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How Fox News Seized Control Of The Republican Primary Process

Hosting the first debate of the 2016 presidential cycle -- and limiting the participants based on national polling -- has solidified Fox News' role as the Republican Party's gatekeeper. Here is Media Matters' comprehensive report on the money, airtime, and backlash behind the debate process media observers have called a “sham.”


    Fox News Hosting First Republican Primary Debate, Capping Participants At 10

    Debate Rules Prompt Backlash From Candidates And Activists: The Network Is Supplanting The Traditional Primary Process

    Candidates Lobby Network Behind The Scenes, Buy Fox News Ad Time In Hopes Of Qualifying

    Candidates Make Hundreds Of Appearances On Fox

    Four GOP Presidential Candidates Have Worked For Fox News

    Candidates Compete To Win Favor Of Ailes And Murdoch

    Media Observers: “This Whole Thing Is A Sham”

    Fox News Hosting First Republican Primary Debate, Capping Participants At 10

    Fox News Limits Debate To 10 Participants. Fox announced in May that its August 6 debate -- the first of the presidential cycle -- will “require contenders to place in the top 10 in an average of the five most recent national polls in the run-up to the event.” [The Washington Post, 5/20/15]

    Network Brands Debate The “Cleveland Primary.” Several Fox figures have suggested that these new rules made the fight to qualify for the debate the first true primary of the cycle, supplanting Iowa and New Hampshire's official primaries. According to Fox News host Howard Kurtz, the rules would “help winnow the field,” and “well before anyone makes it to Iowa, the Republican candidates will have to clear the bar for Fox's Cleveland primary.” [Media Matters, 6/9/15

    Vagueness Of Rules Reportedly “Generating Controversy” Inside The Network. According to a report from Roger Ailes biographer Gabriel Sherman, the “debate is generating controversy among Ailes's senior ranks”:

    Inside Fox, the debate is generating controversy among Ailes's senior ranks. “There's total confusion about all of it. The Second Floor is making it up as they go along,” one Fox personality told me, referring to Ailes's executive suite. According to sources, Fox executives are still undecided about which polls to use and who will be allowed on the stage. This week, for example, Fox amended an earlier rule that a candidate had to be polling above one percent to participate after it became clear that Lindsey Graham, Carly Fiorina, and George Pataki wouldn't even make the 5 p.m. event. There's also unease among some that Trump will likely get a starring role. “The problem is he'll act like it's his show,” another Fox personality told me. [New York, 7/30/15]

    Anonymous Fox Personality: “Crazy Stuff” To Have “A TV Executive Deciding Who Is In -- And Out -- Of A Debate.” Sherman also reported of the debate:

    Even inside Fox, some are awed that a presidential race is being influenced by a television channel. “Crazy stuff,” another personality told me, “you have a TV executive deciding who is in -- and out -- of a debate!” [New York7/30/15]

    Debate Rules Prompt Backlash From Candidates And Activists: The Network Is Supplanting The Traditional Primary Process 

    Graham During Fox News Appearance: The “Dumb” Debate Rules Are “Destroying The Early Primary Process.” During an appearance on Fox News, presidential candidate Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) strongly criticized the debate criteria. The Washington Examiner reported:

    “I think this is a dumb way to weed out the field,” the South Carolina senator said Friday on Fox. “I don't mind weeding out the field over time but a national poll tests celebrity. Big states have an advantage versus small states. People who've run before have an advantage over those who haven't. It's July, for god sakes. So, a national poll is a lousy way in my view to determine who should be on the stage and quite frankly I resent it.”

    Graham, also faulting the Republican National Committee, which is sanctioning the debates, said the current debate format rewards higher name recognition and diminishes the importance of early primary states New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina.

