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Inside Fox News: How the impeachment fight is opening fresh divisions in the newsroom

Advertisements featuring Fox News personalities, including Tucker Carlson, adorn the front of the News Corporation building in New York City. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
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One of the most important fights over the impeachment inquiry of President Trump is playing out on the airwaves of Fox News.

Back in 1996, Fox had to pay cable providers to carry it, and the channel’s old-timers enjoy telling the story of that scrappy start. The company served up free Pinkberry frozen yogurt to mark the channel’s 23rd anniversary, a modest celebration for the most powerful political media juggernaut in the country. Fox News CEO Suzanne Scott and President Jay Wallace retold the origin story in a staff memo circulated Monday to note the occasion.

Relishing triumph over doubters is something Trump also enjoys. The channel and the president share another passion: love of a good fight.

More than a dozen Fox News hosts and guests have called the impeachment inquiry an attempted “coup” since House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced it on Sept. 24. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

“This is war,” Laura Ingraham declared on her prime-time show, describing a letter from White House counsel Pat A. Cipollone that said the White House would not permit the president or any member of the Trump administration to appear before the House impeachment inquiry.

She could just as easily have been referring to the tensions roiling Fox. Trump is a famously loyal viewer of the channel, and the attention he pays it has helped drive ratings and amplify the messages of its most outspoken hosts. But that amplification has stoked friction between on-air personalities who are aware of the stakes and realize what they say carries huge implications for the country, according to a half dozen current and former staffers and contributors, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about the network or feared retribution for speaking frankly.

The president is taking shots at Fox, chiding news anchors who present non-laudatory views of his administration. Right-wing media is trying to outflank the channel by allying themselves completely with Trump. Internal strife is spilling out onto the airwaves. And yet, these are heady times for Fox News.

Fox’s relentless focus on Monica Lewinsky while covering the 1998 impeachment of Bill Clinton helped propel the channel’s early success. This impeachment story finds Fox on the side of the sitting president, and far from the striver it used to be.

The September night House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced the opening of a formal impeachment inquiry, Trump ally Sean Hannity’s show drew 3.9 million viewers, according to Nielsen data. The channel has long beaten its rivals MSNBC and CNN in ratings and is on track to do so again this year.

Fox serves as creative inspiration for the president and his political message. And the power that Fox News holds over Republican voters — and in turn their congressional representatives — is a crucial factor as the battle over impeachment continues.

“Richard Nixon would have killed his own dog for that kind of a counterforce,” said Rick Wilson, a Republican political consultant and Never Trumper who frequently appears on MSNBC.

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The internecine conflict is an open discussion on air. Tuesday night, after former Trump attorney Joe diGenova called the whistleblower who spurred the impeachment inquiry a "suicide bomber" on Ingraham's show, she followed up quickly to remind viewers that diGenova meant a "political suicide bomber." Viewers — and perhaps other Fox personalities — who objected to the comments, she said, should "get a sense of humor, okay. If you still think that, then you really should watch another show where we need to spell it all out for you."

Last week, diGenova was involved in another dust-up.

The consternation started when former judge Andrew Napolitano, a Fox pundit who has turned on Trump in recent months, told Fox chief news anchor Shepard Smith on-air that Trump’s call to Ukraine’s president, during which he pressured him to investigate former vice president Joe Biden, was a “crime.” Later the same day, Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who has a warm relationship with Fox Corp. CEO Lachlan Murdoch, invited DiGenova onto his show. DiGenova called Napolitano a “fool.” The next day, Smith said it was “repugnant” for Carlson not to defend Napolitano. Smith has a long-standing friendship with Wallace, the Fox News president, who used to produce Smith’s show.

“Internally, Hannity is a live wire and an opinion guy, and that gives him the ability to say anything he wants,” Wilson said. “But the battering that guys like Shep Smith and even [anchor] Bill Hemmer take if they seem they are off the reservation is brutal.”

On-air sniping is a relatively new phenomenon for Fox News. Under longtime chairman and CEO Roger Ailes, who kept a tight rein on Fox News personalities and created a culture of fear inside the building, “people would have been too afraid to fight out in the open like that,” said a former producer. “They would not even have tried.”

