The Media Today

What the first debate will say about Trump, Fox, and democracy

August 23, 2023
A Donald Trump supporter stands near the Fiserv Forum as set up continues for the upcoming Republican presidential debate in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

If it feels like Christmas comes earlier every year, the same could be said of presidential primary debates. As with Christmas, this isn’t actually true: indeed, by this point in the 2020 election cycle, we’d already enjoyed/endured (delete depending on your perspective) two Democratic primary debates, each split over two nights, on NBC and CNN, respectively. Still, as eight Republican candidates—Ron DeSantis, Tim Scott, Nikki Haley, Vivek Ramaswamy, Mike Pence, Chris Christie, Doug Burgum, and Asa Hutchinson—prepare to take the stage in Milwaukee tonight, it’s hard to escape the feeling (at least from my perspective) that campaign fever has now fully consumed political media, months before anyone will actually have to vote for anyone.

If the ample recent coverage handicapping the debate (Politico alone has a “scouting report” and a bingo card) has given it an air of political normality, the context for the debate, of course, is anything but normal. In the run-up, media chatter was saturated with question marks as to whether Donald Trump, the quadruply-indicted Republican frontrunner, would show up; in the end, he decided against doing so, though his surrogates and campaign staff are on the ground in Milwaukee. (Last night, the latter reportedly dined with leading political reporters from major mainstream outlets, distributing debate bingo cards of their own.) And Trump and his attacks on democracy will—or, at least, should—loom large over the event in absentia. The Atlantic’s Tom Nichols even made the case last night that Trump’s absence, self-imposed this time, should be imposed on him ahead of future debates, which are, ultimately, an essentially democratic form of exchange, premised on shared rules and respect. “To allow Trump on the stage is to admit that he is a legitimate candidate for public office,” Nichols argued. “He is not.”

A similar discussion has played out around the debate’s host, Fox News, which made headlines earlier this year after it agreed to pay the best part of a billion dollars to Dominion, a voting-tech company, over the spread of Trumpian election lies on its air, but has itself sought to project a sense of normality ahead of the debate. In interviews, Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum, the moderators, “spoke of the debate as business as usual for them,” the Washington Post reported yesterday; MacCallum has described the Dominion settlement as “ancient history.” (Never mind that it was struck in April.) Some Fox critics have rebuked media reporters for going along with this attempt at normalization: Matt Gertz, of the liberal watchdog group Media Matters for America, blasted the presentation of Baier as a straight-shooting news-side journalist, while CNN’s Oliver Darcy described Fox as a “MAGA propaganda monster” and accused major mainstream outlets of “willfully taking part in a Fox News rehabilitation tour.” It is crucial to note, Darcy argued, that “the first GOP debates are taking place in the GOP’s safe space.” 

This week, I previewed the debate over Google Docs with Bill Grueskin, a professor at Columbia Journalism School who has been my occasional interlocutor in this newsletter (including following the Fox settlement in April). Our typed conversation has been lightly edited. —JA

JA: As I write this (on Monday morning), Trump had just intimated that he will skip the debate—seemingly concluding what has been a long-running (and increasingly tedious)
will-he/won’t-he media psychodrama. To briefly indulge that, I have to say I expected him to keep people guessing before trying to jump in at the last minute—indeed, I haven’t quite given up on that possibility, despite the apparent finality of his declaration—because, as we should all know by now, he lives for the drama. But it seems he will now counterprogram the debate by airing a pre-taped interview with Tucker Carlson instead. What do you make of that?  

BG: This is the business we’ve chosen, as Hyman Roth tells Michael Corleone. Journalists are but supporting actors in the Trump Drama, and we cannot escape our role nor can we ignore it. And while the Trump/Carlson show seems like the perfect troll for both men, it’s hard to imagine that getting a ton of attention. 

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But there are several other things going on here, and I’m curious about your take: 

First, it makes zero political sense for Trump to go on that stage. The problem isn’t that he’d make a Gerald Ford-level gaffe. The man is a board-certified gaffe-expulsion machine, and it doesn’t matter. The bigger risk is that he’d look weak or tired, sweaty or small, especially if he showed up only to get pummeled by Chris Christie. Trump still has commanding leads—including a poll in Iowa taken after the Georgia indictments. Why put them at risk?

Second, the difficult part for the debate moderators is going to be how to address The Trump Issue since he isn’t on the stage. They can’t let a no-show dominate the evening, but they can’t avoid the Trump ether. It’s not like Fox viewers are tuning in to hear about Asa Hutchinson’s infrastructure plan, or Doug Burgum’s goal to North Dakota-ize the rest of the U.S. 

And third, one of the most interesting sidelights here is how Fox has managed to come out of this looking like such a desperate, forlorn suitor. There are not many things that Trump can extract joy from these days. But one of those things would be forcing supplicants like Fox News honchos Suzanne Scott and Jay Wallace to come to Bedminster to convince him to join the debate. And then turning them down, via Truth Social.

