The Media Today

If Democrats go on Fox, they should level with its viewers

May 15, 2019

In the Democratic Party, a debate is raging about debates. In March, after a piece by The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer refocused attention on the relationship between Fox News and the Trump White House, the Democratic National Committee announced that it would not partner with the network for a 2020 primary debate. Fox is insufficiently “fair and neutral,” Tom Perez, chair of the DNC, said. As Mayer noted, the statement hardly represented a change—Fox, she wrote, has never hosted a Democratic presidential primary debate. Nonetheless, critics within the Democratic party said Perez’s decision was a mistake, arguing that candidates should seek to engage with Fox and its viewers. In April, Bernie Sanders became the first of the party’s 2020 hopefuls to participate in a town hall on Fox. He took some flak for doing so, but he set off a wave: Amy Klobuchar had her own town hall last week; Pete Buttigieg and Kirsten Gillibrand are slated to follow.

Yesterday, Elizabeth Warren spelled out why she would be the first candidate to publicly reject Fox’s invitation. “Fox News is a hate-for-profit racket that gives a megaphone to racists and conspiracists—it’s designed to turn us against each other, risking life and death consequences, to provide cover for the corruption that’s rotting our government and hollowing out our middle class,” she wrote on Twitter. “Hate-for-profit works only if there’s profit, so Fox News balances a mix of bigotry, racism, and outright lies with enough legit journalism to make the claim to advertisers that it’s a reputable news outlet. It’s all about dragging in ad money—big ad money.” Town halls with Democrats, she said, give “the Fox News sales team a way to tell potential sponsors it’s safe to buy ads on Fox—no harm to their brand or reputation (spoiler: It’s not).”

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Warren’s argument echoes that of left-wing groups, such as Media Matters for America, which have called for an economic boycott of Fox. (Yesterday, Angelo Carusone, president of Media Matters, praised Warren for drawing “the same line that many major corporations have drawn.”) Several times in recent months, advertisers have pulled commercials from Fox opinion shows, a reaction to incendiary comments like Tucker Carlson’s suggestion that immigrants make America “dirtier.” Earlier this year, Fox tried to de-emphasize its controversial opinion programming in its pitch to advertisers, instead playing up news hosts like Chris Wallace, Bret Baier, and Martha MacCallum. Many Fox critics—Warren now among them—have called this distinction substantively meaningless. In March, Media Matters organized a protest outside Fox News’s headquarters to reinforce the point. More than a hundred advertising executives were inside.

Is there any point to these boycott campaigns? Media reporters have long been skeptical—at moments of peak outrage, they say, Fox tends to make tweaks to its programming or ad inventory, then revert to form. Yesterday, Lachlan Murdoch, who now runs Fox News’s parent corporation, said that “the boycotts are not having a financial impact of any significance”; and even if they were, he added, they would not affect programming choices. That could just be bravado, but Fox News clearly isn’t going away.

So why not appear? Given the network’s huge viewership, some Democrats ask, don’t those who refuse to engage miss an opportunity to connect with a broad pool of potential voters? The network, some candidates and strategists say, is an opportunity to move the needle, if only a little bit. When Sanders did his town hall, in April, he projected strength—many among the studio audience cheered his ideas and stuck their hand up for taxpayer-funded healthcare—and the spectacle clearly got under Trump’s skin. Crucially, 2.5 million people watched, the biggest audience for any town hall on any network so far this cycle.

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Skeptics reply that Fox viewers are a lost cause to Democrats. “In 2016, only 1 percent (!) of Sanders primary voters (and 4 percent of Clinton primary voters) reported Fox as their main source of news,” FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver tweeted yesterday, of Warren’s decision. “It’s not like you’re forsaking all that large an audience that won’t see your message elsewhere.” Fox’s core audience is Republicans, and those Republicans tend to have hardline, pro-Trump views.

The question “should Democrats appear on Fox?” probably doesn’t have a one-size-fits-all answer. If Democrats do choose to appear, we should encourage them to ram home an essential point: that Fox has an abnormal, corrosive relationship to democracy.

