Despite a nearly week-long boycott, Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump still outpaced his GOP rivals in Fox News interview airtime in September.
Trump beat out every other candidate with 2 hours and 42 minutes -- almost a full 30 minutes more than the next closest contender (New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who clocked in with 2 hours and 16 minutes), and more than an hour more than the third place finisher (former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, who managed 1 hour and 32 minutes of interview airtime for the month). Trump's airtime total was once again inflated thanks to the network re-airing his interviews in primetime -- a Hannity Trump campaign special that originally aired in August was broadcast again on Sunday, September 6.
Christie's interview airtime has surged forward, going from 1 hour and 15 minutes in August to nearly double that in September. Possibly due to his proximity to New York City, Christie appears in-studio for interviews more often than any other candidate. In September, 80 percent of his 15 appearances were conducted were in studio. The next closest candidate was former Pennsylvanian Senator Rick Santorum with only 50 percent of his six interviews being in-studio.
Christie tied for the most total appearances (15) with former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, who was hosted several times on the network to discuss the controversy over Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis.
Santorum, a former Fox News employee, continues to lag behind several other candidates in interview airtime in recent months. After appearing for 1 hour and 42 minutes in July, Santorum appeared for just 19 minutes in August and only 24 minutes in September. In comments to Media Matters reporter Joe Strupp at last month's Values Voter conference about the amount of coverage Trump has received from the media, Santorum said, "All you have to do is look at the airtime, look at the airtime."
Overall, Hannity again far outpaced Fox's other shows for total candidate time. Sean Hannity's show devoted 3 hours and 32 minutes to the candidates in September, which brings it to a total of 16 hours and 43 minutes since May. The second place show, Fox and Friends has devoted less than half that time -- 7 hours and 57 minutes.
Most Total Airtime In September: Donald Trump (2 hours and 42 minutes)
Most Total Appearances In September: Chris Christie and Mike Huckabee (15 appearances each)
Fox Show With The Most Total Candidate Airtime In September: Hannity (3 hours and 32 minutes)
Fox Show With The Most Candidate Appearances In September: Hannity (25 appearances)
Softball Question of the Month: The day after the September 16 CNN Republican presidential debate, Hannity set up a question about critics who "doubt" Florida Governor Jeb Bush's "conservative credentials" by listing off a series of the Republican's supposed conservative accomplishments:
HANNITY: Governor, I've looked at your Florida record. I've discussed a lot of these issues with you. You governed as a very solid conservative. You created a lot of jobs. You cut taxes -- don't remember the exact number -- you probably do -- a number of times.
BUSH: $19 billion!
HANNITY: What's that?
BUSH: Yes. Every year.
HANNITY: All right...
BUSH: $19 billion every year I cut taxes.
HANNITY: ... you went up to AAA bond rating, which is an enormous success. You even were the first governor to institute state -- state vouchers, a school voucher system.
And whenever your name comes up on social media, it always immediately races to immigration and Common Core. I think you know that that's true, right? What is your answer to those people that doubt your conservative credentials because of these two issues?
Most Total Airtime Since May 1: Donald Trump (13 hours and 3 minutes)
Most Total Appearances Since May 1: Donald Trump (67 appearances)
Fox Show With The Most Total Candidate Airtime Since May 1: Hannity (16 hours and 43 minutes)
Fox Show With The Most Candidate Appearances Since May 1: Hannity (89 appearances)
Previous Fox Primary Reports
For this study, we used FoxNews.com's "2016 Presidential Candidate Watch List." Jim Gilmore's inclusion in the study began after his formal announcement on July 30. Rick Perry's data extends until September 11, and Scott Walker's data extends until September 22, which is when each candidate respectively ended their campaigns. Any future appearances from these former candidates will not be included in this study.
Media Matters searched the Nexis database and our internal video archive for all guest appearances on Fox News Channel between 6 a.m. and 11 p.m. and Fox News Sunday for the 17 presidential candidates in question: Jeb Bush, Ben Carson, Chris Christie, Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorina, Jim Gilmore, Lindsey Graham, Mike Huckabee, Bobby Jindal, John Kasich, George Pataki, Rand Paul, Rick Perry, Marco Rubio, Rick Santorum, Donald Trump, and Scott Walker.
Beginning with the August report, Media Matters has collected appearances on weekend shows in addition to weekday shows and Fox News Sunday. All weekend data from May 1 onward is now included.