    “It's all about money,” he said. “And what you're going to reward over time is the people with the most money and your'e destroying the early primary process and I think that's bad for the Republican Party.” [Washington Examiner, 7/10/15]

    Graham Campaign Launched Petition Drive To Change Rules, Complained Fox And RNC Were Supplanting Early Voting States. In a July email calling on supporters to sign a petition objecting to the debate rules, Graham's campaign manager wrote, “Republican primary voters across the country deserve to hear from all the candidates, not just the ones network executives pick to be on stage.” [Graham campaign email, 7/17/15, via Media Matters]

    Santorum: Debate Rules Are “Arbitrary” And "Not Legitimate." In an interview with National Journal, candidate Rick Santorum, a former Fox News contributor, objected to the debate criteria:

    “I'm probably the best person to comment on this. In January of 2012 I was at 4 percent in the national polls, and I won the Iowa caucuses. I don't know if I was last in the polls, but I was pretty close to last,” Santorum said. “And so the idea that a national poll has any relationship to the viability of a candidate--ask Rudy Giuliani that. Ask Phil Gramm that. You can go on down the list of folks who were doing real well in national polls and didn't win a single state and were not a viable candidate.” 


    “If you're a United States senator, if you're a governor, if you're a woman who ran a Fortune 500 company, and you're running a legitimate campaign for president, then you should have a right to be on stage with everybody else,” Santorum said. “So the idea that we're going to arbitrarily--and it's arbitrary, someone at 1.15 is in, someone at 1.14 is out--that to me is not a rational way.”

    Santorum, who started the 2012 race a rounding-error away from zero in the polls to finish as the runner-up to Mitt Romney for the GOP nomination, was particularly upset about the network's decision to use national polls, “which is not legitimate, in my opinion, to determine viability of a candidate,” he said.

    “It's like saying 'Is it hot outside? Well, let's go inside and measure temperatures.' That has nothing to do with how hot it is outside,” he said. You have to go to the place where the temperature matters, and it matters in the early primary states. "


    “I'm hopeful that people will listen to the comments--I mean, I'm sure they put this out there to get comments,” he said. “And I'm not criticizing or condemning them. I'm really not. Hopefully they put it out there and they're going to listen to what the comments are, and factor those in, and determine what is the right way.” [National Journal, 5/21/15]

    Ben Carson: “None Of These Men And Women Deserves This Exclusion.” Presidential candidate and former Fox News contributor Carson wrote a letter calling for the debate rules to be changed to allow all candidates to appear on-stage:

    “I am very worried that out of broadcasting convenience our party is about to exclude voices from our debate programs that are critical to making our party bigger, better, and bolder,” he wrote in a letter released Friday.

    “The rules may be good for me personally, but they are not good for the process.”

    Carson's message comes days after Fox News and CNN announced restrictions on who will appear at their debates.


    Carson praised the large field and noted it includes more candidates than a “typical debate format can handle.” But he called on the party to come up with a format that would be inclusive.

    “This type of rule has been used to keep 'fringe' candidates off the stage,” he wrote.

    “None of these men and women deserves this exclusion.” [The Hill, 5/22/15]

    Jindal Campaign Consultant: “The Plan To Limit The Participants In These Debates Is Ridiculous.” Curt Anderson, a consultant for Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal's campaign, ripped the debate rules in a column for The Wall Street Journal:

    The plan to limit the participants in these debates is ridiculous in almost every respect:

    • National polling would be a decent way to measure candidates' support in a national primary. But we don't have a national primary. We have a series of elections by state over an extended period, so this measurement has nothing to do with the reality. Other than that, it's just fine.

    • The policy favors retread candidates and political dynasties based solely on name identification. If your brother or father ran, you get rewarded. If you ran before, you get rewarded. But if you are a new face, you are penalized.

    • The move also benefits personalities and circus acts. If you have a TV show, you will easily have enough name recognition to get into the debates. Doesn't matter if you'd make a plausible president of the United States. It is a certainty that under this approach if Tom Brady or Jimmy Fallon announced this week that they were running, they'd make the cut. A certainty.

    • Other beneficiaries: camera hounds from the political class who live in the Washington and New York media capitals. If you're a senator or congressman, you can get yourself on cable news four times a week. Or if you're the governor of New Jersey, you can schlep across the bridge, traffic permitting, and do a bunch of national TV shows.