I think Trump has suspended political gravity to such an extent that cost/benefit takes rooted in old political logic don’t apply. I don’t think it wouldn’t not make sense for Trump to attend, if you’ll excuse the double negative, but equally, it won’t likely hurt him to stay away; either way, the dynamics of the Republican primary will likely stay suspended in formaldehyde. I, too, suspect his Carlson interview will be inconsequential and dull—Carlson’s cultural relevance is dwindling (score one, at least for now, for those who predicted that that would happen after he left Fox, à la Bill O’Reilly), and all Trump interviews these days are so much reheated gibberish. But him doing it at all is an extra stick in the eye to the Murdochs and Fox, to your third point.

To your second point, Trump looming over the debate in absentia is likely to be an even bigger ego boost for him than being present and center stage. I, too, am curious to see how Fox addresses the Trump question. I’m not expecting the other candidates to offer anything revelatory about him: Christie will pummel him with zingy talking points; Mike Pence will talk about how he kept his oath that day without offering an explicit condemnation (and will still probably get a bunch of media bromides); Ron DeSantis will (sorta) defend Trump (if his super PAC’s debate memos are any guide); Doug Burgum will say, erm, really nothing interesting, if his ubiquitous cable-news hits so far offer any clue. Those lines seem well-established by now.

With that in mind, two questions. Firstly, if you were the organizer, how would you handle the Trump question, knowing that it’s both the defining one of the primary—and for American democracy—but also likely to provoke various flavors of mushy answer? Secondly, how do you expect Fox to handle it? As you note, they seemed desperate for Trump to show up (even after all the trouble his election lies got them into with the Dominion lawsuit). But Rupert Murdoch’s relationship with him, at least, seems fraught, at least for now…

To the first point, I’d bring up what these candidates said in the immediate aftermath of January 6. Even Kevin McCarthy, now the speaker of the House, declared at the time that Trump was responsible for the violence. So, juxtapose what they said then with what they’re saying now about Trump’s role in peddling crackpot election theories and fomenting a crowd that was bent on violence. I would also ask them to justify Trump’s careless handling of confidential documents and evidence that he enlisted his subordinates to hide evidence from the feds. That part is easy. The harder part for Fox is, what do you ask when you get the inevitable “Well, Stacy Abrams denied her election loss” or “Biden had confidential documents in his garage” rejoinders. So maybe you’d build that into your question. And then they can pivot to GOP layups like the Afghanistan withdrawal, inflation, or progressive judges. 

But now we get to the heart of the problem: Outside of Chris Christie, none of these candidates is seriously running against each other, much less Trump. We’ve seen a few swipes here and there, but it’s tame stuff. So how can Fox gin up an interesting debate when everyone on the dais agrees that gasoline costs too much, Biden is too old, and kids shouldn’t be reading books about gay people?

That leads to my question for you. Suppose you’re Roger Ailes, resurrected for this one evening. Ailes knew what made good TV, and what keeps viewers glued. So, Roger, I mean, Jon: What would you bark into Bret Baier’s earpiece, while you and the Murdochs were watching viewers drop off because Tim Scott and Nikki Haley are gently disputing which South Carolina beach is the prettiest?

I’m going to turn this into a should/will question again, because becoming Roger Ailes incarnate is too creepy to contemplate. To take those in reverse order, I suspect that in the absence of much substantive disagreement we can expect questions that play up the horse race and interpersonal rivalries between the candidates; Martha MacCallum has already telegraphed as much, saying that, in addition to substance, “you have to get at it from a political angle as well, because there’s a lot of strategy that’s involved in how one of these people is going to jockey themselves into being the contender.” No matter the network, these debates always rely on contriving conflict, as I wrote back in 2019.

That brings me to the should question, which I’m gonna answer in a smart-ass way by saying we shouldn’t be having this debate at all—I’m increasingly convinced that a huge part of the problem with American political coverage is that it’s in permanent campaign mode; there’s still months to go until Iowa, and in other countries I think the idea of doing a televised election debate this far out from any actual voting would be seen as strange. Given that we are here, though—and that this is the first debate of the cycle—I’m wondering how, in an ideal world, you think they could be set up better than the conflict-saturated, non-substantive primary debates we’ve seen in the past, beyond just having the moderators ask more substantive questions? I ask because, in the 2019 piece I just referenced, I actually quoted from a piece that you wrote, suggesting that rather than having messy free-for-alls with loads of candidates on stage, we should borrow from the Lincoln-Douglas format, pairing off candidates and having them actually debate each other at some length. Is that still something you’d like to see? 

If I were Suzanne Scott or Ronna McDaniel, the chair of the Republican National Committee, I’d put all the candidates’ names into a hat—and to make the GOP happy, it could be an Abe Lincoln-style stovepipe hat. Pull out two names at random. Let them go at it for ten to fifteen minutes, starting with a general question or two from the moderator. Impose some rules, like no one can talk for more than forty-five seconds at a time. 

