to you repeatedly in the last 48 hours, it’s great to FINALLY get a response from you. Why have you been ignoring their calls and texts?”

Articles in the conservative news media have zeroed in on aspects of Barnette’s biography. Salena Zito, a Pennsylvania-based columnist for The Washington Examiner, raised questions about Barnette’s military service record; The Free Beacon’s Chuck Ross wrote about how Barnette’s campaign manager hung up the phone on him when he grilled her on the subject.

Mike Mikus, a veteran Democratic consultant based near Pittsburgh, said the ferment among conservative news outlets reflected the fact that to win a modern Republican primary, “you don’t need the traditional press.”

For instance, the campaign of Doug Mastriano, a leading Republican contender for governor of Pennsylvania, rarely responds to queries from mainstream news organizations, and has barred journalists working for The Philadelphia Inquirer, the state’s most influential source of political news and commentary, from its events.

“When an Inquirer reporter showed up at a campaign event in Lancaster County last month, two security guards asked him to leave,” the Inquirer reporters Juliana Feliciano Reyes and Andrew Seidman wrote in an article on May 4. “A printout of his photograph and those of other journalists was visible at the check-in desk.”

Fox opinion hosts enjoy a high degree of autonomy, leading at times to a blurring of journalistic and campaign roles that would be anathema at many other outfits — including the network’s archrival, CNN, which fired Chris Cuomo last year as the scope of his entanglement with his brother, former Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York, became clear.

Tucker Carlson of Fox News helped slingshot J.D. Vance into the G.O.P. nomination for a Senate seat in Ohio, for instance, helping him gain a following and honing his pitch to voters — and, perhaps most important, to Trump. According to a New York Times analysis of “Tucker Carlson Tonight” transcripts, Vance has appeared as Carlson’s guest on the program nine times so far this year. He appeared 13 times in 2021, five times in 2020 and six times in 2019.

For his part, Hannity has appeared at Trump rallies and even offered his private advice to Trump while he was in office, according to a trove of text messages published by CNN. Oz appeared on Hannity’s prime-time Fox show 20 times in 2021 and 2022, according to Media Matters.

In that sense, Hannity’s crossover into a campaign role is hardly a new phenomenon in the extended Trump universe, though rarely have the porous borders between the conservative entertainment wing and the official Republican Party collapsed in such a compressed time frame.

But that broader pro-Trump media world now extends well beyond Fox, and the network is losing its monopoly on the Republican base, as the party’s panic over Barnette’s ascent dramatically shows.

By lunchtime on Friday, Fredericks was hosting Trump himself for a radio interview, in which the former president reiterated his skepticism of Barnette and plugged his choice, Oz.

Karen Yourish contributed reporting.

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Tom Brenner for The New York Times

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