Why DNC blew it in barring a Fox debate after New Yorker piece

Some of Fox News’ liberal rivals have been cheering the Democratic National Committee’s decision to exclude the network from the party’s primary debates.

In fact, Jane Mayer, author of the New Yorker article cited as the reason for the decision, posted a celebratory tweet:

“Boom! DNC Chair says Fox can't sponsor 2020 Dem Primary Debate.”

But a number of prominent journalists have sharply criticized the move by committee chairman Tom Perez.

NBC reporter Jonathan Allen: “There are plenty of quality journalists at Fox, some of whom have been excellent questioners at past presidential debates.”

Politico’s Jack Shafer: “The idea that the New Yorker story could have alerted Perez to some previously hidden right-wing, anti-Democratic Party tendencies at Fox is hilarious…Any politician who can’t hold his own against a journalist from the other team should be disqualified from running.”

New York Times correspondent Maggie Haberman: “Whether it’s the case or not, it sends a message of being afraid of something. Which is what Trump feeds off in opponents.”

While Perez said Fox “is not in a position to hold a fair and neutral debate,” Fox Senior Vice President Bill Sammon said he hoped the DNC would reconsider, since its moderators—Bret Baier, Chris Wallace and Martha MacCallum—“embody the ultimate journalistic integrity and professionalism.”

DNC BARS FOX NEWS FROM HOSTING PRESIDENTIAL PRIMARY DEBATES 

And that points up what was missing from the more than 11,000-word New Yorker story: an acknowledgement that Fox has a news division.

There were a couple of mentions of Wallace asking tough questions or Shepard Smith fact-checking the administration, but no exploration of the separation between the news side—anchors, reporters and editors—and the opinion side best known for prime-time hosts Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham and Tucker Carlson.

It’s hardly breaking news that they and other commentators, such as the hosts of “Fox & Friends,” generally support President Trump—although several harshly criticized him for a temporary retreat on the border wall that preceded the 35-day government shutdown. Hannity, in particular, speaks regularly to the president, and drew criticism from me and many others for accepting Trump’s invitation to come on stage, and praising him, at a November rally.

Trump does watch an awful lot of Fox and is influenced by what some hosts and guests say, as his Twitter feed makes clear. A number of people who had roles at Fox, most notably former co-president Bill Shine, have joined the administration. (By the way, two dozen journalists, such as Time’s Jay Carney, went into the Obama administration.)

I don’t want to cast any aspersions on Mayer, who I’ve known for decades, but she is well known for taking on such conservative targets as Trump, Mike Pence, Brett Kavanaugh, and the Koch brothers (her latest book is about “the billionaires behind the rise of the radical right”). The New Yorker has run a series of covers mocking Trump, and its longtime editor, David Remnick, has called the president a “master demagogue” and “unceasing generator of toxic gas.”

Fox News has been controversial since Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes, a former Republican operative, founded it in 1996. It is an even bigger target now, as the nation’s dominant cable news network, in the Trump era.

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Let’s look at some of the article’s findings:

--While the New Yorker largely ignored the news division, except for the quick mentions of Chris Wallace and Shep Smith, Fox had provided the magazine with far more material.

MacCallum, for instance, drew widespread media praise for her grilling of Kavanaugh when she obtained the only interview with him during his Supreme Court nomination fight.

Fox news anchor Neil Cavuto has occasionally chastised Trump, saying last year: “You are right to say that some are out to get you. But oftentimes, Mr. President, the problem is you.”

Fox chief legal analyst Andrew Napolitano said Trump faces “at least four potential felonies” if Michael Cohen’s testimony is true.

The Mueller probe, the Cohen hearings and the hush-money investigation have all received ample coverage on Fox’s news shows.

What’s more, Baier complained on the air about not being able to secure an interview with Trump, and didn’t get one for nearly a year and a half until he traveled to Singapore. Wallace didn’t land a Trump sitdown for “Fox News Sunday” until last November.

--Baier and Megyn Kelly opened the first GOP debate in 2015 with tough questions aimed at Trump. The New Yorker says three unnamed sources “believe that Ailes informed the Trump campaign about Kelly’s question” in advance. Kelly has said she doesn’t believe that, and Ailes is deceased.

But a Fox executive who was with Ailes the next day said he was furious that he hadn’t been informed of the questions by the journalists doing the debate prep in Cleveland. Also left unmentioned: Trump then went to war with Fox and Kelly and boycotted the network’s next debate.

--The website decided against running a story by Diana Falzone, then a Foxnews.com entertainment reporter, about the alleged affair with Stormy Daniels and a proposed cash settlement. Despite quotes from the executive who then ran the website that the story wasn’t sufficiently corroborated—other outlets in pursuit also declined to publish—the New Yorker quotes an unnamed source as saying Falzone was told the reason was that Murdoch wanted Trump to win.

But the Wall Street Journal—also owned by Murdoch—published a story on Stormy Daniels and Trump days before the election.

--The New Yorker accurately recounts how Ailes was fired as chairman in 2016 after numerous allegations of sexual harassment, and that the ouster came quickly following an outside investigation. That remains an embarrassing episode in the network’s history. But there is only the briefest mention of his successor, Suzanne Scott, the only woman running a major network, and nothing on the workplace reforms she has instituted.

--The magazine quotes Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin, who despises Trump, as saying she would never appear on Fox despite having done so in the past. There is no mention that she is an MSNBC contributor.

--Two Media Matters executives are quoted in the story. The liberal advocacy group has been openly crusading against Fox for years.

--The piece concludes that “Fox has a financial incentive to make Trump look good.” Even if that were true—the audience is not a monolith--one could just as easily argue that CNN and MSNBC (as well as the New York Times, as former executive editor Jill Abramson has said) have a financial incentive to make Trump look bad.

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But there is no mention of the consistently anti-Trump tone on those two networks, whose opinion hosts have repeatedly assailed the president as unhinged, mentally deficient, racist, misogynist and dangerous; that is deemed normal.

Shouldn’t the DNC, by its own standard, consider those voices as well in weighing the fairness of network debates?

The president tweeted after the DNC excluded Fox that “I think I’ll do the same thing with the Fake News Networks and the Radical Left Democrats in the General Election debates!” That was not particularly helpful to Fox News at a time the network is being criticized for excessive coziness with Trump.

Perhaps this was inevitable, as Fox didn’t get a Democratic debate in 2016 either. But the record of Fox’s debate moderators, none of them in the opinion business, makes clear even to critics that any such event would be handled fairly.