If you’ve watched Fox News in the past two weeks, you’re familiar with the song Rich Men North of Richmond, a folksy “working class anthem” that the network has obsessed over.
That obsession spilled over into the first Republican primary debate, hosted by Fox News on August 23, when moderator and Fox News anchor Martha MacCallum invoked the song during the first question. The unusual debate opener came after Fox News had devoted over three hours of coverage to the song.
“As we sit here tonight, the number one song on the Billboard chart is called Rich Men North of Richmond. It is by a singer from Farmville, Virginia, named Oliver Anthony. His lyrics speak of alienation, of deep frustration with the state of government and of this country. Washington, D.C., is about 100 miles north of Richmond,” MacCallum stoically declared.
After playing a clip of the song, MacCallum went on, “So Gov. Desantis, why is this song striking such a nerve in this country right now? What do you think it means?”
The bewildering choice to open the first Republican presidential primary debate with a question about a song that is topping the charts -- and not about foreign policy, Trump’s indictments, or any other actual news or policy questions -- can partially be explained by the network's infatuation with Anthony’s ballad. As the song was gaining popularity in the less than two weeks leading up to the debate, Fox News spent 3 hours and 4 minutes discussing Rich Men North of Richmond.
Praising it as “a song for our time,” Fox figures at times used the song to demonstrate people’s “frustrat[ion] with the direction of this country” , and occasionally even glowingly highlighted some of the more questionable lyrics (such as digs at overweight individuals on welfare and a confusing aside about caring about miners, not just minors).
While some were confused (me, I was confused) by Fox’s decision, some at the network were thrilled. In the post-debate coverage the next morning on Fox & Friends, co-host Ainsley Earhardt gave the question a glowing review, stating, "I liked Martha's first question coming right out and asking about the Oliver Anthony song, because we can all relate to that song. And it's been number one for a reason.”
Media Matters searched transcripts in the SnapStream video database for all original programming on Fox News Channel for the term “Richmond,” “Oliver Anthony,” “iTunes,” “anthem,” or “rich men” from August 8, when the song was released, up until 9 p.m. August 23, when the first Republican primary debate began.
We timed segments, which we defined as instances when Oliver Anthony or his song Rich Men North of Richmond were the stated topic of discussion, or when we found significant discussion of either. We defined significant discussion as instances when two or more speakers in a multitopic segment discussed anything related to Rich Men North of Richmond with one another.
We also timed mentions, which we defined as instances when a single speaker in a segment about any topic mentioned the song without another speaker engaging with the comment, and teasers, which we defined as instances when the anchor or host promoted a segment about the song scheduled to air later in the broadcast.
We rounded all times to the nearest minutes.