“It’s survival of the fittest,” one current staffer said, describing a dynamic that tends to favor on-air personalities with the highest ratings and those most willing to engage in a public feud.

On his show, Lou Dobbs recently allowed DiGenova and his wife Victoria Toensing, an attorney, to accuse “Fox News Sunday” host Chris Wallace of violating an off-the-record agreement. In September, Hannity chided Ingraham for cutting away too early from a Trump speech. In May, Ingraham called “America’s Newsroom,” a morning news program on Fox hosted by Bill Hemmer and Sandra Smith, to express her dismay at the way the media — including Wallace — was covering Robert Mueller’s letter to Attorney General William Barr, which critiqued Barr’s characterization of Mueller’s report. Wallace appeared on air later in the day and responded to Ingraham, though not by name.

All the attention has made Fox personalities stars in their own right. Some opinion hosts have been regularly depicted on “Saturday Night Live.” And they are enjoying the attention.

Jeanine Pirro, who is an old friend of Trump’s and one of his fiercest defenders, attempted to meet with Cecily Strong, who plays Pirro on SNL, according to two people familiar with the incident. “NBC said, ‘Uh, we aren’t interested,’ ” one of the people said.

“I thought it would be a hoot [to meet Strong],” Pirro said in a statement through a Fox News spokesperson. “I saw an article several months ago where she was asked if she ever met me and my recollection was that she said something along the lines that she had not, but hoped that I knew it was all in jest.”

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On Fox's anniversary, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) called the set of "Fox & Friends" to register his disapproval of the president's plan to pull American troops from northern Syria. "I hope I'm making myself clear how shortsighted and irresponsible this decision is," he told co-hosts Steve Doocy, Brian Kilmeade and Ainsley Earhardt. "I like President Trump. I've tried to help him. This to me is just unnerving to its core."

It was an unusual moment of independence, both for Graham and the show.

Those moments are particularly sensitive for the president. In late August, he attacked the channel for being disloyal and “not working for us,” after Sandra Smith interviewed a Democratic National Committee official. The message of Fox’s disloyalty has gained so much traction that conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh recently called Fox News “the Never-Trump News Network.”

The president’s base is unlikely to abandon him, but Fox might be especially influential with “reluctant” Trump supporters whose opinions might be swayed by the coverage of the impeachment inquiry, said Sarah Longwell, a Republican strategist and the publisher of the Bulwark, a neoconservative news and opinion site.

“It’s always the most meaningful when the people who are loyalists break and oppose this president,” she said. “At a moment when he needs his staunch Republican allies, for him to do something that causes many of his staunchest allies to break with him, then that’s very significant.”

So it was notable when Carlson and Neil Patel wrote in a Daily Caller opinion piece that “Trump should not have been on the phone with a foreign head of state encouraging another country to investigate his political opponent, Joe Biden,” and that “there’s no way to spin this.” But the column quickly turned to conclude that while bad, Trump’s actions weren’t impeachable, an argument that CNN White House correspondent Abby Phillip tweeted was a road map for conservatives looking for a way to condemn Trump’s call to the Ukraine but avoid impeachment.

“As Trump does a lot of things that are objectionable to Republicans, the most important role Fox News plays is to say, ‘Well, let me tell you why these Democrats are more objectionable’,” added Longwell.

Since the inquiry was announced, support for it has risen by 25 points among Democrats, 21 points among Republicans and 20 points among independents, according to a Washington Post-Schar School Poll.

But the battle over public opinion is just beginning, and no news outlet seems more likely than Fox to help Trump hold the line.

Tuesday afternoon, Mike Emanuel, Fox’s chief congressional correspondent, tweeted that Fox had learned of 94 GOP co-sponsors of Rep. Andy Biggs’s (R-Ariz.) motion “to condemn and censure” Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), chair of the House Intelligence Committee. Twenty minutes later, Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union — and husband of former Fox contributor and current Trump campaign official Mercedes Schlapp — retweeted the news with a threatening, circle-the-wagons message: “Woe to those who don’t sign the Biggs censure of Schiff.”

On Wednesday, Biggs tweeted that the number of co-sponsors had ticked up to 98.

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