Democrats need to just say no to Fox News once and for all.
The party has a wide, deep, diverse and very impressive cast of candidates for president in 2020 at a time when the nation faces profound choices thanks in part to the governmental chaos caused by President Donald Trump. And what has been the focus of debate among those nearly two dozen candidates the last two weeks?
No, it was whether or not to have a town hall on Fox News. And in the wake of South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg using his town hall on Fox Sunday to criticize the channel, and Trump tweeting his annoyance at Buttigieg’s very presence there, it feels like the ayes currently have it.
The cable channel that was founded as a right-wing ideological tool masquerading as an all-news channel by Roger Ailes is already doing its dirty political work on the 2020 campaign by using its access to millions of viewers to tempt, divert and divide the Democrats. And, worse, it comes at a time when a united denunciation by Democrats could do real damage to this political weapon of the right as advertisers shy away from it in the wake of racist comments by Tucker Carlson and all-out propagandizing for Trump by Sean Hannity.
But I’m with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who said something far more important about Fox News and its role in the debased state of our national conversation when she explained why she would not do a town hall on the network.
“Fox News is struggling as more and more advertisers pull out of their hate-filled space. A Democratic town hall gives the Fox News sales team a way to tell potential sponsors it’s safe to buy ads on Fox. I won’t ask millions of Democratic primary voters to tune into an outlet that profits from racism and hate,” she wrote on Twitter.
“A Fox News town hall adds money to the hate-for-profit machine. To which I say: hard pass,” she added.
But Sen. Bernie Sanders opened the gates wide with a Fox News town hall in April, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar followed with one earlier this month. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand is now scheduled for a Fox Town Hall on June 2. And former Congressman Beto O’Rourke said Monday he would “absolutely” do a town hall on Fox if asked.
“This campaign is about going to where people are, and you see that physically in where I show up,” he told reporters in Iowa where he was campaigning. “But it also has to be in those channels or those social media streams where people get their news and their information. That also includes Fox.”
All of the candidates who favor appearing on Fox News have sounded similar justifications: talking to all voters and/or trying to make inroads with Fox viewers, the largest audience in cable news.
As someone who has watched Fox News critically since its founding and appeared as a guest with some regularity on its Sunday-morning media show, Media Buzz, from 2013 to 2015, I know this channel and its audience fairly well. And I have news for Democratic candidates who are thinking they can glean votes from those who watch Fox News in prime time: Dream on.
I have not seen any significant jump in the polls for Sanders, Klobuchar or even Buttigieg after their appearances on Fox. And even if there were bumps, would they hold?
For decades, Fox viewers have been told by the likes of Bill O’Reilly and Hannity that they can trust no one in the mainstream media — only Fox News. The rest is all liberal lies and fake news from elites looking down their noses at Fox viewers.
Since its founding in 1996, the network built by Ailes seeded and plowed the field of media mistrust that Trump so successfully harvested in 2016.
You are not talking about an audience when you talk about Fox News prime-time viewership, you are talking about a culture or religion. You can see Fox News creating a new revenue stream out of the truest of those true believers with its far-right Fox Nation subscription service, which I wrote about earlier this year.
But even if the strategy was valid and could lead to some additional votes, what about the morality of appearing on a channel that showcases someone who says immigrants make America “dirtier” as Carlson has? Or, what about your presence lending credibility to the lies of a channel that has so embraced propagandizing on behalf of Trump that it is now more like state-run TV than anything American television has ever known?
Those are questions that can only be answered partially by talking about the strategy of appearing on Fox. The other, larger part is morality — your personal morality.
I hear some moral reasoning in Warren’s words. And I praise her for it, just as I praised Joe Biden for the morality I saw in his choice of focusing his campaign announcement video on Trump’s lack of condemnation of the racists and neo-Nazis who brazenly paraded through Charlottesville in 2017 during a series of rallies that resulted in the death of one young woman protesting their presence.
Biden’s media reward for that moral focus, by the way, included some mainstream coverage criticizing his launch video for seeming “dark,” gloomy and funereal.
We in the mainstream media don’t do a very good job of talking about morality when it comes to presidential candidates. Maybe that is why we wound up with such an amoral president in 2016.
In the end, for all the strategic reasons involved, my decision to stop appearing on Fox News in 2015 was ultimately a moral one. And, in some ways, my goals were not that different than a candidate’s.
The Sun’s ethics standards do not allow me to be paid for appearing by Fox, CNN or any other outlet I cover as media critic. But appearing on a Sunday morning show that reaches as many as a million viewers does help introduce me to new potential readers and extend myself and the publication I work for as journalistic brands to new and larger audiences on TV channels and more importantly on the huge digital platforms the cable news outlets have. So there are strategic concerns.
But more and more in that year when Trump came down the elevator at Trump Towers and started his run for the presidency, I felt as if my mere presence as a mainstream media critic lent a false legitimacy to Fox’s phony claims that it was fair and balanced. Anything I could say was enveloped in a wall of ideology created through overall topic selection, presentation and a preponderance of conservative guests, many of whom were on the Fox payroll.
I was never told I couldn’t say something, but there were places I couldn’t go because they never came up. That was usually the case with issues and topics where I might be highly critical of Fox.
That didn’t happen on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” where I was free, for example, in 2016 to not only denounce the channel for its highly-publicized hire of former Trump campaign aide Corey Lewandowski as an analyst, I was given enough airtime to call him a “weasel” and a “snake.”
On a local level, I feel the same about the Baltimore-based Sinclair Broadcast Group as I do Fox.
Like Fox, they sold out to Trump with such moves as hiring Boris Epshteyn, a former Trump communications aide as their chief political analyst. If you want to see what propaganda looks like, read his newsletter or watch his videos.
Here’s a taste from Tuesday’s “Breakfast with Boris” newsletter on Trump not allowing former White House counsel Don McGahn to testify before Congress:
“President Trump is doing the right thing by not playing into the Democrats’ shameless political witch hunt and standing up for the right of presidents and their senior advisers to not be subject to Congressional overreach,” Epshteyn wrote. “The results of the Mueller report are clear: no collusion, no obstruction and vindication for President Trump. The Democrats need to accept those facts.”
What the Democrats need to accept is that outlets like Fox and Sinclair are their political enemies.
Tom Perez, the Democratic Party chairman, is strategically right in calling out the biased coverage of Fox and denying the channel a primary debate. I hope in the coming months, Democrats here will do the same with Sinclair stations when we get to mayoral debates.
But I also hope some of the candidates both presidential and mayoral will follow Warren’s lead and stay away from Fox and Sinclair for moral reasons.