For programs where a transcript was unavailable, we reviewed the raw video.
Charts by Oliver Willis. Additional research by Media Matters' research staff.
Fox News chief Roger Ailes has apparently negotiated another ceasefire in the back and forth between his network and leading Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.
Fox figures and Ailes pushed back on Trump early this week after he again asserted that Megyn Kelly was a poor journalist and promoted a tweet calling her a "bimbo."
After Ailes and Trump traded hostile press releases, on Wednesday Trump told conservative radio host Laura Ingraham that he and Ailes spoke and settled the latest dispute: "Roger Ailes is great. He's a special guy and a good friend of mine. We just spoke two minutes ago. I mean, Roger Ailes is a great guy and no, I have no problem."
As the Washington Post's Erik Wemple argues, this is evidence of Ailes working outside of the realm of a news network executive to directly confer with a political candidate: "Yet by participating in these peace-making discussions with Trump, Ailes comes off more as a player in the GOP primary game than as a news executive. His role is to drive news stories on Trump, not to hop on the phone with him to work things out."
Fox News continued to chip away at Donald Trump after he renewed his attacks on host Megyn Kelly. This latest round includes Bill O'Reilly, Fox's highest-rated host, as the network turns on the candidate they built into the current Republican presidential front-runner.
Yesterday, Fox News anchors and hosts joined in a mass attack on Trump after he attacked Kelly as a poor journalist and promoted a tweet calling her a "bimbo."
Fox figures slammed Trump on-air and on social media as network CEO and chairman Roger Ailes issued a press release demanding that Trump apologize to Kelly.
It is the latest round in an on-again, off-again feud between the candidate and the network, prompted by aggressive questioning at the recent Republican presidential debate.
As the back and forth re-ignited, New York's Gabriel Sherman reported that according to a source, Ailes asked a Trump ally "What's wrong with this guy?" and added, "I don't know what to do." A source close to Ailes also told Sherman, "Roger says Trump is unelectable. His goal here is to save the country."
Later in the day at a press conference in Iowa, Trump complained that Fox News "treats me terribly," adding, "I don't think I get good treatment from Fox." He rejected Ailes' request for an apology to Kelly, and argued that Kelly "should be apologizing to me."
On last night's O'Reilly Factor, host Bill O'Reilly called on Trump to stop attacking Kelly. O'Reilly noted, "The Kelly/Trump story is relevant to me because I'm friends with both of them. They both bring things to America that are worthy and positive. Ms. Megyn has taken the high road by not responding. Donald Trump should cease, and Roger Ailes is a stand-up guy."
Greta Van Susteren read Ailes' statement on the incident in full during On The Record, as had been done on the network earlier in the day.
This morning, Fox & Friends co-host Elisabeth Hasselbeck said Trump should "stick to the issues" and "stop aiming at Fox News." In an exchange at the end of the show, anchor Gregg Jarrett joked with co-host Brian Kilmeade that he would get angry at him "like Trump."
Fox's aggressive posture towards Trump is a departure from how the first round of attacks were handled by the network.
According to an earlier report from CNN's Brian Stelter, Fox hosts wanted to publicly come to Kelly's defense but "the network wanted silence." Stelter wrote that "Ailes did not want to escalate the feud by appearing to fire back. His camp believed that Trump had to be handled delicately, given how disgruntled and unpredictable the candidate was."
On CNN's New Day, former Fox anchor Alisyn Camerota noted the irony of Fox going after Trump after building him up as a political voice. As Media Matters has documented, Trump is the presidential candidate that has benefitted from the most exposure on Fox.
From the August 26 edition of CNN's New Day:
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From the August 25 edition of MSNBC's PoliticsNation:
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From the August 25 edition of Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor:
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From the August 25 edition of MSNBC's MSNBC Live:
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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump reignited his on-again, off-again feud with Fox News by posting several attacks against anchor Megyn Kelly to his Twitter account. In response, Fox's anchors, hosts, and its chairman and CEO pushed back, and are now demanding an end to Trump's attacks and an apology in a new press release.
The first round of the Fox-Trump dispute came after the candidate criticized Kelly for what he characterized as hostile questions during the Fox Republican presidential debate, going so far as to accuse her of having "blood coming out of her wherever" during the event.
After that controversy, Fox head Roger Ailes issued a release stating that he and Trump "had a blunt but cordial conversation and the air has been cleared."
