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Washington (AFP) - Last month after Donald Trump watched Fox News lob what he called "softball questions" at a Democratic lawmaker, the US president delivered a crisp smackdown of his favorite network: "Fox sure ain't what it used to be."
After years of often fawning coverage by Fox, particularly from its pro-Trump anchors like Sean Hannity, the commander in chief appears to be tilting his media gaze toward a younger, more right-wing rival, cable outfit One America News Network (OANN).
The small upstart broadcaster was launched only recently, in 2013, by technology millionaire Robert Herring, who sought a more conservative alternative to mainstream media behemoths like CNN.
Today it seeks to outfox Fox by drawing extra attention from Trump, who has been voicing his displeasure with the ratings leader over everything from presidential polling to its hosting of Democratic candidate town halls.
Last week in a tweet to his 63 million followers, the president managed to disparage Fox and his mainstream news foil CNN, while heaping praise on the new object of his media affection.
- Embracing a newcomer -
"Watching Fake News CNN is better than watching Shepard Smith, the lowest rated show on @FoxNews. Actually, whenever possible, I turn to @OANN!" Trump posted.
Since March he has tweeted links to OANN stories or shared his appreciation of the network 13 times.
The relationship has been years in the making. In 2015 Trump was interviewed by Sarah Palin, the Republican vice presidential nominee in 2008, when she guest-hosted OANN's show "On Point."
At his first press conference as president-elect, in January 2017, Trump took a question from an OANN reporter. OANN was then called on dozens of times at the daily briefings in Trump's first 100 days in office.
During his June 2018 press conference in Singapore, following the summit with North Korea's Kim Jong Un, Trump took a question from OANN White House correspondent Emerald Robinson, but not before gushing about her network.
- 'It's really beautiful' -
"Thank you for the nice way you treat us. We appreciate it," he said. "Really, it's very good. It's really beautiful what you do."
The San Diego-based operation describes itself as "straight news, no opinion." But the pro-Trump agenda is crystal clear, more than a dozen current and former employees told The Washington Post in 2017.
Herring himself, in his pinned tweet, describes OANN as "the president's favorite new outlet."
When Fox cut away from broadcasting a Trump rally in New Hampshire on Thursday, Herring tweeted, "We will never cut away!"
- 'Wasting airtime' -
OANN has faced accusations of promoting conspiracy theories and peddling Kremlin propaganda.
"Yeah, we like Russia here," a staffer assigned to brief new OANN producer Ernest Champell told him, according to The Daily Beast. Champell left, disillusioned, four months later.
"The network has a history of race-baiting and presenting anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant and anti-abortion reporting," according to Media Matters, a progressive nonprofit group that says its mission is "analyzing and correcting conservative misinformation."
While OANN's influence in the White House may far outweigh its position in the news media landscape, Trump clearly retains an affinity for several people in the Fox organization.
The show "Fox & Friends" remains his go-to morning program; Trump has phoned in on numerous occasions as president.
Perhaps that is why Democratic longshot contender Julian Castro purchased ad time during "Fox & Friends" this week, airing a spot in which he directly addresses Trump and blames him for inspiring the El Paso shooter who massacred 22 people early this month.
- Polls 'have been terrible' -
Sean Hannity, the network's popular anchor, appeared alongside Trump at a campaign rally ahead of the 2018 mid-terms.
But friction emerged this week when Hannity expressed support for CNN anchor Chris Cuomo after a video of Cuomo in a heated argument at a New York bar went viral.
It was a sharp contrast to Trump, who tweeted that Cuomo -- the brother of New York's Democratic governor Andrew Cuomo -- was "nuts" and showed a "total loss of control" in the incident.
The president expressed frustration when Fox aired multiple town halls in recent months featuring Democrats who are trying to unseat him in 2020, including South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, currently fifth in major polling.
"Hard to believe that @FoxNews is wasting airtime on Mayor Pete," Trump tweeted in May. "Fox is moving more and more to the losing (wrong) side in covering the Dems."
Fox News presidential polling is also a concern for Trump, whose job approval rating in the network's mid-August poll dipped substantially, to 43 percent, while his disapproval rating spiked to 56 percent, its highest since October 2017.
In head-to-head matchups, the poll shows Trump losing to major Democratic candidates, including to frontrunner Joe Biden by 12 percentage points and to liberal Bernie Sanders by nine.
"There's something going on at Fox, I'll tell you right now. And I'm not happy with it," Trump told reporters on Sunday as he headed back to Washington from vacation.