Below, more on Fox News and the Democrats:

  • “Winning on Fox News”: Last week, CNN reported that House Democratic leaders are actively encouraging members to go on Fox. On Friday, the messaging arm of the caucus held a training session called “Winning on Fox News.” Jess McIntosh, a CNN contributor who helped lead the training, told Brian Stelter on Sunday that she stopped appearing on Fox several months ago. “But when you’re an elected official the calculation is different. You have to represent people who might never vote for you.”
  • “The Fox ‘News’ Lie”: Media Matters is out with a new report on the “false distinction” Fox draws between its news and opinion programming: “We looked at Fox News and Fox Business programming for the first four months of 2019, and we found examples of the ‘news’ division spreading misinformation on air every single day between January 1 and April 3.”
  • Facing the Nation: Last night, Fox Nation, Fox News’s streaming service for “superfans,” hosted its first annual summit for members, in Scottsdale, Arizona. Last week, Erik Wemple, a Washington Post media critic and Fox Nation member, said his registration for the event was rejected because “this event is closed to the press.” In the end, Fox Nation let Wemple in. 

Other notable stories:

  • This year, state governments in Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Ohio, and Arkansas have signed bills restricting access to abortion. Yesterday, the Alabama Senate approved the most draconian measure yet, effectively voting to ban abortion outright. If Kay Ivey, the state’s governor, signs the bill, it will face a legal challenge that could end up putting Roe v. Wade before the Supreme Court. So far in the Trump presidency, the politics of abortion has yet to hold the national spotlight. That could be about to change.
  • Yesterday, in response to a gunman having livestreamed a mass shooting at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand in March, Facebook said that users who break certain of its rules will be barred from its Facebook Live feature. The announcement came on the eve of a conference in Paris, where Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s prime minister, and Emmanuel Macron, the president of France, are currently hosting tech leaders and politicians to discuss online extremism.
  • Last week, Chris Hughes, who helped Mark Zuckerberg found Facebook, became the latest in a line of former executives and investors to publicly slam the company. For CJR, Mathew Ingram argues that such critics have rarely put their money where their mouths are. “They seem more than happy to reap the benefits of the wealth they accumulated as a result of the social network’s growth,” he writes. “And few have tried to fund alternatives, or to find ways of using their riches to solve some of the problems it has played a role in.”
  • Yesterday, San Francisco became the first major US city to ban its police force and other municipal agencies from using facial recognition technology. Civil liberties advocates have campaigned against increased use of the tool, which they say gives governments unprecedented surveillance powers over citizens. Aaron Peskin, the city supervisor responsible for the bill, said that San Francisco has “an outsize responsibility to regulate the excesses of technology precisely because they are headquartered here.”
  • Also in San Francisco, officers took a sledgehammer to a freelance journalist’s house last week, then cuffed him for five and a half hours as they attempted to identify a source who leaked a police report to him. The journalist, Bryan Carmody, is a stringer who sells documents and footage to news outlets. For CJR, Tony Biasotti writes that Carmody “is an imperfect free-speech martyr. Other Bay Area journalists describe him as something of a troll, barraging them with angry tweets when they reported stories critical of the police, or when they were arrested while covering protests. But there is a consensus among journalists and free press advocates that this police raid crossed a line.”
  • The state of Georgia sued Public Resource, a group that puts government records online, for publishing annotated volumes of state statutes. Citing an alleged violation of a publishing partner’s copyright, lawyers for the state accused Public Resource of “a strategy of terrorism.” Now both Georgia and Public Resource have asked the Supreme Court to pick up the case—the former wants to overturn its defeat in a lower court, while the latter wants a definitive ruling confirming that states cannot copyright material around their legal codes. The Times’s Adam Liptak has more.
  • Researchers at the University of Toronto have concluded with “moderate confidence” that an online disinformation campaign comprised of fake Twitter accounts and content impersonating major outlets has links to Iran, BuzzFeed’s Craig Silverman reports. In one case, Reuters picked up a fake story about the 2022 soccer World Cup in Qatar; more broadly, the network has pushed anti-Saudi propaganda.
  • And for CJR, Lyz Lenz assesses the complicated #MeToo hero status of Gretchen Carlson, who helped oust Roger Ailes from Fox, then became a controversial leader at the Miss America Organization. “Her legacy as the woman who brought down Ailes made Carlson perfect to reform Miss America, an organization whose cultural moment passed long ago,” Lenz writes. “And yet, her relentless drive, which made her succeed before, is getting in her own way.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.