Trump continued to make disparaging marks about Kelly, however, claiming that Kelly was off-air during her vacation due to his initial clash with her. Fox denied the charge and called it a conspiracy theory.
On August 24, Trump once again returned to attacking Kelly, writing, "I liked The Kelly File much better without @megynkelly. Perhaps she could take another eleven day unscheduled vacation!" He added that Kelly "must have had a terrible vacation, she is really off her game," noting that she had "no clue on immigration" and criticizing her interview with Dr. Cornel West.
In response, many Fox personalities took Trump to task.
Fox & Friends host Brian Kilmeade called Trump's attacks "unwarranted-unacceptable;" America's Newsroom host Bill Hemmer tweeted, "Easy, Mr. Trump;" Fox senior meteorologist Janice Dean wrote that it was "unpresidential," and The Five co-host Dana Perino praised "the intelligence, class & grace" of Kelly.
Special Report host Bret Baier told Trump "this needs to stop," while Sean Hannity added, "Focus on Hillary, Putin, border, jobs, Iran China & leave @megynkelly alone." The network's senior political analyst Brit Hume asked if Trump was a "seven-year-old" for the tone of his comments.
These tweets were followed by an August 25 press release from Ailes:
"Donald Trump's surprise and unprovoked attack on Megyn Kelly during her show last night is as unacceptable as it is disturbing. Megyn Kelly represents the very best of American journalism and all of us at Fox News Channel reject the crude and irresponsible attempts to suggest otherwise," Ailes statement reads. "I could not be more proud of Megyn for her professionalism and class in the face of all of Mr. Trump's verbal assaults. Her questioning of Mr. Trump at the debate was tough but fair, and I fully support her as she continues to ask the probing and challenging questions that all presidential candidates may find difficult to answer," Ailes said. "Donald Trump rarely apologizes, although in this case, he should. We have never been deterred by politicians or anyone else attacking us for doing our job, much less allowed ourselves to be bullied by anyone and we're certainly not going to start now. All of our journalists will continue to report in the fair and balanced way that has made FOX News Channel the number one news network in the industry."
On the Fox daytime program Happening Now, anchor Jon Scott read the entire statement on-air.
Trump quickly replied:
"I totally disagree with the FOX statement. I do not think Megyn Kelly is a quality journalist. I think her questioning of me, despite all of the polls saying I won the debate, was very unfair. Hopefully in the future I will be proven wrong and she will be able to elevate her standards to a level of professionalism that a network such as FOX deserves. "
Former Fox contributor and editor of the Weekly Standard Bill Kristol had a different point of view. Appearing on Newsmax TV, Kristol said Trump's comments were "excessive" but Fox shouldn't be too "thin-skinned." He noted Trump was likely to "antagonize" Megyn Kelly fans who he would probably prefer to have on his side.
Despite the flare-ups, Fox and Trump have had a symbiotic relationship. His frequent appearances on the network, particularly on Fox & Friends, made the former reality TV star into a political figure, and since he decided to run for the presidency, Fox has featured him far more often than any other candidate.
We've raced past so many memorable markers already during the circus-like Summer of Trump, there's no indication this one will stand out upon reflection weeks or months from now. Nonetheless, when Fox & Friends co-host Steve Doocy tweeted out the news that Donald Trump would appear on the program this week, the announcement seemed worth remembering, if only to document the absurdity of the Republican primary:
FOX NEWS ALERT: watch
@foxandfriends Tuesday at 7am ET as GOP frontrunner @realDonaldTrump talks about his relationship with @FoxNews
Yes, Donald Trump, a Fox News political creation, was set to appear on Fox News to discuss his "relationship" with Fox News. But in the end, Fox hosts didn't even ask Trump about his suddenly newsworthy relationship with Fox. Despite Doocy opening the interview by telling Trump, "glad we're friends again" -- to which Trump responded by assuring him, "we've always been friends" -- there was no attempt to discuss Trump's recent feud with Megyn Kelly and the network. Huh? Were they under orders from Fox chief Roger Ailes to ignore the friction?
The day before the interview Trump tweeted:
Roger Ailes just called. He is a great guy & assures me that "Trump" will be treated fairly on
@FoxNews. His word is always good!
