With the Democratic Party’s political standing in decline and the midterm elections approaching, some are urging Democrats to appear more frequently on Fox News.
A party strategist argues that such interviews would disrupt the party’s negative “caricature” among swing voters; some journalists and political scientists point to a recent study showing Fox’s audience can be moved to suggest Democrats should go on the network to reach them; and a Democratic representative says he uses such interviews to bolster his understanding of conservative counterarguments.
These arguments don’t hold up to scrutiny. While the stated goals of the go-on-Fox proponents are laudable, their strategy offers little upside and substantial downside. In fact, following their advice would strengthen a key Republican Party asset at a time when it is unusually vulnerable.
Fox is a GOP propaganda outlet, a cornerstone of the modern conservative movement, and a megaphone for the right’s most malevolent and extreme messages. The network’s biggest stars regularly promote unhinged conspiracy theories about the Democratic Party and vilify its key constituencies, including but not limited to Black, Asian, and LGBTQ people, women, college students, unions, and immigrants.
Over the last 18 months, Fox has laid the groundwork for the January 6 insurrection by undermining the validity of the 2020 election, branded itself as the “loyal opposition” to President Joe Biden, and successfully discouraged its viewers from getting vaccinated against COVID-19. It is currently force-feeding its viewers the knockoff QAnon message that Democrats and teachers support pedophilia and are “grooming” their children.
Fox has much to gain from regular appearances by Democrats. Its business model relies on attracting viewers with this brand of right-wing extremism, then monetizing that audience through advertisements and cable fees. That means Fox executives must convince business partners that Fox is a cable news network like any other, rather than a uniquely volatile and partisan outlet. One way they do this is by trying to book Democratic politicians, who provide bipartisan cover.
Several Democratic presidential candidates helped the network out during the 2020 primary campaign by doing Fox interviews or a town hall, and Fox even tried to convince the Democratic National Committee to sponsor a debate on its airwaves.
This plan was foiled by the network’s ongoing improprieties and the defeats of the candidates who went on Fox. Jane Mayer’s reporting for The New Yorker on the network’s effective merger with then-President Donald Trump’s White House caused the DNC to reject the idea of a Fox debate. And Biden ultimately won both the Democratic nomination and the general election without ever appearing on the network.
The resurgence of calls for Democrats to go on Fox comes at a precarious time for the network. Fox has only grown less credible since the 2020 campaign – it cut back its “news” hours, purged its “news” staff, promoted hosts who parrot white nationalist talking points, and saw network veterans leave and publicly decry its slanted programming. Against that backdrop, the network will try to sell the bulk of its ads for the next year at its upfronts presentation in mid-May. And a series of carrier contracts between Fox and TV networks, which pay much larger subscription fees to Fox than its competitors, expire over the next year and need to be renewed.
Why would Democrats want to throw Fox a lifeline? Aiding a piece of Republican infrastructure on par with the Heritage Foundation or the Federalist Society could make sense if Democrats stood to gain from it. But as I noted in 2019, the benefit for Democrats going on Fox is quite limited: Politicians are sacrificing their limited time to try to reach viewers as they are consuming the network’s extremely effective propaganda. Most of the viewers are Republican partisans who can’t be reached, and to the extent that there are swingable voters watching Fox, it would be easier to reach those individuals through less oppositional venues.
If Democratic politicians want to spend their valuable time rebutting the right-wing talking points of Fox hosts, that’s their right. They are professional communicators and should be able to handle whatever the network’s personalities can throw at them. But they shouldn’t expect those appearances to produce meaningful political gains, and there are real strategic costs to carrying out that strategy. Below I look at each of the recent arguments for going on Fox and the reasons they ultimately fail to convince.
Go on Fox to “break through the caricature”?
Lis Smith, a Democratic communications consultant best known for her role on Pete Buttigieg’s 2020 presidential campaign, said during a recent podcast interview that Democrats could “break through the caricature that some of the audience has” of the party by appearing on Fox.
“There still is a persuadable audience on there,” she told The Bulwark’s Charlie Sykes. She added that Democrats could use Fox appearances to show voters that they want to “bring down the temperature” and to demonstrate that they respect the network’s viewers.
