The Fox News Faux Fight with Democrats
Judging from the reaction of some critics, Pete Buttigieg is crossing into new enemy territory by becoming the third major Democratic Presidential candidate to appear in a town-hall interview hosted by Fox News. Dan Pfeiffer, a former senior adviser to Barack Obama, tweeted that, by doing so, Buttigieg was “putting an imprimatur of legitimacy on one of the most destructive forces in American politics.” Last week, the Times declared that Fox News was becoming “an unlikely new hot spot for Democratic candidates.”
At the same time, other critics condemned a statement by Tom Perez, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, that Fox News isn’t “fair and neutral” enough politically to host a 2020 Democratic primary debate. Perez’s decision was criticized by both conservatives and fellow-Democrats, including Ed Rendell, the former governor of Pennsylvania and a previous D.N.C. chair, who called it “a mistake.” Lost in the finger-pointing is the fact that neither the appearance by Democratic Presidential candidates on Fox, nor the Party’s eschewing of Fox as a host for its debates, is new.
Fox News has never hosted a Democratic Presidential-primary debate. Perez has not changed the Party’s position so much as stuck to it. The difference is that, for the first time, Perez has publicly articulated the D.N.C.’s reasons. Perez initially cited my New Yorker story from March, which delineated Fox News’ many close ties to President Trump. More recently, he doubled down, telling the Fox News host Bill Hemmer, “I don’t have faith in your leadership at Fox News at the senior levels.” Perez added, “I have great respect for Bret [Baier] and for Chris [Wallace] and for you, but you’ve demonstrated that, above your pay grade, they don’t trust your own listeners, and so they feel like they have to put the thumb on the scale.”
Liberals have long denounced Fox News as biased, and during Obama’s first term his Administration tried to bar the network from covering an official briefing at the Treasury Department. Other news outlets, however, protested in solidarity with Fox, and the Administration backed off, fully reinstating the Fox correspondents. Democratic Presidential candidates over the years have appeared more frequently on other networks, but there is no history of Democratic Presidential candidates boycotting Fox News.
During the 2016 primary, both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders appeared on the avowedly conservative network. Clinton, who had not appeared on Fox News during the previous two years, initially said that she had a scheduling conflict that would prevent her from joining a Fox News town hall planned for March, 2016. But after Sanders affirmed that he would appear, she joined him.
In fact, during the last Presidential campaign cycle, the only candidate to make a public show of boycotting Fox News was Donald Trump. During the primary season, Trump refused to participate in a Republican debate on the network, to protest what he claimed had been disrespectful treatment by the host Megyn Kelly in a previous Fox debate. Additionally, in March of 2016, Trump pulled out of an event on Fox News that his campaign initially showed great interest in joining, in which he was to appear in a one-on-one face-off against Sanders. (After Trump withdrew, Clinton took Trump’s place.)
At the time, Sanders’s chief strategist, Tad Devine, explained the decision to go on Fox News, telling the Times, “I don’t think we think that boycotting that network is a way to gain political advantage with voters.” Sanders has explained his decision to appear during this cycle in much the same way. Yet when he appeared on a Fox News town-hall forum this year, some expressed surprise, even though Devine predicted back in 2016 that Sanders would return to the network. “If we have these opportunities in the future, I think we’ll try and take advantage of them,” he told the Times.
The same was true in earlier Presidential campaigns. Democrats may have grumbled about Fox News, and held their noses when they appeared on the channel, but the Party’s Presidential candidates have long appeared on the network, even submitting to interviews by unapologetically biased opinion-show hosts. In 2008, for instance, Clinton sat for an hourlong interview with Bill O’Reilly, then a famously caustic Fox News opinion host, whose contract was later discontinued following revelations that he had paid millions of dollars to settle multiple sexual-harassment claims. Fox News hosts also interviewed Clinton in 2014, as part of a book-promotion tour.
In 2011, President Obama appeared on Fox News two months before he formally launched his reëlection campaign. As David Axelrod, Obama’s senior strategist, told the Times, in 2016, “I always thought it was a mistake to ignore them.” He acknowledged, “Obviously there’s a bent to Fox and the viewer. But they have a pretty large audience, and they’re not all conservative Republicans. There are independent voters there.”
So why the uproar now? Fox has become ever more openly aligned with Trump, raising the political ante for Democrats who are seen as coöperating with it. But regardless of the prominence of the network’s increasingly dogmatic opinion hosts, Sanders, Buttigieg, and Amy Klobuchar, whose own town hall is scheduled for early May, are not blazing a new trail. Nor is Fox demonstrating newfound credibility or power. As for conservative criticism of Perez’s opposition to Fox hosting Democratic primary debates, all he has done is hold a previously established party line.
Evidently, among those unaware of this is the President. After Sanders participated in an hour-long April 16th Fox town hall moderated by Baier and Martha MacCallum, Trump expressed his dismay on Twitter. Intimating that Sanders was an interloper on a network that the President apparently considers his fiefdom, Trump tweeted, “So weird to watch Crazy Bernie on @FoxNews. Not surprisingly, @BretBaier and the ‘audience’ was so smiley and nice. Very strange.” Trump went on, adding in the royal plural, “and now we have @donnabrazile?” It appears that the President was unfamiliar with the history.
Whether Democratic Presidential candidates should continue to work with Fox News, given its growing role as a propaganda platform for the Trump White House, is a question worthy of debate. But rather than sniping among themselves themselves for essentially upholding the status quo, Democrats ought to aim their fire at Fox News for making coöperation with it more indefensible by the day.