Kari Lake, a former Trump-backed journalist, campaigns as a media hater

Kari Lake stared directly into the camera with the assured gaze befitting a screen professional. Like so many times before as a Phoenix TV presenter, she had some news to share.

This time, however, she didn’t appear on the Fox affiliate that had long employed her — and as her tone changed from perky to solemn, it was clear why. The industry that propelled her to prominence, she said, had become unbalanced, deceitful and divisive.

“It’s been a serious struggle for me,” she said, “and I don’t want to do this job anymore.”

In two minutes and 33 seconds, Lake ignited his decades-long career and laid the groundwork for a new one. Three months later, in June 2021, she declared she was running for the Republican nomination for governor of Arizona. But for her legions of supporters and the colleagues she left behind, this video posted on Rumble, the conservative alternative to YouTube, was the real launch pad – the conversion story that underpins her entire campaign.

Few gubernatorial races this year are as closely watched as those in Arizona, where the winner could have immense influence on a presidential battleground in 2024. Tuesday’s GOP primary has also evolved into a proxy fight between Trump loyalists and establishment Republicans such as former Vice President Mike Pence and Arizona Governor Doug Ducey, who support Karrin Taylor Robson, a former developer and lobbyist. Polls showed Lake, whom former President Trump endorsed, was the frontrunner.

More than Lake’s dedication to election denial, aggressive border enforcement and even Trump, his career in journalism and his subsequent repudiation are central to his candidacy. Through decades on television, Lake, 52, has built a statewide profile that many veteran politicians would envy. His days of on-air jokes translate easily to the campaign trail. And his media rebuke turns his media experience from a potential liability with Republican voters into an asset.

Lake has shown a willingness to “stand for principle,” Kevin McNichols said as he lined up in 95-degree heat to see Lake and Trump at a rally in Prescott Valley last month. The 52-year-old retired law enforcement officer who lives 240 miles south of Green Valley had known Lake since the early 1990s.

“You’re ready to quit your job because you feel they’re twisting your script,” he said. “It’s just admirable.”

Lake’s former colleagues at Fox 10 KSAZ-TV see things differently. The Times spoke to eight people who worked with Lake in the newsroom on condition of anonymity because they feared professional or personal repercussions.

They paint a picture of Lake who, for most of her 22 years in the newsroom, was a talented host. They describe a political radicalization in recent years that has pulled her to the right, influenced by the rise of Trump, social media and the COVID-19 pandemic. Now they see a candidate who has little in common with the woman they knew.

Kari Lake appeared at a Trump rally in Florence, Arizona in January. Trump endorsed it in September 2021, nearly a year before the primary.

(Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press)

Lake’s critics tried to capitalize on its political transformation boost; Robson, 57, nicknamed it “Fake Lake” and posted an ad with the former Fox 10 human resources director calling Lake a “suitor”. However, such attacks fell flat in the Prescott Valley. Die-hard Trump fans didn’t blame Lake for switching sides. Many saw it as evidence of political epiphany.

“People who change become very passionate conservatives,” said Michael Greer, 80, as she waited for her VIP pass for the rally.

“It took a lot of thought – and courage, because you lose a lot of friends and, often, family members,” said the former casting agent who lives near Granville. “So I really admire the people who did that.”

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On stage in Prescott Valley, Lake hurled insults aimed at his former industry. The media was dirty, she said, and also corrupt.

Her speech was right in the mold of the evening’s headliner, which she acknowledged when, at Trump’s invitation, she briefly addressed the audience again. “I took some notes” from the former president, she said. “That’s why I go after fake news because he showed us how.”

His hostility contrasts sharply with the memories of his former colleagues. For most of her 22 years at Fox 10, where she spent most of her career, Lake was known as a hardworking and social person, someone who made friendships that extended beyond the office.

“She was supportive, she was friendly, she gave honest feedback, she contributed stories,” a former colleague said. “She was a good editorial citizen.”

