The Slatest

Democrats Made the Right Call to Reject Fox News as a Debate Host

Donald Trump gestures to Fox News anchor and moderator Chris Wallace after the third U.S. presidential debate of the 2016 campaign.
Donald Trump gestures to Fox News anchor and moderator Chris Wallace after the third U.S. presidential debate of the 2016 campaign.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The Democratic Party has officially ruled out letting Fox News host one of its 2020 presidential primary debates. Democratic National Chairman Tom Perez had raised the possibility of picking the conservative network as a debate host earlier this year, but he said Wednesday that a recent blockbuster exposé convinced him to scrap the idea. “Recent reporting in the New Yorker on the inappropriate relationship between President Trump, his administration and Fox News has led me to conclude that the network is not in a position to host a fair and neutral debate for our candidates,” Perez said in a statement first provided to the Washington Post. “Therefore, Fox News will not serve as a media partner for the 2020 Democratic primary debates.”

Good call.

Democrats never had any reason to trust Fox to give them a fair shake in the first place. Now that should be crystal clear in the wake of Jane Mayer’s report documenting in detail how the conservative network has moved from partisanship toward propaganda in the age of Trump. Among the conflicts she reported in the New Yorker this week: During the 2016 GOP primary, network brass may have tipped Trump off about questions ahead of Fox-hosted debates; during the 2016 general election, Fox killed a story about Trump’s relationship with Stormy Daniels; and during Trump’s first year in office, the president ordered Gary Cohn to pressure the Justice Department to pursue an antitrust case involving Time Warner, the parent company of Fox rival CNN, allegedly as political payback.

You don’t need to take Mayer’s reporting as gospel to see that Fox has a vested interest in keeping Trump in the White House, where he routinely receives formal and informal advice from Fox veterans past and present. Likewise, you can believe that Chris Wallace and Bret Baier are respectable journalists and still have serious doubts whether, as debate moderators, they would have been the ones truly running the show. And you can also think Democrats should make a more concerted effort to reach new audiences and still believe there are better ways to do that—off the top of my head: travel to Wisconsin—than by lending legitimacy to a network that helped spread debunked and dangerous conspiracy theories about everything from Obama’s birthplace to child sex rings to the 2016 murder of former DNC staffer Seth Rich.

The decision has some drawbacks. If Fox News is state media, then more Americans watch state media than any other cable network. A Fox-hosted debate would have offered Democrats a platform to speak directly to an audience they almost never reach unfiltered. Winning over loyal Fox viewers wouldn’t have been easy, but simply making the overture might help with those swing voters who are exhausted by partisanship. Similarly, Democrats are now opening themselves up to criticism that they’re afraid to take serious questions from conservative media. Never mind that Republicans pulled out of a 2016 primary debate with NBC after their candidates didn’t like the questions CNBC moderators asked at a previous debate or that the White House press briefing has become a thing of the past under Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

It’s unclear how seriously the DNC was considering giving Fox one of the debate slots even before the New Yorker story broke. Fox hosted back-to-back town halls with Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton during the 2016 primary, but the last time the network hosted an official Democratic debate was 2004. (During the 2008 cycle, the DNC pulled the plug on a planned Fox debate after then-Chairman Roger Ailes made an Osama Bin Laden-themed joke about Obama.) What makes Perez’s decision stand out, though, is how he made it. The DNC plans to hold 12 primary debates but so far it has selected media partners for only the first two: NBC (and its sister networks) and CNN. Perez, then, could have simply waited until he had selected the remaining 10 debate hosts, ruling out Fox by omission in the process. Instead, he seized a moment that offered the easiest out the DNC is likely to get and that simultaneously maximizes the New Yorker story’s damage to Fox and Trump. If this fight with Fox was unavoidable, then Perez was smart to throw the first punch.