As we’ve repeatedly noted, Fox News has been one of Donald Trump’s biggest cheerleaders, even as uber boss Rupert Murdoch decried him. So why did Fox target Trump in last night’s debate? I think there’s only one answer: self-interest.
Roger Ailes biographer Gabriel Sherman has some interesting deets on what happened:
It was a breakup days in the making. Over the past week, Ailes and his executives had been strategizing about how to deal with Trump. The prospect that the Donald could hijack the debate presented programming and political perils for both Ailes and his star anchors. What if Trump started insulting his GOP rivals onstage? Or broke the debate rules? During a meeting at Fox late last week, according to a source, senior Fox executives discussed a more worrisome scenario: What would happen if Trump won over the audience and moved the crowd to boo moderators Bret Baier, Megyn Kelly, and Chris Wallace on live television? What if Trump was able to direct his base of supporters to stop watching Fox? To prevent that from happening, Ailes needed a way to keep the audience firmly on the side of his moderators.
Fox’s goal of throwing Trump off his game was crystal clear in the very first question, when moderator Bret Baier asked for a show of hands of those "unwilling tonight to pledge your support to the eventual nominee of the Republican party and pledge to not run an independent campaign against that person?” Of course, Baier knew that Trump has threatened to run as a third-party candidate. Even more striking than the question was how Baier lectured Trump, Republican-to-Republican, after he raised his hand.
BAIER: To be clear, you’re standing on a Republican primary debate stage, the place where the RNC will give the nominee the nod and that experts say an independent run would almost certainly hand the race over to Democrats and likely another Clinton. You can’t say tonight that you can make that pledge?
Megyn Kelly’s soon-to-follow question was nothing less than a gotcha: “Mr. Trump, one of the things people love about you is you speak your mind and you don’t use a politician’s filter. However, that is not without its downsides and in particular, when it comes to women. You’ve called women you don’t like, “fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals.”
These were not rogue questions. They were not just pre-prepared but tweaked in advance as well.
We don’t know whether Fox used the debate to turn on Trump out of business or political considerations – or both. Sherman writes:
It’s unclear what, ultimately, convinced Ailes to let his moderators go after Trump. He may have wanted to shoot first to prevent Trump from damaging Fox in a live situation, as they say in the business. Perhaps Murdoch got to Ailes. Or, perhaps, Ailes just wanted good television. (Fox did not respond to a request for comment.)
Or maybe Ailes decided Trump’s moment was up and it was time for him to get off the stage and let the real contenders get to work.
Media Matters’ Hannah Groch-Begley has another theory, that Fox wanted to use its moment in the spotlight to look like a legitimate journalism outfit, willing to hold its own side’s feet to the fire at a time they knew a lot of people unfamiliar with its illegitimate tactics would be watching. While Kelly’s question for Trump garners exactly the attention she undoubtedly aimed for, how many (other than Media Matters and I) are asking why Kelly waited until then? Fox gave Trump nearly five hours of airtime in the last three months, including time on on The Kelly File. Yet nobody thought it important to ask about his misogyny until last night?
Whatever motivated Fox's turnaround at the debate, it was almost surely not principled journalism.
[Crossposted from Newshounds.us]