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Horowitz: Democrats Shouldn’t Duck Debating on Fox

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

 

Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez’s decision to exclude Fox News from televising any of the planned 12 Democratic Presidential Primary candidate debates is ill-advised and should be reconsidered.

Perez pointed to a recent New Yorker article by Jane Mayer detailing the cozy and journalistically questionable relationship between the top-rated cable news network and the Trump Administration as the reason for his decision. Perez called the relationship “inappropriate,” saying, as a result, Fox News “is not in a position to host a fair and neutral debate for our candidates.”

It is the case that the symbiotic relationship between Trump and the Fox News’ evening and morning opinion hosts, led by Sean Hannity, who could easily re-name his show “The Trump Hour of Power” is unprecedented even for this new era of partisan media, far exceeding the network’s solid support for the previous Republican President George W. Bush.  It is also true that the straight news coverage mainly tilts pro-Trump.

Fox has proven itself capable of hosting fair and well-done debates, however as evidenced by the 2016 general election debate between Trump and Clinton in which Fox moderator Chris Wallace received high marks across the ideological spectrum. The announced 2020 debate team of Wallace, Brett Baier, and Martha MacCallum is a high-quality one. Taken together, these news anchors have a well-earned reputation for being tough, but fair.  You can also bet that if anything, given all the negative recent publicity Fox has received because of its cheerleading for Trump, this trio would bend over backwards to not appear to be doing the president’s bidding.

For the Democratic presidential candidates and for the party itself, debating on Fox is not only low risk; it offers the promise of significant rewards.  While in today’s niche and partisan media, most viewers select the cable news that reinforces their existing views with the overwhelming majority of Fox viewers supporting Donald Trump and a similar overwhelming majority of MSNBC viewers opposing him, there is a sufficient slice of the Fox audience who are more centrist and are open to persuasion.  “Additionally, Fox is substantially better at influencing Democrats than MSNBC is at influencing Republicans,” according to a study conducted by Emory University Political Science Professor Gregory J. Martin and Stanford Economist Ali Yurukoglu, published in 2017 in the American Economics Review.

A presidential primary debate is a major opportunity to reach the Fox audience. Ducking it is a mistake. But Democrats also need to be willing to get out of their comfort zones and seize additional opportunities to go on Fox News on a regular basis. Rhode Island’s own Representative David Cicilline is one of the few elected officials who recognize the advantages of doing so, appearing often on Fox News.   He acquits himself well, more than holding his own with Tucker Carlson, one of the most hostile and combative Fox hosts, among others

The Fox News audience is too large to ignore.  The Democratic party should follow Cicilline’s example and fully engage Fox News, beginning with reversing the decision to exclude Fox from the primary debates.

 

Rob Horowitz is a strategic and communications consultant who provides general consulting, public relations, direct mail services and polling for national and state issue organizations, various non-profits and elected officials and candidates. He is an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the University of Rhode Island.

 

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