    • The RNC's approach circumvents the political process. In the past two elections, the winners of the Iowa caucuses, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, were nowhere to be found in national polling the summer before. The same would be true for two little-known governors of Georgia and Arkansas, both of whom went on to call 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. their home. [The Wall Street Journal, 7/22/15]

    Candidates Lobby Network Behind The Scenes, Buy Fox News Ad Time In Hopes Of Qualifying

    Candidate Advisers Reportedly Lobbied Fox Executives To Choose Polls Favorable To Their Candidates. Sherman reported that advisers to Ohio Governor John Kasich and former Texas Governor Rick Perry have “taken to lobbying Ailes and Fox executives to use polls that put their guy over the line.” [New York7/30/15]  

    Candidates And Super PACs Spent Millions On Fox News Advertising To Bolster Standing Ahead Of Debate. A super PAC supporting Marco Rubio has purchased more than $3 million in Fox News ad time ahead of the debate. Chris Christie's campaign has spent $250,000 on Fox News ad time. Groups supporting Rick Perry purchased $450,000 of ads on the network. [Media Matters, 7/24/157/16/15]

    Fiorina Fundraised Off Of Debate Rules. Candidate Carly Fiorina has used the debate rules to repeatedly solicit money for her campaign, telling followers in one fundraising email: “I need your help to get on that debate stage ... I need the resources necessary to broadcast my message to more Republicans. Will you donate $13 today to help us amplify our message?” [Media Matters, 6/4/15

    Candidates Make Hundreds Of Appearances On Fox

    16 GOP Contenders Made 631 Appearances On Fox News From January 2013 To April 2015. From President Obama's second inauguration day through April 8 of this year, 16 Republican presidential candidates made a combined 631 appearances on Fox News' evening and primetime programming and Fox News Sunday. Sen. Rand Paul led all candidates with 119 appearances. Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush made only three appearances on the shows studied. (Candidates who declined to run for president have been removed from this data.) [Media Matters, 4/9/15

    From May To July This Year, Candidates Made 273 Appearances, Totaling More 39 Hours Of Airtime. Donald Trump leads all candidates with 31 appearances for 4 hours and 45 minutes of airtime. [Media Matters, 8/5/15]

    Four GOP Presidential Candidates Have Worked For Fox News

    Ben Carson Worked As A Fox News Contributor Before Running For President. Carson became a conservative media darling after he gave a 2013 speech at the National Prayer Breakfast attacking President Obama. Fox News boosted Carson after the speech and eventually hired Carson as an on-air contributor before he left to run for president. [Media Matters5/4/15]

    Fox News Turned Carson Into A Presidential Candidate. Fox News helped launch Carson's political career. Fox provided a paycheck for Carson and a launching pad for the run-up to his candidacy. Fox's on-air personalities repeatedly pushed the idea that he should run for president. [Media Matters9/23/14]

    Mike Huckabee Worked As A Fox News Host Before Running For President. The former Arkansas governor joined Fox News in 2008 and hosted the weekend program Huckabee until he left to run for president. [Media Matters5/4/15]

    Huckabee Said His Fox News Gig Put Him In Voters' “Homes Every Week.” Huckabee told RealClearPolitics that “his work on Fox has put him in a 'very good place to be' politically” and said of the importance of his Fox employment while in Iowa: “When I came up here eight years ago, nobody knew who I was ... I had to spell my name. They didn't recognize me, and that was true all over the country. And now I come back, and I've been in these people's homes every week.” [RealClearPolitics, 10/23/14, via Media Matters]

    John Kasich Worked For Fox News From 2001-2009 As A Host And Contributor. Kasich joined Fox News after leaving Congress in 2001. He hosted the programs From The Heartland and Heroes and was a regular guest host for The O'Reilly Factor. [Media Matters7/21/15]

    Fox News Helped Elect Kasich As Governor Of Ohio. Fox News heavily promoted Kasich during his first post-Fox political run. Sean Hannity, who hosted a fundraiser for Kasich, told him on Fox to “do me a favor. Go get elected governor.” In another interview, Hannity said, “you can help us. Win the state of Ohio.” During an interview on The O'Reilly Factor, Kasich asked for donations while Fox News put his website address on-screen. [Media Matters7/21/15]

    Kasich “Love[s]” Fox News Founder And Friend Rupert Murdoch. Kasich has received financial backing from Rupert Murdoch. Murdoch donated $10,000 to his 2010 campaign. Murdoch's News Corporation, which at the time owned Fox News, also donated $1 million in 2010 to the Republican Governors Association; Murdoch said the donation “was actually [a result of] my friendship with John Kasich.” In December 2014, Murdoch donated $10,000 for Kasich's 2014 transition fund. Kasich told Financial Times in July that “I love him” and “I love to be with him.” [Media Matters7/21/15]