During an appearance on Hannity last night, Hannity kicked off the interview by saying, "Let's start with the elephant in the room. The Fox issue is resolved -- and how did that come about?" Trump explained he has a "great relationship with Roger Ailes" and that "Roger called me the other day and it's absolutely fine."
The head of a "news" organization was phoning up a presidential candidate in order to clear the air; to assure the Republican he'd get fair coverage. Welcome to the house of mirrors created by Ailes, and welcome to the Republican Party's Lost Summer of Trump, sponsored, of course, by Rupert Murdoch's cable channel.
Fox News has not only eaten the Republican primary season -- consumed it whole in recent weeks with the help of Donald Trump -- it's now burping it up all over cable television. That's how bad it's gotten. And indications are that the slow-motion fiasco is only going to get much, much worse for Republicans.
Who benefits from this unfolding media spectacle? Fox News' ratings and Donald Trump's campaign. (And yes, Democrats.) The unequivocal losers are the remaining Republican candidates, as well as the GOP as a whole, which can forget about its planned outreach to Hispanic voters.
Watching this weird public bromance play out between Ailes and Trump, you get the feeling the two are in on some elaborate inside joke as they create the most unlikely piece of performance art imaginable.
Remember two months ago when some Republicans aired concerns that Trump's run would serve as a "distraction" and take attention away from deserving Republican candidates? That limited apprehension seems quaint in retrospect. We are obviously so far beyond the point of Trump being a "distraction." Instead, he's virtually hijacked the entire Republican primary season, to the point where the other candidates have become nearly invisible, and some former frontrunners such as Jeb Bush have suffered sizeable declines in the polls.
Today, Republicans likely long for the days when Trump was going to be a mere "distraction." Instead, given his current popularity, there's little reason to believe he won't be featured in some way at the GOP convention next summer. That is if he doesn't splinter off and run a third-party candidacy, which would likely prove disastrous for Republicans.
"The Tasmanian Devil candidate," as Daily Beast's Michael Tomasky calls Trump, has upended not only the entire Republican campaign season, but also Fox News itself, which appears to be torn over the bullying candidate's name calling, even when his targets are on the Fox News payroll.
What's so astonishing about the freak show now unfolding, and how Fox has manufactured the growing Trump crisis for Republicans, is that everyone saw the preview coming in 2012. In that grand experiment, the goal was to marry a political movement with a cable TV channel in an effort to oust a sitting president. Despite loud predictions about a "landslide" Republican victory, Fox News and Mitt Romney came up well short on Election Day. In fact, Romney failed in large part precisely because he adopted so much of Fox News' loopy rhetoric and its groundless allegations about President Obama.
But rather than learn from that failed experiment, the GOP handed over even more clout to Fox News in preparation of 2016. To be fair, on the surface it looked like a great deal for Republicans:
Those are astonishing numbers, as Fox News essentially handed over huge chunks of its programming to Republican hopefuls who were in search of voters (and donors).
But Ailes' Fox wasn't content with turning its studio into a revolving door for the Republican National Committee. Ailes wanted much more. So there in his second-floor conference room last week, Ailes and his lieutenants met in private to decide which candidates to invite to the GOP's first prime-time debate of the campaign season, and who to relegate to the "JV" debate. This, after nervous super PACs poured millions of dollars into advertising on Fox News in an effort to boost the polling position of their favorite candidate and to make sure they made it onto Fox's main debate stage.
In other words, Fox's control continues to expand. And it's by design. Fox and Ailes have grabbed whatever they wanted as their own and the party has been powerless to stop them. Although there has been little indication the GOP ever wanted to interfere with Fox.
Perhaps until now.
Until Republicans realized Ailes wasn't creating a campaign masterpiece, he was creating a monster.
Reviewing the recent dust-up between Fox News and Donald Trump over sexist comments, Roger Ailes biographer Gabriel Sherman noted that the Fox News chief "is like Trump" in that both have a history of misogyny. Indeed, as Sherman laid out in his book The Loudest Voice in the Room, Ailes' professional career is marred by a pattern of blatant sexism.
At last week's Republican primary debate, Fox host Megyn Kelly challenged Trump on his history of derogatory remarks towards women. In a CNN interview following the debate, Trump lashed out at Kelly, claiming "you could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever."
Fox News and Trump are currently in the process of patching up their historically friendly relationship in the wake of widespread outrage over Trump's comments. Ailes reportedly called Trump yesterday, during which the two "had a blunt but cordial conversation and the air has been cleared."