Lake, whose campaign did not respond to a request for an interview, relished coverage of the latest major news that required quick thinking on air. Although political stories didn’t seem to particularly enliven her, she was quick to secure interviews with Presidents Obama and Trump. She took a month-long reporting trip to Cambodia with Cindy McCain and grew closer to family; now she frequently disparages the late Senator John McCain.

Off-camera, his politics were seen as liberal; she was close to LGBTQ staff and Obama fans, whom she donated to. She would get into friendly political fights with her longtime co-anchor John Hook, her former colleagues said, occupying positions usually to her left. (Hook did not respond to requests for comment.)

Her healthy ego – not uncommon in the news business – could be creaky, and she would bristle when challenged, her colleagues said. His fiercely competitive instincts were stoked by the station’s drive to increase its social media reach. Every day, employees would be ranked according to their popularity on Facebook and other platforms. The ranking, dubbed “The Hunger Games” by those in the newsroom, became a fixation for Lake, who was almost always at the top by using provocative posts to boost online engagement.

In 2016, when a group of high school students were photographed spelling out a racial slur with their t-shirts, she defended them against public outcry. Two years later, she had to apologize on air after speculating online that a grassroots movement to raise teachers’ salaries was a ploy to legalize marijuana. Further outbreaks occurred when she joined Parler and Gab, two social networks associated with the far right.

As members of the newsroom began to take issue with her online presence, Lake dug deeper into the fight on the internet.

“She was always ready to take her entire stack of poker chips and shove them across the middle of the table,” a former colleague said.

The former colleagues detected a shift in Lake’s personal views toward Trump and conservative politics. Many saw COVID-19 as a tipping point. To limit staff in the newsroom, Lake was among the presenters assigned to broadcast from home, while others remained in the studio.

Isolated from her colleagues, Lake has become entangled in far-right views on the coronavirus, including pushing unproven treatments such as hydroxychloroquine for the virus.

“I think if she had been chosen to stay [in the newsroom], she would not be running for governor,” the former colleague said. “She would still work here.”

On the evening of the 2020 elections, tensions were raging. Lake questioned the victory of Joe Biden in Arizona on the air, even though the call was made by the political unit of Fox News, the station’s parent company. She soon went on leave; his resignation video in March 2021 blindsided most of his colleagues.

At least one former colleague has publicly supported Lake. None of those interviewed by The Times supported her candidacy and many worried about their condition if she were to win. They pointed out that she had never held a leadership position before or shown any interest in the workings of the state government.

Lake’s rightward turn, which former colleagues view as baffling but heartfelt, has accelerated in his gubernatorial campaign. She now calls Biden an “illegitimate president” and alleges, without proof, that fraud once took place in the primary.

Fox 10 reporters now find themselves in the unusual – and thorny – position of reporting on their former colleague.

“It’s just different this year because of her,” an employee said, adding that their coverage of the high-stakes race was muted compared to competitors. “It’s weird trying to report on someone who was a former employee who basically spat on us as people, as journalists, as former colleagues.”

Many reject Lake’s claim that she must have said false things on air. Former colleagues note that anchors have early access to view scripts and latitude to modify them.

Station management did not respond directly to questions about Lake’s representation of the industry. Erica Keane, a Fox 10 spokeswoman, said that when it comes to the station’s work in general, “Fox 10 KSAZ-TV sticks to its news gathering and editorial practices.

For Lake’s followers, the break from his media roots is central to his story of redemption. Doyle Wiste said he would normally rule out voting for a reporter, but she had his backing even before learning that Trump had endorsed her.

As he waited for Lake to take the stage in Prescott Valley, the 52-year-old real estate investor from Dewey shared what seduced him: When Lake told a CNN reporter that she would do an interview if it aired on the channel’s former streaming service. “Does it still exist?” she added. The zinger always delights Wiste.

“She’s actually calling people across the way,” Wiste said, “that what you said was BS, and we don’t want to hear it anymore.”