    Rick Santorum Worked As A Fox News Contributor. Santorum worked as a Fox News contributor prior to running for president in 2012. [Media Matters, 4/9/15]

    Santorum Called His Fox News Exposure “Great” For His Previous Presidential Run. In 2010, Santorum credited his prior employment at Fox News with having “been big” because it “helped folks remember who I am.” [Media Matters11/3/10]

    Candidates Compete To Win Favor Of Ailes And Murdoch

    Trump Reportedly Met With Ailes After Announcing RunNew York magazine's Gabriel Sherman reported, “Shortly after Trump jumped into the race, he had a '2-to-3 hour' private lunch with Ailes, sources told me.” [NY Mag, 7/22/15]

    Ailes And Murdoch Reportedly At Odds Over Trump. Sherman reported that Fox “insiders” say Ailes “is pushing Fox to defend Trump's most outlandish comments.” Ailes reportedly told his senior executives that Murdoch asked him to “back off the Trump coverage” and that in response Ailes told his superior that he would cover Trump “the way he wanted to.” The New York Times reported that Murdoch personally does not like Trump, and the feeling is mutual. The Times wrote that Murdoch “often described” Trump as a “phony” to his friends, and disagrees with him on immigration. Murdoch said Trump was “wrong” to characterize Mexican immigrants as “rapists,” and tweeted after his anti-McCain remarks, “When is Donald Trump going to stop embarrassing his friends, let alone the whole country?” [Media Matters, 7/22/15]

    Trump And Murdoch Reportedly Had A “Cordial” Conversation After Murdoch's Criticism. CNN reported that Trump and Murdoch spoke on the phone sometime in late July, and “It was just a phone conversation, not an in-person meeting, but it was cordial and forward-looking, the people [with direct knowledge of the call] said. One person described it as a peace making effort.” CNN added that after the New York magazine report, “Murdoch and Trump have since connected privately and exchanged pleasantries by phone, according to the people who spoke on condition of anonymity for this story; Murdoch tried to mend fences by expressing respect for Trump's business acumen.” [, 8/4/15]

    Kasich Has Made “A Concerted Push To Lock Down The Support Of Murdoch.” Politico reported of Kasich's attempts to win over Murdoch:

    Those briefed on Kasich's plans say he's begun a concerted push to lock down the support of Murdoch, the Australian-born media tycoon who is an influential voice in conservative circles, and was hopeful he could be brought aboard. The two have long been close: Murdoch was Kasich's boss during his six-year tenure as Fox News host, and during Kasich's 2010 gubernatorial bid he persuaded Murdoch to make a $1 million contribution to the Republican Governors Association. When they are both in New York City, Kasich and Murdoch make plans to see one another.

    But Murdoch, those familiar with the effort say, hasn't yet committed to Kasich, and has said he has many friends in the contest. He has pointed to Bush, Scott Walker, and Chris Christie as candidates he particularly admires. [Politico6/19/15]

    Paul Has Courted Murdoch. In 2014, Rand Paul hosted Murdoch at the Kentucky Derby. The New York Times quoted Paul saying he “thought it would be fun to have [Murdoch] come down,” and Murdoch explained his presence by clarifying he had never been to the Derby and offering that he finds Paul to be a “very interesting man.” Paul reportedly met with Murdoch and Roger Ailes in November 2013 -- according to Politico, that meeting was similarly part of Paul's effort to “smooth concerns among Republicans and influencers about whether he shares his famous libertarian father's views on issues like national security.” [Media Matters5/5/14]

    Media Observers: “This Whole Thing Is A Sham”

    Former CBS News Correspondent Eric Engberg: “This Whole Thing Is A Sham.” In an interview with Media Matters, former CBS News correspondent Eric Engberg questioned Fox News' handling of the debate given Ailes' history, saying, “Should Fox be playing this role? I think given Fox's ideological bent and that Roger Ailes has spent most of his career working on political campaigns, this whole thing is a sham.” [Media Matters, 8/3/15]

    Baltimore Sun's David Zurawik: “This Is Not An Appearance Of Conflict It Is A Straight Conflict.” In comments to Media Matters, Baltimore Sun TV critic David Zurawik labeled the Fox News debate a “game changer”:

