How Fox's 'southern gal' Ainsley Earhardt became the darling of 'the most powerful TV show in America'

Ainsley EarhardtEliza Relman/Business InsiderEarhardt in her office, which also serves as her closet, in Fox News’ midtown Manhattan headquarters.
  • Ainsley Earhardt, the newest addition to “Fox & Friends,” is a rising star and Fox’s go-to for interviews with the president and his family.
  • A culturally conservative southerner, Earhardt says she speaks for, and to, the “forgotten man” of middle America.
  • And 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.

“And that’s what happens when a 21,000 pound bomb explodes in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region where at least 36 ISIS fighters have lost their life,” Brian Kilmeade, a host of Fox News’ morning show, “Fox & Friends,” announces.

“That video is black and white, but that is what freedom looks like. That is the red, white, and blue,” adds co-host Ainsley Earhardt.

The anchors’ 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 last April generated its intended reaction, delighting pro-military conservatives and nauseating liberals critical of what they see as the glorification of war.

To Earhardt, a rising star at the most-watched morning show in America, the story is, in fact, black and white. It’s about good guys killing bad guys.

And her audience, which is now the largest in the show’s history, agrees.

Small-town beginnings

Earhardt learned early on that she was a natural on screen. Discouraged from majoring in theatre by her parents, Earhardt chose the journalism school at the University of South Carolina, where she reported for and anchored a student-run daily news program.

“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 as a first step towards her dream of living and working in New York City. Plus, she figured, a few years up north would help erase 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 neighbours 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 now-deceased founder of Fox News and perhaps the most powerful man in media.

Ailes saw something special in Earhardt and offered her a job.

Fox & Friends

Eliza Relman/Business Insider
Ainsley Earhardt with her Fox & Friends co-hosts Steve Doocy, left, and Brian Kilmeade, right.

‘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 southern identity she once feared would make her an outsider in New York media instead makes her relatable to Fox’s viewers, many of whom hail from towns like Columbia.

Culturally conservative and a self-described “traditionalist,” Earhardt sees herself as a voice for “the forgotten man” of middle America.

“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.”

A co-host of “Fox & Friends” since February 2016, Earhardt is a study in authenticity. She’s disarmingly earnest, preternaturally extroverted, and treats 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 mum was a student there. During the break, she called up her mum, 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.”

Perched between her older, sometimes grumpy co-hosts, Kilmeade and Steve Doocy, on what they call the “curvy couch,” Earhardt’s easy smile and friendly banter draws the viewer in and puts them at ease.

“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.”

Earhardt knows it.

“I got the job for being Ainsley,” she said.

Greene argues that Earhardt’s emotional appeal is unmatched in liberal media, which hasn’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.”

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 criticised 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.”

Back home in South Carolina, she’s a celebrity. Earhardt recalled her mum 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 commented on Earhardt’s page that she had named her youngest daughter after her.

“I love your beauty and grace,” the mother wrote.

Fox & Friends

D Dipasupil/Getty Images
Doocy, Earhardt, and Kilmeade cook on set with Kris Jenner in 2014.

‘I’m calling it like I see it’

Earhardt’s profile has risen rapidly since she joined “Fox & Friends” as a full-time host in February 2016. She’s the network’s go-to for sit-down interviews with the president and vice president and their families.

But she’s no Megyn Kelly, Tomi Lahren, or Laura Ingraham — all successful Fox women whose fiery takes have made them viral conservative media sensations.

Instead, Earhardt presents as a reasonable voice of moral clarity cutting through the noise of political debate. If “Fox & Friends” sometimes adopts the cheery, educational tone of children’s programming, Earhardt is the schoolteacher.

She takes a less overtly political tack, making her opinion known on issues she’s passionate about, but rarely appearing 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 a mother “mediating” a fight between two kids.

But Earhardt is unapologetic in her defence 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.”

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.”

Like on reality television, Fox encourages her to be herself.

“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 favourite. 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 was ousted 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.”

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 at Fox

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 Roger Ailes’ sexual advances. (She also accused Doocy of sexism and condescension.) Carlson’s lawsuit and $US20 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 says 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 Fox, 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.”

Ainsley Earhardt

Eliza Relman/Business Insider
Ainsley Earhardt on the Fox & Friends set in midtown Manhattan on September 19, 2017.

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 famously joked that to recruit women employees, Fox “went to the Victoria’s Secret catalogue 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 criticise 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 was just “another blonde” in a regular rotation of female hosts on “Fox & Friends.”

But Earhardt didn’t take offence. 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.”

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