During an appearance on CNN this morning, Trump hailed Ailes as an "amazing executive" and a "very good friend of mine."
As Sherman pointed out on Twitter on August 10, it's "important to note: Ailes once got in trouble at NBC in 90s when he made misogynist comments in Imus interview. Ailes is like Trump." During the incident in question, Ailes reportedly attacked two of his female employees at the time -- then-CNBC hosts Mary Matalin and Jane Wallace -- saying they were akin to "girls who if you went into a bar around seven, you wouldn't pay a lot of attention, but [they] get to be tens around closing time."
Below are several of the allegations about Ailes' sexism that Sherman reported in Loudest Voice, which Media Matters first highlighted in 2014:
Sherman relayed an anecdote of Ailes regarding former Fox News reporter Kiran Chetry: "Anchor Bob Sellers remembered Ailes once calling the control booth. 'I was doing the weekend show with Kiran Chetry. He called up and said, 'Move that damn laptop, I can't see her legs!'"
Sherman reports that Ailes "had admiration for [former Fox host Catherine Crier's] legs" and was livid when she appeared on-air wearing pants:
"Be more opinionated," he told Crier in one meeting. "The guests are there as a foil for you." He also disagreed with her dress. "He had admiration for her legs," a senior executive said. In one meeting, Ailes barked, "Tell Catherine I did not spend x-number of dollars on a glass desk for her to wear pant suits." [The Loudest Voice in the Room, pg 238]
Elsewhere in the book, discussing Megyn Kelly's famous walk through the newsroom on election night in 2012, Sherman quotes a Fox employee saying, "This is Fox News, so anytime there's a chance to show off Megyn Kelly's legs they'll go for it."
Sherman wrote of Ailes' inspiration for the afternoon Fox News program The Five:
Years later at Fox News, Ailes would talk fondly about his theatrical experience. "Whenever he can, he gets into the conversation that he produced Hot l Baltimore," a senior Fox executive said. Creating the Fox News afternoon show The Five, Ailes found his inspiration on the stage. "He said, 'I've always wanted to do an ensemble concept,'" a close friend said. "He said, 'I wanted a Falstaff, and that's Bob Beckel. I need a leading man, and it's Eric Bolling. I need a serious lead and that's Dana Perino. I need a court jester and it's Greg [Gutfeld], and I need the leg. That's Andrea Tantaros." [The Loudest Voice in the Room, pg 95-96]
Sherman reports that while interviewing a prospective employee for NBC's Tomorrow, a show he was producing, Ailes "posed romantically suggestive questions and made flirtatious comments" to a woman, who told him it made her feel "uncomfortable":
Unbeknownst to Harrison, Shelley Ross, a former newspaper reporter turned television producer, experienced an interview in which Ailes posed romantically suggestive questions and made flirtatious comments about her appearance. "This is making me uncomfortable," Ross recalled telling Ailes. She had worked with [John] Huddy at The Miami Herald and he had recommended her for the Tomorrow job. In a follow-up telephone interview, she told Ailes that she would never date a boss. Ailes's reaction was, according to Ross, "Don't you know I'm single?" When Ross said she was no longer interested in the position, Ailes began apologizing profusely. "This must be middle-aged crazy. I'm so sorry," he said. "If you come to work for me, you know, we're not going to have any problems." Ross eventually accepted the offer and had a positive experience working for Ailes. When asked by a reporter in the mid-1990s about the comments he made to Ross in the interview, Ailes called her "crazy" and a "militant feminist." [The Loudest Voice in the Room, pg 115]
In 1994, Ailes appeared on the radio show of shock jock and former Fox Business host Don Imus and made sexual and sexist remarks about two of his female hosts.
Before it was over, Ailes skewered his own employees. He joked that Mary Matalin and Jane Wallace, hosts of CNBC's Equal Time, were like "girls who if you went into a bar around seven, you wouldn't pay a lot of attention, but [they] get to be tens around closing time."