Smith acknowledged that it would be a bad idea to go on the prime-time shows of Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham, but she put in a plug for the network’s daytime shows, including Fox & Friends.
Smith cited Buttigieg as an example of this strategy’s success. I agree that Buttigieg’s Fox appearances aided his presidential run, but I think it did so in a way that isn’t really replicable for most candidates and has little to do with the network’s audience.
Buttigieg’s primary campaign argued that he would be a strong nominee because he could appeal to Republicans – but there’s little evidence he actually won those partisans over. As part of that campaign strategy, he gave Fox a handful of interviews and participated in two network town halls. But despite this outreach, Buttigieg garnered less support from Republicans in head-to-head polls against Trump than other Democrats did – including Biden, who avoided the network during the primary campaign.
The Fox audience Smith claims is “persuadable” wasn’t actually persuaded by Buttigieg because most of Fox's audience is actually extremely right-wing. Among Americans who say Fox is their main news source, 93% identify as Republicans, according to Pew Research Center polling. Pew’s American News Pathways project, which examined the 2020 presidential election cycle, also finds that self-identified Fox viewers are more conservative than self-identified Republicans on a variety of issues. They are more supportive of Trump (71% to 53% “very warm”), more critical of Pelosi (85% to 71% “very cold”), more likely to falsely believe Biden called for defunding the police (59% to 45%), more likely to be confident in Trump did a good job responding to the pandemic (90% to 82%), more likely to oppose Black Lives Matter (69% to 57%), and more likely to say voter fraud has been a problem with voting by mail (82% to 74%).
To the extent that the “persuadable” Fox audience exists, it is small and difficult to reach through the network itself. Fox appearances do offer Democrats the opportunity to speak directly to the network’s viewers. But once they’re off the air, Fox’s hosts, who have a much more extensive and durable relationship with that audience, get to rebut everything they’ve said for hours on end. That’s what happened immediately after each of Buttigieg’s Fox town halls – the rest of the network went to work using clips of his appearances to smear him to their viewers. The same thing happened after Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) Fox town hall. It is the height of hubris for a Democrat to think that they can break through years of network brainwashing with a few minutes on Fox.
Buttigieg’s Fox appearances were nonetheless good for his political standing because they appealed to an audience completely different from the network’s regular viewers. When he started his presidential run, Buttigieg was an obscure 38-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana, whose main asset was his skill as a communicator. He garnered attention and then legitimacy and donations through a “press-friendly strategy” of being extremely available for interviews. His Fox strategy was very much part of that effort – Buttigieg’s appearances during the primary and his surrogate turns on the network after he dropped out and endorsed Biden drew lots of favorable press attention and regularly went viral on social media due to what CNN called “his ability to cut through the fog of Trump boosters on the network.”
That’s probably the best-case scenario for Democrats going on Fox – if you are a political unknown but a great communicator, you can use Fox appearances to get the attention of Democratic donors, use that cash infusion to keep your campaign running, then parlay endorsing the poll leader at a crucial time into an eventual cabinet seat. That’s a great result for Buttigieg, but it has nothing to do with “break[ing] through the caricature” to win over Fox viewers, and there’s little reason to expect the strategy to work more broadly.
Go on Fox to “meet viewers where they are”?
A new preprint study that shed light on Fox’s influence on its viewers has drawn attention from a host of media outlets. The authors, David Broockman at the University of California, Berkeley, and Joshua Kalla at Yale University, paid regular Fox prime-time viewers to switch to CNN for one month, then measured their views and understandings of news events against a control group of Fox viewers. They report “manifold effects of changing the slant of their media diets on [participants’] factual beliefs, attitudes, perceptions of issues’ importance, and overall political views,” as well as increased understanding from viewers who made the switch that “Fox concealed negative information about President Trump.”
Those results have triggered additional calls for Democrats to go on Fox. Bloomberg’s Matt Yglesias wrote that the study demonstrates that “nobody is impossible to reach” and that rather than stigmatize “engagement with right-wing media,” Democrats should take “any opportunity to present new facts to people, and new arguments.” The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple likewise concluded that the “realistic upshot” of the study “is that Democratic politicians should consider seeking face time on Fox News.” One of the study’s authors, Yale University’s Kalla, agreed, telling Wemple that Fox viewers “live in a bubble where they’re not exposed to liberal accomplishments” and Democrats “need to meet viewers where they are.”
