Trump’s pick for Arizona governor renounced her media past. The conversion made Kari Lake a front-runner
Kari Lake looked directly into the camera with the self-assured gaze befitting an on-screen pro. Like so many times before as a top Phoenix television anchor, she had news to share.
This time, though, she was not appearing on the Fox affiliate that had long employed her — and as her tone shifted from perky to solemn, it was clear why. The industry that propelled her to prominence, she said, had become unbalanced, untruthful, divisive.
“It’s been a serious struggle for me,” she said, “and I no longer want to do this job anymore.”
In two minutes and 33 seconds, Lake torched her 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 Arizona governor. But to her legions of supporters, and the colleagues she left, that video posted on Rumble, the conservative alternative to YouTube, was the true launching pad — the conversion story that undergirds her entire campaign.
Few gubernatorial races this year are as closely watched as Arizona’s, where the winner could have immense influence in a 2024 presidential battleground. 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 Gov. Doug Ducey, who are backing Karrin Taylor Robson, a former developer and lobbyist. Polls have shown Lake, whom former President Trump endorsed, to be the front-runner.
More than Lake’s devotion to election denialism, aggressive border enforcement and even to Trump, her career in journalism and subsequent repudiation are at the core of her candidacy. Through decades on television, Lake, 52, built a statewide profile that many veteran politicians would envy. Her days of on-air banter translate easily to the campaign trail. And her rebuke of the media transforms her media background from potential liability with Republican voters to an asset.
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Lake showed a willingness to “stand up for principle,” said Kevin McNichols as he queued 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 in Green Valley had known of Lake since the early 1990s.
“You’re willing to quit your job because you feel that they’re twisting your script,” he said. “It’s just admirable.”
Lake’s former co-workers at Fox 10 KSAZ-TV see it 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 broadcaster. They describe a political radicalization in recent years that yanked her rightward, influenced by Trump’s ascent, social media and the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, they see a candidate who has little in common with the woman they knew.
Lake’s detractors have tried to capitalize on her whiplash political transformation; Robson, 57, has dubbed her “Fake Lake” and released an ad with Fox 10’s former human resources director calling Lake a “pretender.” Such attacks fell flat in Prescott Valley, however. Die-hard Trump fans didn’t fault Lake for switching sides. Many saw it as proof of political epiphany.
“People who switch become very passionate conservatives,” said Michael Greer, 80, as she awaited her VIP pass for the rally.
“It took a great deal of thought — and courage, because you lose a lot of friends and, many times, family members,” said the former casting agent who lives in nearby Granville. “So I really admire people who’ve done that.”
Onstage in Prescott Valley, Lake unleashed insults aimed at her former industry. The media were filthy, 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 a few notes” from the former president, she said. “That’s why I go after the fake news because he showed us how to do it.”
Her hostility stands in stark contrast with the recollections of her former co-workers. For most of her 22 years at Fox 10, where she spent the bulk of her career, Lake was known as hardworking and social, someone who formed friendships that extended beyond the office.
“She was supportive, she was friendly, she gave honest feedback, she contributed stories,” one ex-colleague said. “She was a good newsroom citizen.”
Lake, whose campaign did not respond to an interview request, relished covering major breaking news that required fast thinking on air. Although political stories didn’t seem to especially animate her, she hustled to secure interviews with Presidents Obama and Trump. She took a monthlong reporting trip to Cambodia with Cindy McCain and grew close with the family; now she frequently disparages the late Sen. John McCain.
Off-camera, her politics were seen as liberal; she was close to LGBTQ staff and a fan of Obama, to whom she donated. She’d get into friendly political sparring matches with her longtime co-anchor John Hook, her onetime colleagues said, staking positions typically to his left. (Hook did not reply to requests for comment.)
Her healthy ego — not uncommon in the news business — could be grating, and she would bristle when challenged, her co-workers said. Her fiercely competitive instincts were stoked by the station’s drive to increase its social media reach. Each day, employees would be ranked on their popularity on Facebook and other platforms. The standings, nicknamed “The Hunger Games” by those in the newsroom, became a fixation for Lake, who was almost always at the top using provocative posts to spur online engagement.
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In 2016, when a group of high schoolers were photographed spelling a racial slur with their T-shirts, she defended them against the public outcry. Two years later, she had to apologize on-air after speculating online that a grassroots movement to boost teacher pay was a scheme to legalize marijuana. More flare-ups occurred when she joined Parler and Gab, two social media networks associated with the far right.
As members of the newsroom began to take issue with her online presence, Lake waded deeper into internet combat.
“She was always willing to take her entire stack of poker chips and push them to middle of the table,” one ex-colleague said.
Ex-colleagues detected a shift in Lake’s personal views toward Trump and conservative politics. Many saw COVID-19 as a tipping point. To limit personnel in the newsroom, Lake was among the anchors assigned to broadcast from home, while others stayed in the studio.
Isolated from her co-workers, Lake became enmeshed in far-right viewpoints about the coronavirus, including pushing unproven treatments such as hydroxychloroquine for the virus.
“I think had she been the one chosen to stay [in the newsroom], she wouldn’t be running for governor,” the former co-worker said. “She’d still be working here.”
By election night 2020, tensions were raging. Lake questioned Joe Biden’s win in Arizona on-air, even though the call was made by Fox News’ political unit, the station’s parent company. She soon went on leave; her resignation video in March 2021 blindsided most of her colleagues.
At least one former colleague has publicly backed Lake. Of those interviewed by The Times, none supported her candidacy and many fretted for their state if she were to win. They pointed out she had never held a management role before or demonstrated interest in the workings of state government.
Lake’s hard-right turn, which her former colleagues consider baffling but sincere, accelerated in her gubernatorial campaign. She now calls Biden an “illegitimate president” and alleges, without evidence, that fraud has already occurred in the primary.
The journalists at Fox 10 now find themselves in the unusual — and thorny — position of reporting on their former colleague.
“It’s just different this year because of her,” one employee said, adding that their coverage of the high-stakes race was muted compared with competitors. “It’s weird to try and report on someone who was a former employee that has basically spat on us as people, as journalists, as former co-workers.”
Many reject Lake’s claim that she had to say false things on air. Former colleagues note that anchors have advance access to show scripts and latitude to edit them.
Station management did not respond directly to questions about Lake’s depiction of the industry. Erica Keane, a Fox 10 spokeswoman, said that with regard to the station’s work in general, “Fox 10 KSAZ-TV stands by its newsgathering and editorial practices.”
To Lake’s supporters, the break from her media roots is central to her redemption tale. Doyle Wiste said he’d normally rule out voting for a journalist, but she had his support even before he learned Trump endorsed her.
As he waited for Lake to take the stage in Prescott Valley, the 52-year-old real estate investor from Dewey recounted what won him over: when Lake told a CNN reporter she’d do an interview if it aired on the channel’s defunct streaming service. “Does that still exist?” she added. The zinger still delighted Wiste.
“She actually calls people out to their faces,” Wiste said, “that what you said was B.S., and we don’t want to hear it anymore.”
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