The right-leaning network with deep ties to the Trump administration hasn’t hosted a Democratic primary debate in over a decade. But that may change this year.
During a brief interview in late January, Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez spoke with Fox anchor Bret Baier about the upcoming 2020 presidential election. In response to a question posed by Baier about whether Fox News could possibly host one of the many debates set to take place between 2019 and 2020, Perez said, “Absolutely, we’re having discussions with Fox and others.”
The comment was not universally well received. Democratic groups and politicians have long taken issue with the rightward bend of Fox News’ coverage, particularly in its primetime hours. And DNC staffers have not forgotten the role the network played in spreading a debunked conspiracy theory about the 2016 murder of former DNC staffer Seth Rich, who police say was killed in a botched robbery. In early 2018, Rich’s parents sued Fox News for a retracted story that said investigators had evidence showing Rich was tied to the leaking of DNC emails to WikiLeaks.
Over a week ago, the founder of the progressive website Daily Kos, Markos Moulitsas, delivered a petition to the DNC with over 100,000 signatures, calling on the committee to reject Fox News as a possible host for a Democratic debate. And he reserved blame for one person in particular.
“The DNC is giving Fox News and the conservative movement a giant credibility boost by even considering granting them a debate,” he told The Daily Beast. “At a time when activists have worked so hard to convince advertisers to abandon that den of racism, bigotry and misogyny, here comes Tom Perez like a jackass undermining all that work.”
“And it’s all Tom Perez,” Moulitsas continued. “I haven’t found any campaign that wants to be on Fox News, I haven’t found any party committee member that thinks it’s a good idea. This is his stubborn, boneheaded, insulting punch to the face of liberals fighting the good fight against Trump’s propaganda arm.”
The DNC confirmed to The Daily Beast that it had received the petition but indicated that its position had not changed on casting a wide net for possible debate hosts. It had previously announced that NBC News, MSNBC, and Telemundo would host the first debate in June and the second would air on CNN in July.
“CEO Seema Nanda received the petition and thanked the activists,” Xochitl Hinojosa, DNC communications director, told The Daily Beast. “We are talking to cable and broadcast networks, as well as a whole host of outlets, including digital outlets. A number of media outlets have submitted proposals, and we're reviewing these proposals.”
The DNC’s willingness to engage Fox News as a potential host and the backlash it has received reflects a broader strategic disagreement that has broken out within the party. Some officials have maintained that if Democrats shun the network entirely, they will have no means of providing a counterweight to their largely negative portrayals. Others believe that giving time to Fox News is a waste and grants legitimacy to a network operating ostensibly as an arm of the Republican presidency.
“Fox News is not a news operation, it functions as an extension of Trump's political operation,” Media Matters president Angelo Carusone said. “So, unless the DNC is willing to say they would also be comfortable partnering with Trump's campaign to host a primary debate, it doesn't make sense to partner with Fox News.”
In response, a Fox News spokesperson said it “dismisses Media Matters as a left-wing activist political operatives operating as a 501C3.”
Bill Sammon, the Washington editor for Fox News, said in an interview with The Washington Post that the network had submitted a detailed proposal to the DNC about why it should host a debate. “One thing we offer is recent experience with a large field of candidates,” Sammon said, referring to the large Republican primary field in 2016. “We've been through all of the logistical challenges that come with unwieldy group of diverse candidates, because we did it in 2016.”
Fox News insisted that The Daily Beast disclose that Sam Stein, a contributing reporter to this item, is an MSNBC contributor. In response, Stein confirmed as much, adding: “Somehow, I was able to both collect a single quote for this story and appear occasionally on MSNBC during the course of a week, without one affecting the other; because, you see, they have nothing to do with each other.”
Many Democratic campaigns have been caught in a difficult spot with Fox News prior to this fracas.
While there is skepticism over candidates appearing on the network, some presidential aspirants, along with members of Congress and strategists, have made a more concerted effort to try and make appearances. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) appeared on Fox News on Monday. And after declaring her candidacy earlier this month, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) told Fox News anchor Bret Baier she loved him, and had appeared on his show to argue that Democrats need to go where it’s “uncomfortable.”
Past Democratic campaigns say they have data that shows Fox has a large audience of voters who could potentially vote Democratic. One source told The Daily Beast that the Hillary Clinton campaign’s internal survey research showed that Bill O’Reilly’s since-ended 8 p.m. Fox News show had more persuadable voters than any other program in cable news. During the 2016 election, Emily’s List dispatched surrogates to early morning Fox News television shows because the organization found that was when persuadable single female voters often tuned in to the network.
Faced with the prospect of participating in a debate hosted on Fox News, 2020 Democratic candidates have remained largely mum, with most declining or not even returning requests for comment to The Daily Beast. The only campaign that affirmatively indicated it would be happy to join was that of Rep. John Delaney (D-MD).
“The core message of our campaign is one of unity and bipartisanship,” Michael Starr Hopkins, national press secretary for the campaign, told The Daily Beast. “Congressman Delaney intends to engage with viewers of every cable news network, including Fox News.”
If the DNC does ultimately plan a debate on Fox, it’s not entirely certain that such a debate will end up actually happening. In 2007, a Fox-sponsored debate in Nevada was called off after pressure from sites like MoveOn.org and Daily Kos. At issue was a remark made by then-Fox News chairman Roger Ailes in which he reportedly conflated the name of then-candidate Barack Obama with Osama bin Laden.
MoveOn.org, which currently has no petitions on whether Democrats should host a 2020 primary debate on Fox News, declined to comment.
—Sam Stein contributed reporting