Zurawik: Cable TV owns 2020 race with town halls, candidate interviews. Mostly, that's a good thing

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., takes part in a Fox News town-hall style event with Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum April 15, 2019 in Bethlehem, Pa.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., takes part in a Fox News town-hall style event with Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum April 15, 2019 in Bethlehem, Pa. (Matt Rourke / AP)

Critics of prime-time cable news often dismiss it as an empty-headed noise machine, a partisan shout-fest that mainly confuses and polarizes its audience as it makes more and more prime-time money at the expense of democracy.

Look at the cosmic failure of cable news in 2016 in covering the candidacy of Donald Trump, they say. No argument here on the Trump-in-2016 part of that thesis.


But anyone who watched MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow interviewing Democratic candidate Pete Buttigieg Monday night knows better — way better as to how impressively some players in the cable news universe are performing in prime time these days. The conversation between two of the smartest people in media and politics informed millions of viewers about Buttigieg’s candidacy in a way that would have never happened back in the days when networks ruled the media roost on presidential politics.

In fact, anyone who has been watching any cable news the past few months during the early stages of the 2020 race knows how dominant, informational and powerful a role cable news has come to play in providing a microphone and stage for new voices and shaping the national conversation about the current huge and diverse field of Democratic candidates hoping to challenge Trump. This is particularly true on CNN, which has been producing town halls on an almost nightly basis some weeks.


Forget the networks. They would rather run reality and competition shows than surrender any serious amount of time to helping us select our next president. What’s a conversation on CNN with Kamala Harris about our Southern border compared to watching contestants get slimed by host Ellen DeGeneres on “Ellen’s Game of Games” on NBC anyway?

Believe it or not, the networks once owned national politics on TV, but under new corporate owners in 1990s, greed overtook any serious commitment to public service or sense of responsibility to informing their audiences in a meaningful way about their choices at the polls. And, after all, that is the fundamental job of any news organization in a democracy: to give citizens information they can use to make sound decisions about their lives. Voting for president would certainly seem to be near the top of that list.

Just look at the sheer volume of prime-time candidate coverage on cable TV.

CNN had five of them in the week of April 8: New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro on April 8, 9 and 10, respectively. That was followed by author Marianne Williamson and businessman Andrew Yang featured in back-to-back town halls on April 14.

The channel will have another five town halls with the leading Democratic candidates on Monday night alone — a kind of binge night of viewing for serious politicos.

Buttigieg, Harris and Sens. Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders and and Elizabeth Warren will all participate in live, prime-time events from New Hampshire, which will be telecast internationally.

The New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College and the Institute of Politics at Harvard Kennedy School are co-sponsors, with CNN’s prime-time hosts Chris Cuomo, Anderson Cooper and Don Lemon moderating on a tag team basis. Students and young Democrats from New England will be asking the questions.

Even Fox News — which during the Trump administration has made itself an extension of White House messaging to an extent no organization with the word “news” in its name has ever done — has gotten into the game with 2020 Democratic candidates. Monday night, show hosts Martha MacCullum and Bret Baier moderated a town hall featuring Sanders in Bethlehem, Pa., with its Rust Belt backdrop of what were once mighty steel mills.

Intellectually, I was most impressed by the Maddow-Buttigieg conversation on MSNBC Monday. The sharply focused interview ranged from policy, with the Indiana mayor explaining such daring ideas as compulsory national service, to the personal, with Maddow sharing her own history as she skillfully questioned him about his decision not to come out as gay until he was 33 years old.

But it is the Monday-night Fox town hall with Sanders that has been making the most political and culture-war news all week. Trump has led the way in tweeting his seeming displeasure about the channel he thinks of as his favorite propaganda machine (Sorry, Sinclair, I know how faithfully you licked his boots) giving Sanders a stage to reach millions of viewers.