Jane Wallace didn't appear in any news stories defending Ailes. "He had no right to say something like that," she later said. "He was our boss. It was completely sexist. It was disgusting. It was outrageous. I thought it was a hideously awful thing to say." But she, too, didn't make it an issue with Ailes. "I didn't say so out loud, I was working for the guy." A few weeks later, however, Wallace quit to host her own show on FX, the start-up cable network owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation. [The Loudest Voice in the Room, pg 153]
Sherman reports that in 2009 -- around the time Ailes hired Don Imus to try to inject life into the flagging Fox Business Network -- he also considered hiring CNBC anchor Maria Bartiromo. Sherman quotes an executive involved in the negotiations saying that Ailes was disappointed Bartiromo had "gained so much weight":
Around this time, he also considered poaching CNBC star Maria Bartiromo. "Roger passed on her," one executive involved in the talks said. "He wished she hadn't gained so much weight. He said she went from looking like Sophia Loren to Mamma Leone. He felt he was being used to get more money from CNBC. He told us her agent should give him part of the commission, because the talks were worth another million dollars." (In November 2013, Bartiromo jumped from CNBC to Fox Business.) [The Loudest Voice in the Room, pg 388]
Ailes' temper features prominently in the book, with Sherman explaining that Ailes "vented constantly about his talent":
No one was spared from Ailes's eruptions. He vented constantly about his talent. He complained about The Five co-host Andrea Tantaros, who was a former political consultant. "She's pretty, but did she ever get anyone elected, even a dog catcher?" When Gretchen Carlson's name came up, Ailes pointed out she was once Miss America, then added, "It must not have been a good year." Her co-host, Brian Kilmeade, was a "soccer coach from Long Island." Bill O'Reilly was a "book salesman with a TV show." [The Loudest Voice in the Room, pg 389]
From the August 11 edition of CNN's New Day:
Fox News has reportedly been making moves to get back in the good graces of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump after he attacked anchor Megyn Kelly.
According to two sources who spoke to New York magazine's Gabriel Sherman, network chairman and CEO Roger Ailes reached out to Trump due to "increasing concern inside Fox News that Trump could damage the network."
He reports that after last week's Republican presidential debate, Fox was "deluged" with emails that a source says were "virtually 100-percent" against Megyn Kelly, in light of her questions to Trump during the event.
The source added, "Roger was not happy. Most of the Fox viewers were taking Trump's side."
Another source told Sherman that Trump told Fox host Sean Hannity that "he was never doing Fox again," while a Fox personality told the reporter that the networks producers have given orders to on-air talent not to bring up Trump's post-debate remark that Kelly had "blood coming out of her wherever."
Ailes apparently felt he needed to address the push back from Trump fans.
Sherman's report is just the latest in what seems to be a series of strategic back and forth exchanges between the candidate and Fox News, which has been tirelessly promoting him.
UPDATE: Roger Ailes released a statement about his call with Donald Trump. From CNNMoney:
"Donald Trump and I spoke today," Ailes said in a statement obtained by CNNMoney. "We discussed our concerns, and I again expressed my confidence in Megyn Kelly. She is a brilliant journalist and I support her 100 percent."
Ailes continued: "I assured him that we will continue to cover this campaign with fairness & balance. We had a blunt but cordial conversation and the air has been cleared."
A Fox News spokeswoman said Kelly will "acknowledge" the controversy on her 9 p.m. program.
At the 2016 Republican primary debate last night, the Fox News moderators appeared reasonable, effective, and pointed in their questions to the candidates. And that was the point of the whole charade.
Fox did exactly what Media Matters predicted they would. Moderators Megyn Kelly, Bret Baier, and Chris Wallace took advantage of the low expectations mainstream journalists and many Americans have of their network. They knew millions of people who don't watch Fox as obsessively as we do would be tuning in, many of them expecting to see the brand of Fox they've heard so much about, full of conservative bias and incoherent arguments. And they knew how much power rested in surprising those viewers -- in convincing even just a handful of mainstream journalists that Fox can be legitimate.
The strategy worked. Because the moderators managed to look like real journalists for a little over two hours, they're getting intense praise from mainstream media outlets, such as Politico (emphasis added):
For more than two hours, the trio that won widespread praise in 2012 for hard-hitting questions once again demonstrated that Fox News would offer no safe harbor for Republican candidates.
And the New York Times (emphasis added):
There was more than just good television at stake. For the journalists of Fox News, the debate offered a potentially defining moment in front of millions of people, during one of the most anticipated political events of the year. This was an opportunity to demonstrate that their network is not, as its critics have charged, a blindly loyal propaganda division of the Republican Party, that Fox journalists can be as unsparing toward conservatives as they are with liberals, and that they can eviscerate with equal opportunity if they choose.
