In March, as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis laid the groundwork for his presidential bid, he joined Fox News host Brian Kilmeade to play a nationally televised game at his hometown baseball diamond outside Tampa.
The questions Mr. DeSantis faced were as relaxed as the pitches.
“The locker room prepares you for the press, right?” Mr. Kilmeade asked. “Because your teammates, if they like you a lot, they beat you up all the time.”
At the time, DeSantis was seen by many in the Republican Party as the strongest possible alternative to former President Donald J. Trump, who had repeatedly attacked the network and seen his relationship with its owner, Rupert Murdoch, evaporate.
Four months later, with Mr. DeSantis’s campaign failing to immediately catch fire against Mr. Trump, Fox News is no longer taking it as easy on Mr. DeSantis.
Over the past week, he’s faced notably tougher questions in interviews with two of the network’s hosts, Will Cain and Maria Bartiromo, who pressed him about his anemic poll numbers and early campaign struggles. It was a surprising change for a network that for years has offered DeSantis a safe space as a congressman and governor.
Other outlets in Murdoch’s media empire have also been a little less friendly of late.
A recent editorial in The Wall Street Journal criticized a tough immigration bill that Mr. DeSantis signed into law in May. And The New York Post, which praised the governor as “Of future” on its cover last year, has covered its lagging poll numbersjust like him reaction to a video shared by his campaign that was condemned as homophobic.
Mr. DeSantis was always bound to be subject to more scrutiny as a candidate, rather than a candidate-in-waiting. His decision to challenge Trump, who remains a favorite of the Fox News audience and some of its hosts, including Ms. Bartiromo – would also surely result in sideline attacks from his fellow Republicans.
But taken together, signs of skepticism from previously friendly conservative megaphones suggest that Murdoch’s media empire may now be reassessing him as his campaign begins to shine.
Even if Mr. Murdoch’s media as a whole is less determinant of outcomes in Republican politics than it once was, it remains influential, and Republican candidates and major party donors continue to pay close attention to his coverage. .
It’s unclear if Murdoch wants to see DeSantis as the nominee. Some of DeSantis’s moves, like his ongoing punitive battle with Disney, are unlikely to have pleased the business-minded Mr. Murdoch, who nearly a decade ago called on federal officials to make immigration reform a priority.
The media mogul likes to watch political careers unfold, even live tweet reactions to one of the Republican presidential debates during the 2016 election. Murdoch has told people privately that he would still like to see Gov. Glenn Youngkin of Virginia enter the race, according to a person with knowledge of the comments. And he has made it clear in private conversations over the past two years that he believes that Trump, despite his popularity with Fox News viewers, is not healthy for the Republican Party.
A Murdoch spokesperson and a Fox spokesperson did not respond to an email seeking comment.
Mr. DeSantis’s campaign declined to comment. Privately, his aides say tougher questions were always expected and the governor plans to continue holding interviews with Fox hosts who may challenge him.
Republican voters view DeSantis favorably overall, but has not been able to significantly reduce the electoral gap between him and Mr. Trump since he entered the race, even as he remains the former president’s main challenger. Mr. DeSantis has also continued to show an awkward side in unscripted exchanges in which he is challenged, a contrast to Mr. Trump, a no-holds-barred activist who seems to enjoy combative interviews.
The tide has not completely turned. On Monday, the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal dealt a new blow to Mr. Trump for adjusting his political positions based on his intended audience, and he gave Mr. DeSantis a slight boost by comparing him favorably.
For Fox, navigating its coverage of DeSantis, Trump and an already bitter Republican presidential primary race is just a challenge.
This spring, the network paid a steep price for airing Trump’s false election claims, settling a defamation lawsuit related to its coverage of the 2020 presidential race for a staggering $787.5 million. More legal dangers loom.
Less than a week after the deal, Fox fired Tucker Carlson, its most popular primetime host, in an earthquake for the conservative media ecosystem. The network now faces lingering concerns about falling ratings and new competitors eager to take away Fox viewers who want a more pro-Trump point of view.
Although Trump still appears on Fox News, his relationship with the network remains hostile, as people close to him say there is little chance he will participate in the first Republican presidential debate, which Fox News will host next month. (Mr. Trump, who leads national polls for about 30 percentage pointshe also doesn’t want to give his rivals a chance to attack him in person, these people said.)
Normally avoiding one-on-one interviews with top political reporters, Mr. DeSantis has a long and positive history with Fox News.
As a congressman, he co-host the “Outnumbered” show multiple times. In 2018, he Announced his candidacy for governor on “Fox & Friends.” During the coronavirus pandemic, Fox News’ Sean Hannity praised Mr. DeSantis in an interview, saying: “I’m an idiot. It should be in Florida. You should be my governor.
And after declaring his candidacy for president in a glitch-ridden live stream on Twitter seven weeks ago, Mr. DeSantis immediately went to Fox for an interview, though the network didn’t. make fun on its technical difficulties.
Trump himself was furious earlier in the year over what he perceived as Fox’s overly friendly treatment of DeSantis. “Just watching Fox News. They are so bad,” Trump wrote on his TruthSocial site in May. “They are desperately pushing DeSanctimonious who, despite everything, is dropping like a rock.”
He also became involved in reporting in The New York Post, including one in which writer Salena Zito made a long interview with Mr. DeSantis in his hometown, Dunedin, Florida: An article by Mr. Trump denounced like a “piece of puff pastry”. (The Post, once a favorite of Trump’s dailies, has attacked him.)
Trump was undoubtedly more pleased last Thursday when Cain, the Fox host, held down Mr. DeSantis on his poll numbers, asking the governor why he was so far behind.
In response, Mr. DeSantis suggested that he was being unfairly attacked by the “corporate media” and, somewhat incongruously, by Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who has criticized him for his hardline stances on immigration.
“So I think if you look at all these people who are responsible for a lot of the ills in our society, they’re targeting me as the person they don’t want to see as a candidate,” Mr. DeSantis explained, adding. that his campaign was “just getting started.”
Mr. Cain tried again, saying he thought Mr. DeSantis had “done a wonderful job” as governor, but “there are those who say there’s something about you that doesn’t connect, for whatever reason, with the voter”.
Mr. DeSantis evaded the question, noting that his campaign had raised $20 million in its first six weeks.
“We’re in the process of building a great organization, and I think we’ll be on the ground in all of these early states,” he said.
Mr. Cain is not a staunch supporter of Trump. he has talked about vote against Mr. Trump in 2016. But when Mr. DeSantis joined Ms. Bartiromo, who relentlessly pushed the former president’s conspiracy theories about the 2020 election, for an interview on Sunday, he surely expected to be questioned.
“You did a great job rejecting the ‘wake up’, we know that,” Ms. Bartiromo said. saying after allowing Mr. DeSantis to go on about his usual talking points for several minutes. “But I wonder what is happening with his campaign. There was a lot of optimism about you running for president at the beginning of the year.”
Mr. DeSantis forced a laugh when Ms. Bartiromo read the negative headlines about his campaign. He then jumped into a rebuttal that focused on his efforts to build strong organizational operations in Iowa and New Hampshire.
“María, these are narratives,” he said. “The media don’t want me to be the nominee.”
jonathan swan contributed reporting from Washington.