As Joe Biden assumes the responsibilities of the presidency, his press operation is already being asked to confront a perennial debate: What, exactly, should it do about Fox News?
The cable news behemoth has vexed prior Democratic administrations, darting between acting as the voice of the opposition and a legitimate news outlet with the nation’s largest audience.
But a series of recent developments—including growing animosity between President Donald Trump and some of the more straight-faced personalities at Fox News—has changed the dynamics of this particular political-media nexus. And it has sparked a renewed argument among Biden allies and White House veterans about how and whether he should engage the network more fully.
For a cadre of top party leaders, the answer is obvious and made all the more apparent by the disappointments Democrats suffered down the ballot this cycle.
“Everyone on our side wonders how 70 million people could have voted for this president with their eyes open,” former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg said in an interview with The Daily Beast. “If they believe these 70 million people are evil, then our country is not going to make it. If, on the other hand, you believe they’re largely working from different information, or so-called information, than the rest of us, then the real problem is not the character of the voters as it is the nature of the information that’s getting to them. Then we have a responsibility to try and change the information they receive.”
Among Democrats weighing in on the topic of Fox News, Buttigieg may have the most directly personal experience. As a presidential candidate, he fashioned a go-everywhere approach to media hits into a case for his own electability. As a Biden surrogate, he was dispatched by campaign headquarters as their primary voice on Fox, precisely because of his preternatural capacity for staying on message in the face of adversarial questioning.
Buttigieg wasn’t Pollyannish about the impact those often viral clips had or about Fox’s editorial underpinnings. He made clear he didn’t think it was wise to go on the evening opinion programs. But he also dismissed the notion that Democrats shouldn’t engage Fox for fear of legitimizing it.
“The train has very much left the station as to whether Fox News will be perceived as legitimate by tens of millions of Americans,” he explained. “That’s over. And it happened without us. The time for starving it of oxygen is long gone.”
And yet, those who have been in the White House press offices in service of a Democratic president aren’t so sure. In a piece passed around in Democratic circles, former Obama spokesman Tommy Vietor implored Biden’s team to not just “sideline” Fox but treat it as an extension of the Republican Party. In a follow-up interview with The Daily Beast, Vietor explained that this didn’t mean never engaging with the network. But “I don’t think Joe Biden should sit down with Bret Baier,” he added, “that’s an insane waste of time.”
“You go in there knowing it is not a news network and that it’s a Republican propaganda channel,” he expanded. “They might play nice in the dayside programming. Chris Wallace might do a decent interview once every few years. But three weeks out from an election, you need to realize it will be wall-to-wall ‘ISIS is coming, the caravan is down the street, and they’re going to kill your family.’”
Vietor’s advice is born from his time in the White House a decade ago, when the Obama administration periodically picked fights with Fox only to soften their stance when criticism came from the other networks. Vietor’s perception of Fox hasn’t practically changed all that much. Nor has that of his former boss. In interviews promoting the release of his new book, Barack Obama frequently lamented the influence of Fox, maintaining that its programming has calcified the partisan deadlock of Congress and deepened political divisions in America.
But the solution that Vietor suggests is more nuanced than just a Fox News blackout. Biden’s press shop, he argued, should use its perch to work with and elevate both progressive and non-traditional media—either by feeding those outlets scoops or creating its own content to push through various social channels.
Others in the trenches had different suggestions.
Angelo Carusone, the president of liberal watchdog Media Matters for America, said that while Democrats should avoid appearing on Fox News for the reasons Vietor outlined, they would be wise to try and neutralize local conservative programming, including by going on Sinclair-run stations.
“Most people watching Sinclair aren’t watching Sinclair because it’s Sinclair,” he said, drawing a distinction to Fox. “They're watching it because it’s their local CBS.”
Rep. Conor Lamb (D-PA), who won a tightly contested race for his second term in office, said that the party needed to find a way to de-nationalize its media strategy. Too much of the conversation, he argued, was being done through the prism of Donald Trump and presidential politics when, in fact, voters often tuned out such talk.
“Something you have to take to your own media appearances is, ‘Am I going to get to talk about my own work, ideas, and district, or will everything be a question connected to Trump?’” he told The Daily Beast. “It’s a tough call, whether you’re going on Fox News or MSNBC, to know if you can get anything out about your own work.”
Biden’s campaign largely tried to adopt the Lamb approach. During the closing months of the election, the candidate went heavy on local news interviews and light on national and cable. The relationship with Fox was tense but not frosty. Biden fielded questions from the network’s embed in addition to sitting down for an interview with Chris Wallace's Sunday news program in March. But there was no follow-up, despite repeated persistence from Fox News staffers, who grew frustrated with Biden's unwillingness to appear on the network.
The network now finds itself in a much more uncertain space. The willingness of its daytime hosts and reporters to implicitly concede Biden’s election has enraged Trump. The president has fumed about Fox’s decision to call Arizona for Biden on Election Night. And his son-in-law Jared Kushner even placed a call to Fox News proprietor Rupert Murdoch to try and reverse it.
The network’s vastly more popular opinion hosts have stood behind the president as he’s attacked the legitimacy of the election and spouted wild theories about voter fraud. But that’s not been enough to calm the waters. Trump has sent out flares that he might start or join a rival network or media company should he leave office. He’s revelled in what he sees as a “ratings crash” for Fox’s daytime programming, and his followers have literally protested at the network’s headquarters.
“It just shows you how far through the looking glass we’ve come if Fox News is too reasonable and moderate for today’s Republican Party,” said Buttigieg.
The frictions have struck some Democrats as a potential opportunity—the type of conditions that could compel Fox to entertain a more nuanced editorial posture. But longtime Fox critics said it would be foolish to suspect that it won’t revert to the same coverage formulas that have historically worked. Even so, they argued that throwing the network a lifeline in the form of bipartisan legitimacy would be a massive strategic blunder given its current predicament.
“Going on the channel right now and flooding the zone, I know [some Democrats] think Trump will be mad at seeing them. But the problem is, it will give opportunities for the host to call them out and beat them up,” said Carusone. “They are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Trump is the rock, for sure. But we are the hard place.”
If an editorial course correction is coming at Fox, it’s not yet readily apparent. Primetime host Tucker Carlson has insisted that network brass wants more of his programming. And his fellow primetime occupants, Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity, have fully touted Trump’s recount efforts, even as the preponderance of evidence shows it to be an abject failure.
Over at the Fox Business Network, Trump’s allies have gone even further. Lou Dobbs, the most watched anchor on the network, has chewed out Trump-friendly guests for not being appropriately proactive about attempting to reverse the results of the election in Trump’s favor. And last week, Maria Bartiromo, one of Trump’s top allies in the financial media world, gave airtime to a bogus voter-fraud conspiracy theory, and continues to promote debunked claims about election integrity regularly on her show.
—Sam Stein is an MSNBC contributor.
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