    “Instead of going to the states where the primaries and caucuses are held, they are spending money on TV to reach a mass audience,” he said. “Worse, and this is the part that's really kind of mind-boggling, is that Fox is going to pick the 10 people based on the polls and there's a line in there that says they judge the polls and they're picking them. And now you have people like Rick Perry and [Marco] Rubio saying that the way to reach the line it takes to be picked by Fox is spend millions of dollars to advertise on Fox ... This is not an appearance of conflict it is a straight conflict.” [Media Matters, 8/3/15]

    CNN Host Brian Stelter: “There Really Is No Disputing Fox's Power In Influencing The GOP.” Reliable Sources host Stelter noted that Fox News has been a frequent stop for presidential candidates announcing their candidacies. [CNN, Reliable Sources4/19/15]

    Politico's Hadas Gold: Fox News Is The “Central Place Where All The Conservatives Are Going ... They Have A Huge Influence.” [CNN, Reliable Sources4/19/15]

    Politico's Dylan Byers: Fox's Hannity Is Playing “Kingmaker” In Primary. Byers wrote that “for many Republicans, the first stop on the campaign trail is” Hannity's Fox News program, which has rewarded candidates with hour-long specials after they announce their candidacies. Byers quoted campaign officials touting Hannity's influence among GOP voters. [Politico6/4/15]

    LA Times' Doyle McManus: Fox News Is the “Gatekeeper” Of The Republican Primary. McManus, a Times Washington columnist, wrote that Fox chief Roger Ailes “will decide which candidates can compete in Republican presidential primaries next year” and “One side effect, GOP strategists say, is that during the next two months, those candidates will be even more desperate to boost their name recognition -- by appearing on Fox News.” He added, “Fox won't exactly be judge, jury and executioner, but it will be rule-maker, gatekeeper and moderator.” [Los Angeles Times, 5/30/15]

    AP: Fox News Is The Favorite For GOP Political Advertising Dollars. The Associated Press reported:

    “Fox is a revenue driver,” said Tim Kay, NCC's director of political strategy. “It's extremely popular as the way to reach Republican primary voters.” He added: “What we're waiting to see is, is everyone going to want Fox News, or are they branching out to different channels to try to capture some of those same demographics?”


    The news outlet sucks up more political advertising spots than any other channel, NCC data show, and Republican primary elections drive that tally. CNN follows, then NBC, CBS and ABC. A study by the Pew Research Center helps to illustrate why: It found that 47 percent of conservatives consider Fox News their main and only news source, and 88 percent of them trust it. [Associated Press, 7/9/15]

    New York Magazine's Gabriel Sherman: Republican Candidates Are Courting Ailes And Fox News. During a CNN interview, Sherman stated of Fox's influence:

    GABRIEL SHERMAN, “NEW YORK MAGAZINE”: Well, without a question in the Republican primary, Roger Ailes controls the largest bloc of reliable Republican voters.

    (CROSSTALK) STELTER: By controls, you mean they watch FOX News.

    SHERMAN: They watch FOX News. They turn out in large numbers come primary day. And the candidates are already kissing the ring. I can report that according to my sources, Rick Perry came to New York before going to Iowa for the Freedom Summit to meet with Roger Ailes, to have a meet-and-greet and kiss the ring. So, these candidates are already courting Ailes and trying to get on his good side to get reliable coverage going into the primary season.

    STELTER: So, what I might say to you is these candidates also go and visit other network executives, visit other media executives. What's different about FOX?

    SHERMAN: Because FOX, as I said, controls this audience. If you want to be a Republican front-runner, you have got to get prime spots on FOX. You have got to get prime bookings. And Ailes is that ring that you need to kiss. [CNN, Reliable Sources2/1/15, via Media Matters]

    NY Times: Fox Is “Crucial Because Of The influence The Channel Wields Among The Republican Party's Base.” The paper wrote of Fox's treatment of Donald Trump: “But his treatment by Fox News is much more crucial because of the influence the channel wields among the Republican Party's base. And Fox News, as the host of the first primary debate on Aug. 6, has set the criterion that the debate will include the top 10 candidates as determined by national polls; Mr. Trump currently tops many polls.” [New York Times7/21/15]