And Sanders seemed to own that stage much of the time, skillfully parrying questions from the hosts and exposing MacCullum as she mouthed right-wing talking points. One of her lowest moments came as she suggested that Sanders is against voter suppression efforts because he believes “it will be better” for him if felons can vote, because presumably they will vote for him. It sounded as if some in the audience actually groaned at her question.

The audience was regularly in Sanders’ corner, most notably when Baier used the TV trick of asking for a show of hands to make a point visually. In this case, he asked which audience members who had employer-provided health insurance would be willing to switch to the kind of government controlled plan espoused by Sanders. There was a big show of hands and even cheers for Sanders’ proposal.


Such moments were not lost on the Fox’s would-be producer-in-chief, who ended a tweet about the town hall asking, “What’s with @FoxNews?”

And now Buttigieg and other Democrats are reported to be in negotiations with Fox News for town halls.

Trump is right about the signs and shows of support for him outside the hall in Bethlehem where the debate took place.

Protesters demonstrate in support of President Donald Trump near a Fox News town-hall style event with Sen. Bernie Sanders Monday April 15, 2019 in Bethlehem, Pa. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Protesters demonstrate in support of President Donald Trump near a Fox News town-hall style event with Sen. Bernie Sanders Monday April 15, 2019 in Bethlehem, Pa. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke) (Matt Rourke / AP)

But that only underscores how important these cable-news prime-time town halls and extended interviews have become in deciding who the next president is going to be. Given his tweets this week, Trump clearly gets it. Since 2016, I have been writing that as reckless and misinformed as Trump might be in policy decisions, he is nothing if not savvy about the use of free media in getting elected.

TV news anchors and talk show hosts have embarrassed themselves so often in covering Donald Trump that I stopped counting.

While Sanders’ turn on the big Fox stage of 2 to 3 million viewers might look like a victory for Democrats, it is already fueling a rift in the Democratic Party.

Tom Perez, the Marylander who chairs the Democratic National Committee, has been trying to marginalize Fox News by denying it any debates among Democratic candidates. It’s part of a larger strategy by the party to heighten awareness of the extent to which Fox has become a propaganda arm of the White House.

Tuesday on MSNBC, Markos Moulitsas, founder of the Daily Kos blog, which focuses on Democratic and liberal politics, said Sanders “undermined” those efforts by going on Fox Monday. He further warned that Buttigieg would not be seen by Democrats as a “team player” if he went on Fox for a town hall.

Let me say this in as even-handed and balanced a way as I can: When it comes to Democrats and politics, Fox News is like the Sirens of the Odyssey, tempting candidates with the sweet promise of all those white, working-class viewers, many of whom live in Rust Belt states and could be receptive to the economic messages of candidates like Sanders, Warren and Buttigieg, only to smash them on the rocks of its propagandist mission. The DNC is right: Fox is a political operation, not a journalistic one, a point it brought home even as it gave Sanders a platform.


After the Vermont senator’s town hall Monday, MacCullum brought on Lara Trump, daughter-in-law and 2020 re-election campaign official for the president, to criticize Sanders and Buttigieg. And MacCullum didn’t challenge her in any meaningful way as she spun out one dubious claim after another about the greatness of Trump and the wrong-headedness of Sanders and Buttigieg.


Yes, Sanders did well onstage, but Fox News had the last word in contextualizing him and his performance for its audience with the likes of Lara Trump.

That’s exactly what I have come to expect of Fox despite all the phony talk about MacCullum and Baier as even-handed journalists.

What was most fascinating to me about Lara Trump’s appearance was how hard Team Trump went after Buttigieg. It’s a strange world in which the incumbent president feels the need to take down the mayor of South Bend, Ind.

Make no mistake, the 2020 war for the White House is underway, and it looks as if some of its most important early battles are already being fought on prime-time cable TV.

I hope the news channels are up to the huge power they now wield in the nation’s political life. I hope they do better than they did in 2016 — much better.

Maddow and CNN give me hope. MacCallum’s performance and Trump’s tweets Monday night make me wonder if things might get even worse than they were in 2016.

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