Gov. Gavin Newsom says Fox News is “quite literally bullshit and misinformation,” and a “24/7 doom loop” that traffics in fear and anger.
Also, he can’t stop watching. And he suggests other Democrats do too.
“I’m not naive, I’m not moving the needle at all,” he said. “The deeper question is: What do we do as Democrats to infect that ecosystem with some reality checks? And it can’t be episodic — you’ve got to go on 24/7.”
In a polarized and siloed American media, Newsom — the Democratic executive with the most power after President Joe Biden — has broken with most other Democrats to consume and appear regularly on right-wing media. He sat down twice with Fox News anchor Sean Hannity, and agreed to a November faceoff with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis moderated by Hannity. (Newsom’s staff, he said, had been alarmed to learn of plans for that first Hannity interview, which Newsom and the anchor made on their own, via text message.)
It’s not just Fox. Newsom is one of the few Democrats (and few Americans) still posting on Donald Trump’s Truth Social.
Newsom, who spoke to Semafor in the back room of a hotel near the Simi Valley debate last week, says he woke up to the power and the possibilities of conservative media in 2021, when Calfiornia Republicans moved to recall him. Backed by the Republican National Committee, the recall effort capitalized on Newsom’s decision during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic to attend a dinner, arguing that he was an elitist who hypocritically asked Californians to stay home while he drank wine at the French Laundry. Partisan media was at the heart of the race: The California governor’s opponent was Larry Elder, a popular conservative radio host who had appeared over 220 times on Fox News in the years leading up to the race.
Newsom beat Elder easily, but the match-up and the intensity of GOP opposition inspired the California governor to begin paying more attention to conservative media, all the way out to small channels to Fox’s right, Newsmax and One America News.
“That woke me up. And I came to my senses,” he said. “I just watched that ecosystem and became more absorbed in it. And got a deeper understanding of it, and came out of that a different guy.”
Now, the California governor consumes more right-wing media than most people who aren’t either retired or named Donald J. Trump. Newsom often begins his day with the Righting, a newsletter roundup of conservative media clips from the previous day. He takes a break for Stephen A. Smith on ESPN’s “First Take,” then flips the TV in his office to Fox News for “The Faulkner Focus,” a daytime Fox show hosted by conservative host Harris Faulkner. His father-in-law, a conservative, will often text him Wall Street Journal stories and op-eds and links to other right-wing sites.
Over the course of a half an hour, Newsom rattled off detailed reviews of several popular right wing commentators. He said his staff asked him to stop consuming content from Daily Wire founder Ben Shapiro, which he admitted has been more difficult for him to give up than “The Joe Rogan Experience,” a podcast which Newsom said he no longer listens to. (Rogan is particularly critical of the governor’s stewardship of California.)
Newsom said he’s disappointed in Fox News’ Greg Gutfeld, who he said was “a good, conservative, comedic and insightful voice” who “does a wonderful job on the Five,” but was “unfortunately falling into that trap” of demonization and personalization of political stories. The California governor also said while he was previously amused by Fox News host Jesse Watters, who has known the governor for years, he was disturbed by coverage of the attack on Nancy Pelosi’s husband Paul Pelosi in 2022.
“That’s not even serious, right? I mean, really?” he said of Watters’ 8 p.m. program. “I know him well. He used to go out for Bill O’Reilly and do these shticks against me. And he would always laugh at the end. I like Jesse, but it’s pathetic.”
Biden’s team has embraced Newsom as conservative media shield, filling the Fox News space that then-Mayor Pete Buttigieg occupied in 2020. The California governor told Semafor that after his first interview with Hannity and his recent fundraising efforts for the Democratic National Committee, the Biden campaign asked him whether he’d like to serve as a surrogate at the second debate in his home state. While Newsom said he wasn’t a natural pundit, he insisted that he was simply serving as a team player for the Biden campaign.
“Tonight may be a complete utter disaster,” Newsom reflected before the debate. “They may say ‘Get this guy outta here. Where’s [Gretchen] Whitmer? Where’s [Chris] Coons, where’s [Kathy] Hochul?’ And by the way — amen. This is a baton that needs to be passed.”
He continued: “But [Republican] presidential candidates] are getting all the airtime they’re polluting the airwaves with a lot of bullshit. And we have got to have a counteroffensive. So my No. 1 strategy tonight is to communicate that and say to Democrats, ‘let’s go to war.’ This is serious. Trump can win.”
Activists have discouraged Democrats from appearing on Fox News. During the 2020 presidential primary, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren called on her fellow candidates to boycott presidential town halls on the network, saying that they were simply making money for the Murdochs and legitimizing Fox in the eyes of viewers.
But Democratic politicians like Newsom and Buttigieg, who have appeared on Fox and come out unscathed, have undoubtedly seen political benefits — it shows they’re willing to fight. Liberals gleefully shared his recent interviews with Hannity in which he batted away or simply talked over the anchor’s questions, delighting in his ability to hit back against a network with a viewership that beats the combined audience of CNN and MSNBC every night.
Newsom said he understands the criticism from members of his own party of Democrats who appear on Fox, but he believes enough moderate Americans watch every night to warrant appearing.
“There are a lot of good folks that are watching, honestly, a lot of persuadable folks, I really believe that, not just the core base,” he said. “There are a lot of independents still watching Fox. And there are plenty of Democrats still watching Fox. I talk to them all the time, or they bring up as if I’m like, ‘Wow, you’re watching Fox?’”
His appearances have also made him a curiosity to conservatives. Hannity seems to enjoy his personal connection with the California governor, bantering with him on the air about In-N-Out Burger, and smiling as he ranted about high gas prices. Hannity wasn’t alone: During an interview following the Republican debate, DeSantis could barely contain his excitement about the upcoming debate in November.
Near the end of our conversation, I summoned the nerve to ask Newsom about whether one other connection on the right has shaped his understanding of conservative media. From 2001 to 2006, he was married to Kimberly Guilfoyle, a former assistant district attorney in San Francisco who moved to New York during their marriage for a job as an analyst for Court TV and CNN. In 2006, Guilfoyle joined Fox News and became one of the network’s top stars before she was pushed out (and subsequently became engaged to Donald Trump Jr.).
“I want to be careful, because I don’t want to talk about certain things,” he said after a pause. “But I think for a lot of folks, they put a mask on when they go in there. And their face grows into it. That’s been my observation.”
Newsom on the Media
While Newsom’s engagement with right-wing media is relatively new, he’s been an active political player in California as tech has upended the media landscape.
On Elon Musk’s stewardship of Twitter: “There was a little breathlessness when he first took over, which I didn’t participate in, I thought we were people wildly overstating his intentions and actions. And I haven’t really calibrated my thoughts since that. … But the thing with Elon is like Biden: Don’t ever underestimate his capacity to sort of reimagine. I know everybody’s sort of counted him out, ‘he’s driven it into the ground’ — I think that’s lazy punditry.”
On the Hollywood strikes: “The streaming and the AI, the anxiety. It’s real. And I think ironically, it’s more uniting than dividing. Because it’s shared. Both sides have sort of an existential sort of ‘what does this mean, what does it not mean?’ So that’s why I was more optimistic about WGA. And, of course, it came from conversations I was having with them as well. Yeah. And I’m more optimistic about the capacity for these folks to work together.”
On his own media aspirations: “My best friend is a football agent. I’m obsessed with football. I’m gonna do a football podcast.”
Newsom was referring to a Fox News program called “The Faulkner Focus,” not “The Faulkner Files.”