The study’s results are certainly interesting, and more research on this subject would be useful. But I think the idea that the results suggest Democrats should make more Fox appearances is overblown.
Yglesias writes of the study’s findings:
[Viewers who switched from Fox to CNN] were five percentage points more likely to believe that people suffer from long Covid, for example, and six points more likely to believe that many foreign countries did a better job than the U.S. of controlling the virus. They were seven points more likely to support voting by mail. And they were 10 points less likely to believe that supporters of then-candidate Joe Biden were happy when police officers get shot, 11 points less likely to say it’s more important for the president to focus on containing violent protesters than on the coronavirus, and 13 points less likely to agree that if Biden were elected, “we’ll see many more police get shot by Black Lives Matter activists.”
It is good for people to believe things that are true rather than things that are false, and shifts like these are meaningful on the margins. But the key question for Democrats is whether regular Fox viewers who are exposed to this factual information become more supportive of the party. The study, while limited, suggests that they do not. The authors do report that “the treatment caused individuals to become more negative in their evaluations towards Donald Trump and Republican politicians,” with about a three-point decrease in Trump’s thermometer rating, from 85.6 in the control group to 81.5 in the treatment group of viewers who switched to Fox. But the authors find “no significant increase in evaluations towards Biden or shifts in partisan identification.”
Moreover, the meaningful but relatively small shifts detailed in the study are the result of replacing hours of Fox programming with hours of different programming. That is a much larger scale of change in content than anything that could plausibly be achieved by adding to Fox occasional segments with Democrats who contradict the network’s propaganda. To measure that effect, you’d want to conduct an experiment that compared a control group of Fox regular viewers with a treatment group whose members watched coverage in which any interviews with Democrats had been excised.
The study also finds that regular Fox viewers prefer the propaganda. Two months after the end of the period in which they paid Fox viewers to watch CNN instead, they surveyed the treatment group and found “little sign of long-run changes in Fox News viewership.” They learned from their exposure to CNN that Fox was hiding the truth from them, but they went right back to the network anyway.
Go on Fox for the “intellectual challenge”?
Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) “likes going on Fox” as “a sport,” according to an April profile in Politico Magazine. He also reportedly feels that he is getting something out of those appearances, and suggests that other Democrats follow his example.
“If you are a Democrat and not going on these shows,” Khanna told the publication, “then you’re not getting intellectually challenged. You’re not hearing the counter-argument. You’re not seeing the blind spots to your point of view.”
Khanna is a somewhat regular presence on Fox, with 60 appearances on its weekday programs since September 2018, mostly on “news side” programs, according to the Media Matters database. Politico Magazine reports that “some activists on the left criticize him” for those appearances, and indeed, Khanna drew a backlash following a December 2020 interview with Ingraham and has not returned to that program since. He did, however, provide Fox a nifty testimonial video to celebrate its 25th anniversary in October 2021:
I guess it’s nice that Khanna is having a good time. But there are certainly ways members of Congress can hear counterarguments without providing cover for the opposing party’s propaganda outlet. They could watch Fox or consume other conservative media outlets themselves or have a communications aide do it and provide summaries, they could listen to their Republican colleagues who largely parrot its talking points, or they could hold town meetings in their districts to hear from conservative constituents, among other options.
Khanna also seems to misapprehend the impact of his interviews. His Politico Magazine profile closes with the following anecdote:
In the rotunda on Friday, when the interview with “America Reports” ends, Khanna doesn’t move from his spot in front of the camera. His head is down, his earpiece still tucked in.
He’s listening to the hosts talk about him.
"They were commenting on what I was saying,” he explains.
"They said I was right about something.”
The write-up suggests that Khanna was so effective on Fox that he cut through the network’s lies and forced the anchors to admit he was correct. What actually happened is that the anchors acknowledged a specific thing he said about oil companies was accurate – while contextualizing the statement as a dishonest Democratic talking point, and then pivoting to an attack on oil industry regulation and Biden.
This isn’t an example of a Democratic guest breaking through Fox’s GOP propaganda, it’s an example of how Fox’s GOP propaganda acts to prevent Democratic guests from breaking through.