Watching Fox

Fox News Had a Good Segment

Since starting this pop-up blog, I have received and read many comments from people who are convinced that it exists solely as an excuse to gratuitously bash Fox News. This is not true! I only bash Fox News when the network deserves it, and it is not my fault that the network deserves it so often. But there are things to like about Fox News, too. One of those things was an excellent discussion segment on Wednesday afternoon’s edition of Outnumbered Overtime with Harris Faulkner.

Faulkner is a regular host on Fox News’ weird midday show, Outnumbered, which features four recurring female panelists and one rotating male panelist deemed “#OneLuckyGuy.” The show really ought to be called Interrupted, since every time I watch it the network seems to end up cutting away to some live hearing or press conference. (This fate seems a bit on-the-nose for the network’s designated “lady” program.) She also hosts the network’s 1:00 p.m. show, Outnumbered Overtime, which often suffers the same fate as its predecessor. She is smart and competent and deserves better than relegation to the day’s two most pre-emptible hours, but what can you do?

Anyway! The segment I’m referring to came about two-thirds of the way through Wednesday’s program in response to a clip of President Trump addressing the Heritage Foundation. “NO APOLOGIES. Trump talks up ‘God, Christmas’ in speech,” read the Fox News chyron. Faulkner turned to two guests—Republican strategist Evan Siegfried and Outnumbered panelist and former State Department spokesperson Marie Harf—for a conversation about “political red meat,” prompting them to address Trump’s Christmas comments and his views on NFL players kneeling during the national anthem.

I was not expecting much from this discussion. Harf is Outnumbered’s designated liberal and is rarely able to complete a sentence on that program without being talked over or patronized by one or more of her colleagues. Moreover, liberal Fox guests rarely fare well when they are asked to weigh in on the culture wars because they are inevitably forced into defensive postures against their counterparts’ emotional volleys. But the Outnumbered Overtime segment turned out to be that rarest of things, not just for Fox News but for cable news in general: a calm, productive, mutually respectful political discussion between ideological opposites, moderated by a host who seemed interested in bringing out the best, rather than the worst, in her guests. The segment was refreshingly free from obviously tendentious claims, belligerent interruptions, and disingenuousness. This was Fox News at its best. Let’s break it down.

Faulkner directed her first question to Siegfried, the Republican strategist. When Fox News hosts start with their Republican panelists, they’re typically looking for a hot take that will set the tone for the segment. Siegfried, instead, started with some reasonable observations. “He’s talking about issues that many Americans feel very strongly about,” he said. “And at the same time it is a very smart trap he’s laid for Democrats, because Democrats go out and reflexively oppose Trump at anything and everything he does. And when they’re making the argument that ‘No, you should be able to kneel,’ it translates to some voters as, ‘They’re against people standing for the national anthem.’ ”

Nothing to argue with there! Harf then noted that Trump is fixated on the culture wars “in part because he hasn’t had a lot of success on the traditional legislative agenda he laid out as promises he would keep,” such as health care and tax reform. Again, hard to dispute those points. “I don’t think it’s going to grow his numbers beyond that base support,” Harf continued, “and his numbers are still at historical lows for a president in the first year. I think he’s trying to solidify the base. What will be interesting is whether that works in 2018, when he’s not on the ballot but his party is.”

“There are a lot of people who are dissatisfied with the president,” conceded Siegfried. “And when [Democrats] go out and they defend people doing things that are offensive to many Americans, when Democrats defend that, that does not offer an alternative. Democrats haven’t come out with a message. … Their message is, ‘No, you can kneel for the national anthem. No, you shouldn’t say Merry Christmas,’ or that freedom might not even be a God-given right. It actually makes Democrats shoot themselves in the foot by defending it.”

OK, that Merry Christmas point was disingenuous and dumb. But hey, nobody’s perfect, not even Evan Siegfried on Outnumbered Overtime. Anyway, Faulkner didn’t let that one assertion derail the segment. Instead, she brought the discussion back to a place of consensus. “I saw you nodding when Evan was talking,” said Faulkner to Harf. Good work! A moderator who pays attention to her panelists is a moderator who is best equipped to get the best from her panelists.

“What I agree with is the Democrats need a positive message and a positive agenda, it can’t just be anti-Trump. Didn’t work in 2016, it’s not going to work next year, and it’s certainly not going to work in 2020,” said Harf. “But it’s so interesting to me. Donald Trump throughout his life has never been someone to use this kind of overtly—”

“How do you know that?” said Faulkner—not in a condemnatory way, just asking.

“He’s been a public figure for decades and decades,” said Harf. Good response! And both Faulkner and Siegfried accepted Harf’s logic without trying to shout her down or, say, claiming that Trump has actually been a secret churchgoer since boyhood. This is a very rare thing for Fox News! And it’s also rare for a Fox News segment to wrap up as respectfully as this one did.

“I’m not saying, ‘Don’t say Merry Christmas.’ I think that’s a gross overgeneralization of what Democrats are saying,” Harf continued. “We are saying, ‘You can’t call people protesting racial issues in this country unpatriotic. You can’t question the right of people to use their First Amendment. That’s not fair.’ That’s the argument Democrats are making.”

“The problem with the argument that Democrats are making,” said Siegfried, “is that the argument takes longer than a bumper-sticker slogan to make. And Americans’ attention spans have gotten much shorter, and when you say ‘No, they should be able to,’ that’s what people extrapolate, they don’t extrapolate the very long and lengthy…”

“I agree,” said Harf, getting the last word for once. “And that’s partly how we got Donald Trump.” And then Faulkner, sensing the natural end of the segment, deftly pivoted to something else.

That “something else” was the NFL, of course, because this is still Fox News. But the entire segment between Harf and Siegfried was proof that Fox News can be a forum for informed, intelligent debate between Democrats and Republicans—when it wants to be. I just wish that it wanted to be more often.