We could see whether DeSantis would actually “take a sledgehammer” to Vivek Ramaswamy, per his super PAC’s recommendation. We could see how Tim Scott handles Christie’s questions about why the latest Trump indictment is “un-American.” And for GOP voters, it’d be instructive. They could watch how well their candidates perform in a one-on-one format, which is going to be key in 2024. Knowing Fox, they’d make it into a Survivor-style reality show, with people voting candidates off the stage, culminating in a final, winner-take-all round. But look, whatever it takes to make this thing interesting and useful as we (someday, I hope) head into the primaries. 

One final question for you: We’ve talked before about Fox, in the wake of the massive defamation settlement the network reached with Dominion earlier in the year. You noted then that the network would face “a tough set of decisions” going into 2024, faced with the impossible balance of neither “caving to the conspiracists” nor “pissing off their viewers.” I’m curious how you’d evaluate the network’s trajectory in the months since that settlement, especially as its 2024 coverage has gone? And what do you expect the debate to say about the network’s broader status at the moment, if anything?

Fox is still undergoing its Kübler-Ross stages-of-grief process. The company has paid nearly nine-hundred million dollars in settlements this year. Executives fired Tucker Carlson, a generational star who commanded a loyal audience that hasn’t fully returned. Meanwhile, the company still faces the threat from Newsmax and OAN, which are skimming their most right-wing viewers; the Smartmatic lawsuit, one that is even more justified than Dominion’s and could command a payout that includes the “B” word (for billion); and the awful demographics of cable, with pay-TV subscriptions falling to the lowest levels since 1992.

They don’t have a lot of great options. They inexplicably kept Maria Bartiromo on air, even after they showed her co-defendant, Lou Dobbs, the door. The Murdochs sent away Viet Dinh, their trusted consigliere, who most recently served as Fox’s chief legal officer and advised the network to fight the Dominion suit before eventually settling. They’ve rotated hosts and schedules repeatedly. It feels like a company unmoored. And so I’ll post my final question to you: If that’s true, is that a good or bad thing for democracy in 2024 and beyond?

I think that the level of commitment to democracy that they demonstrate on air is the metric by which they should be judged—and that, as I’ve written before, the only appropriate standard for that is zero tolerance of threats to democracy. For all the reporting on Fox going all in on DeSantis or Ramaswamy, or Murdoch trying to convince Glenn Youngkin, the (allegedly moderate) Virginia governor, to get in, top opinion hosts have continued to run cover for Trump. Some of the rhetoric around his indictments—from Carlson’s replacement, Jesse Watters, in particular—has been obscene. I expect them to be shameless in eventually landing where they feel their audience is as 2024 draws nearer. And I think they will remain widely watched as they do so. (You note that viewers jumped ship after Carlson was ousted, but there’s evidence the prime-time ratings are already recovering.)

That said, my macro view of Fox is that it is broadly serving views that are out there, not creating them from whole cloth. If it became so unmoored as to one day float off air and into the ether, I have little doubt that something similar would metastasize in its wake.

Other notable stories:

  • As I wrote in Monday’s newsletter, police in Marion, Kansas, recently raided a local newspaper, claiming in an affidavit that a journalist there must either have impersonated a driver or lied when they used a state website to verify a story about a DUI. KSHB now reports, however, that the journalist used a different site to the one referenced in the affidavit—a site, state officials say, that can be used to legally obtain driving records.
  • Katie Robertson, of the New York Times, spoke with top former tech journalists at Vice, who, following that company’s recent bankruptcy struggles, decided to strike out on their own. Yesterday, they launched 404 Media, a news site that promises to cover how tech “impacts real people in the real world” and will be worker-owned. (One model for the site is Defector, whose ownership model Danny Funt recently wrote about for CJR.)
  • In media-jobs news, Bloomberg overhauled its executive team, raising questions, per Axios, as to whether its aging CEO, Michael Bloomberg, is plotting his own succession. (Bloomberg says he isn’t going anywhere yet.) Elsewhere, the Post’s opinion section tapped Shadi Hamid as a columnist and Alexi McCammond as an editor. And Michael Wolff said he will be out soon with a new book on “the end” of Fox and the Murdochs.
  • In Australia, Lachlan Murdoch, the CEO of Fox Corporation, agreed to pay more than a million Australian dollars in legal costs to Crikey—a news site that Murdoch sued for defamation after it published an article accusing his family of complicity in the January 6 attack on the US Capitol, before dropping the suit earlier this year. Crikey will donate the proceeds of a crowdfunding campaign it launched in the case to a press-freedom group.
  • And in Germany, the media behemoth Axel Springer settled with Julian Reichelt, the former top editor of its tabloid Bild who was ousted in 2021 following sexual-misconduct allegations. Springer had sued Reichelt for violating his departure terms by leaking information about the company to a rival outlet. Reichelt, who had countersued, denied leaking, but a Springer statement released yesterday suggests that he has admitted to it.

Related: What the Fox settlement means, and what’s next

Jon Allsop and Bill Grueskin are the authors of this article. Jon Allsop writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Bill Grueskin is on the faculty at Columbia Journalism School.