South Bend, IN, Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s performance at a Fox News town hall garnered rave reviews Sunday night from journalists and pundits, with some arguing that his successful turn proved that Democratic presidential candidates should be making on-air appeals to the network’s viewers.
“This is exactly why Dems' refusal to debate on FOX is so self-defeating,” argued political analyst Jeff Greenfield. “Well-prepared candidates would have chapter and verse to offer, and on a live debate or town hall there's no way for FOX to block or distort their points.”
What pundits who offer opinions like these are really demonstrating is that they do not understand what Fox is and how it operates. Appearing on the network did give Buttigieg the opportunity to speak directly to its audience. But the town hall does not exists in a vacuum; Fox is a right-wing propaganda machine that constantly pushes disinformation in order to damage progressives and help conservatives. And within hours -- after the commentariat had stopped watching Fox -- the network began smearing Buttigieg in an effort that will likely minimize any gains he might have made with its viewers.
Fox & Friends, the Fox morning show beloved by President Donald Trump, devoted significant time on Monday to undermining Buttigieg’s presentation. Buttigieg is a veteran of the war in Afghanistan; co-host Brian Kilmeade presented him as trying to undermine American patriotism, calling him a “clown” who wants to “erase our country’s history” for arguing that the Democratic Party’s Jefferson-Jackson dinners should be renamed for people who didn’t own slaves. The candidate received a warm response from the town hall attendees; Kilmeade bizarrely claimed the crowd was enthusiastic only because it was stacked with his friends and relatives. Buttigieg is a gifted communicator; the program sliced and diced his town hall answers into a clip reel of disjointed quotes which the co-hosts warned prove he is a “very progressive” radical. “He had some interesting comments last night, sounds like a nice guy, but do you agree with his policies?” co-host Ainsley Earhardt said at one point before rattling off a misinformation-laden litany of Buttigieg’s purported positions.
This onslaught will almost certainly continue throughout the day and into the night, when the network’s stars perform for an audience that will surely be much greater than Buttigieg’s. (UPDATE 5/21: Indeed, on their Monday evening programs, Tucker Carlson described Buttigieg as a “slippery demagogue,” Sean Hannity introduced a clip from the town hall by telling his audience to “take a look at this stupid proposal,” and Laura Ingraham mocked Buttigieg’s Christian faith.) That was also the trajectory Fox’s coverage tracked after Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) partnered with the network for a town hall recently.
No matter how persuasive the candidates might be, they can’t reverse years of propaganda in a single evening. Fox’s programming is extremely effective, and the network has spent decades priming its audience to hate Democrats. To the extent that regular Fox viewers were tuning in to Buttigieg’s town hall, he had an opportunity to speak to them. But now that he’s no longer on their airwaves, Fox’s hosts, who have a much more extensive and durable relationship with their audience, get to rebut everything he said for hours on end. This suggests that any support Buttigieg gained from Fox’s viewers during the town hall will be ephemeral at best.
Fox, on the other hand, reaped dramatic benefits from Democratic participation in its town halls. Because of both the network’s role as a malevolent force that shills for the president and the volatility and bigotry of its stars, Fox entered the spring in a state of crisis as advertisers fled the network for safer harbors. But these town halls allow the network to rebrand itself and thus make the case to advertisers that it is safe to return.
As Fox faced disaster, Democratic presidential candidates bailed it out. And now the network will pay them back by doing whatever it can to undermine their message and ensure their defeat.