But that last clause from the Times is crucial: "if they choose." Because the other 364 days a year, Fox News does not choose to hold Republicans accountable for their extreme and misinformed positions on women's rights or welfare or immigration; instead they do create that "safe harbor" for Republicans to come up with their wild misconceptions and hateful rhetoric -- the same misconceptions they "choose" to blast those same Republicans for last night.
Fox has two fundamental goals: make lots of money by broadcasting entertaining television, and bolster the Republican Party. Last night, they succeeded in doing both, even in the moments where it might have seemed like they had no patience for the Republican candidates' pandering.
Because Fox chief Roger Ailes knows that the best way for Fox to bolster the Republican Party in the long-term is for mainstream journalists to trust Fox -- for the "blindly loyal propaganda division" to appear, even just for one night, as credible. Propaganda doesn't work, after all, if you know it's propaganda.
So even if many of their questions actually did reinforce Republican orthodoxy (such as claiming that deceitful videos attacking Planned Parenthood shed "new light on abortion practices"), the Fox moderators made sure they spent most of their time looking like attack dogs ready to take on the Republican candidates.
But it's worth looking closely at how that played out, and what exactly mainstream media outlets are now praising. Getting the most attention is perhaps one of the biggest of the so-called "Megyn Moments" of the night, in which Kelly momentarily appears out-of-step with Fox rhetoric and calls out a bit of right-wing nonsense. Her tendency to do this every once in a while successfully distracts from her standard misinformation, and helps feed the exact narrative about Fox's potential for credibility that they were desperate to encourage last night.
"Mr. Trump, one of the things people love about you is you speak your mind and you don't use a politician's filter," she began. "However, that is not without its downsides, in particular, when it comes to women. You've called women you don't like 'fat pigs, dogs, slobs, and disgusting animals.'"
Quickly dismissing Trump's attempt to shrug these comments off with a crude joke, she beat on: "Your Twitter account has several disparaging comments about women's looks. You once told a contestant on Celebrity Apprentice it would be a pretty picture to see her on her knees. Does that sound to you like the temperament of a man we should elect as president, and how will you answer the charge from Hillary Clinton, who was likely to be the Democratic nominee, that you are part of the war on women?"
To be clear, it is definitely remarkable to hear a Fox News host even mention the "war on women," something the network and the Republican Party have worked hard to minimize. And Trump deserves to be held accountable for these comments.
But it's not exactly an act of remarkable journalism to ask such a question -- pointing out Trump's raging sexism is something any competent journalist should be expected to do.
Moreover, Fox has had ample time to hold him accountable for these comments before. Trump has been winning the "Fox News Primary" for the last three months, appearing on the network more times than any other Republican candidate in the race.
Yet his sexism has certainly not been a regular topic of the fawning interviews he typically receives on the network. Instead, Fox has worked very, very hard to promote Trump, and the fact that he was standing at center stage last night due to his soaring poll numbers was certainly aided by the network.
While network figures have criticized Trump in the past, Fox's shift during the debate to fully acknowledging Trump's nasty side is notable. But it once again says more about Fox's calculus for the evening and our own low expectations than it does about Trump himself.
In his review of the evening, Ailes biographer Gabriel Sherman explained that according to his sources, key to that calculus was Fox's fear that the winner of the night would be Trump, at the expense of the network's moderators:
During a meeting at Fox late last week, according to a source, senior Fox executives discussed a more worrisome scenario: What would happen if Trump won over the audience and moved the crowd to boo moderators Bret Baier, Megyn Kelly, and Chris Wallace on live television? What if Trump was able to direct his base of supporters to stop watching Fox? To prevent that from happening, Ailes needed a way to keep the audience firmly on the side of his moderators.
The questions posed last night to all of the candidates were carefully considered, and key to the strategy behind those questions was keeping the audience on Fox's side, not on the side of the actual candidates running for president. That isn't a strategy for good journalism, or for aiding a thoughtful electoral process. That's a strategy of control.
Fox may have realized they can no longer control Trump; but they're definitely trying to maintain full control over the mainstream narrative about their "credibility," and thus the Republican primary.
Fox News CEO Roger Ailes reportedly told network host Eric Bolling to defend Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump on air. Bolling has repeatedly gone to bat for Trump, praising him as someone who "means business" and defending his controversial remarks.