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Why the DNC isn’t letting Fox News host a 2020 debate

Democrats are pinning this on a New Yorker article, but there’s probably a lot more to it.

Donald Trump walks behind Marco Rubio during a Republican primary debate hosted by Fox News in 2016.
Donald Trump walks behind Marco Rubio during a Republican primary debate hosted by Fox News in 2016.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Emily Stewart covered business and economics for Vox and wrote the newsletter The Big Squeeze, examining the ways ordinary people are being squeezed under capitalism. Before joining Vox, she worked for TheStreet.

The Democratic National Committee will hold 12 debates during the 2020 presidential primary. None will be hosted by Fox News due to concerns over the network’s tight relationship with President Donald Trump.

DNC Chair Tom Perez announced on Wednesday that Democrats won’t partner with Fox News for any debate during the primary. He cited concerns over a blockbuster story from the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer published on Monday detailing the close ties between Fox News and the White House.

“I believe that a key pathway to victory is to continue to expand our electorate and reach all voters,” Perez said in a statement. “That is why I have made it a priority to talk to a broad array of potential media partners, including Fox News. 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. Therefore, Fox News will not serve as a media partner for the 2020 Democratic primary debates.”

Fox News urged the DNC to reconsider the decision. In a statement, Fox News senior vice president Bill Sammon said the network’s debate team of journalists Chris Wallace, Bret Baier, and Martha MacCallum embody the “ultimate journalistic integrity and professionalism.” He warned that Democrats are missing out on “an important opportunity to make their case to the largest TV news audience in America.”

That the Democrats aren’t falling over themselves to debate on Fox News is not a surprise. The network has a clear conservative bias, and much of its airtime is spent criticizing Democrats and pushing pro-Republican (and pro-Trump) talking points. The journalists Fox News would have picked to host the debates may have indeed been fair, but even so, the DNC may not want to boost the ratings of a channel that spends so much time working against it.

The DNC is pinning this on the New Yorker article, but there’s probably a lot more to it

Perez specifically cited Mayer’s New Yorker article as the reason for the DNC not partnering with Fox News this debate season.

And it’s true that the picture it paints of a symbiotic relationship between Fox News and Trump is not one Democrats are comfortable with. Mayer reports that ahead of the 2016 election, Fox News had the chance to publish a story about Trump’s alleged affair with Stormy Daniels but didn’t in order to protect Trump. (Fox News when the report of the axed Daniels story first came out in 2018 said during due diligence it couldn’t verify all of the facts of the story and that an editor made the decision, not the higher-ups.) Mayer’s story outlines how Fox News pundits influence Trump and vice versa, and paints Fox News as a propaganda machine for Trump.

Of course, most people didn’t need the New Yorker article to be well aware of Fox News’s pro-GOP bias. The network has for years positioned itself as a microphone for conservative talking points and has hired right-leaning commentators and hosts to fill its airwaves. It obsessively covers issues such as the migrant caravan and Hillary Clinton’s emails, and hosts and guests stoke fears about immigrants and terrorists. And it downplays coverage that is less favorable to Trump and Republicans, such as the Russia investigation and special counsel Robert Mueller.

Research shows Fox News is highly influential. As Vox’s Matt Yglesias outlined this week, watching Fox News “translates into a significantly greater willingness to vote for Republican candidates,” and it makes a big difference in elections:

If Fox News hadn’t existed, the Republican presidential candidate’s share of the two-party vote would have been 3.59 points lower in 2004 and 6.34 points lower in 2008. Without Fox, in other words, the GOP’s only popular vote win since the 1980s would have been reversed and the 2008 election would have been an extinction-level landslide.

Sammon, the Fox News vice president, said the network’s audience includes “many persuadable voters.” But most of those voters have already been persuaded — toward Republicans.

The DNC’s decision isn’t going over particularly well

The DNC’s decision not to partner with Fox News for the 2020 primaries has sparked a swift reaction.

Baier, who presumably would have been one of the debate hosts, tweeted that the decision was a “shame.” Wallace, who hosted a general election debate in 2016, said Democrats were suffering from “Fox Derangement Syndrome.”

President Trump weighed in as well, tweeting that he would “do the same thing with the Fake News Networks and the Radical Left Democrats in General Election Debates.”

As the Washington Post’s Paul Fahri notes, getting the exclusive rights to candidate debates is a big deal in the television business; debates get big audiences and can help networks promote other programming. The first Republican debate in the 2016 cycle garnered 24 million viewers. (That’s the one where Megyn Kelly famously asked Trump about his past characterization of women as “pigs” and “slobs.”)

So far this cycle, the DNC has reached deals for only its first two debates with NBC and CNN.

That Fox News isn’t getting a Democratic primary debate isn’t exactly anomalous. The network didn’t host any Democratic primary debates in the 2016 elections, though it did host town hall meetings with Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. It was a debate host during the 2008 Democratic primary.

Some Democrats applauded Perez’s decision on the 2020 debates. Former presidential candidate and Vermont Gov. Howard Dean said Fox News is a “propaganda outlet” and congratulated Perez on the move. Former Obama national security spokesperson and Pod Save America host Tommy Vietor tweeted that given Fox News’s business choices, this shouldn’t be surprising.

It’s not clear how the decision will eventually play out — or whether it will really matter.

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