Veteran presidential campaign correspondents and media experts are criticizing Fox News' unprecedented role as a gatekeeper in the Republican primary.
This week, Fox News will host the first primary debate of the cycle. The event is something of a coup for the network, which has been exerting increasing control over the Republican electoral process over the past decade. The debate will be limited to 10 candidates, based on their standing in a series of national polls that Fox itself is selecting. Fox News' debate rules have been criticized by several candidates and Republican activists for a variety of reasons, including that the network is overriding the importance of early voting primary states by essentially narrowing the field several months early.
People inside the network have also expressed frustration with the debate process with an anonymous Fox personality reportedly telling New York magazine that it's “crazy stuff” to have Fox News head Roger Ailes essentially “deciding who is in - and out - of a debate.”
In comments to Media Matters, veteran campaign reporters, media reporters, and ethicists criticized Fox's influence.
“Should Fox be playing this role?” asked Eric Engberg, a former CBS News correspondent who covered presidential campaigns from 1976 to 2000. "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."
As Media Matters has documented, candidates have been flocking to the network to get face time with its influential hosts and reach its conservative audience, which in turn boosts interest in Fox. In some cases, candidates and groups supporting them have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on Fox ads to help bolster their image and hopefully increase their national polling ahead of the debate.
In a segment laying out how super PACs supporting former Texas Gov. Rick Perry had made a large ad buy on Fox News and other cable networks ahead of the debate, MSNBC host Rachel Maddow explained, “So, Fox News set that rule for the Republican Party, and now, Fox News gets to cash in on that rule by getting all of the Rick Perry super PAC money in the form of his national ads. It's a nice racket, right?”
“That sounds to me like either extortion or bribery, I don't know which,” Engberg said. “You don't know whether Fox has indicated to these people that they would be wise to buy more advertising. It has a smell of corruption about it because it mixes money with open political campaigning.”
The New York Times reported on June 4 that Republicans in Iowa and New Hampshire “fear candidates are too focused on getting on television to enhance their poll standing, when they should be out meeting voters in town halls and greasy spoons.” Former chairman of the Republican Party of Iowa Matt Strawn lamented that “now we have put network executives, quite frankly, in charge of winnowing the field instead of actual voters.” Newspapers in early primary states have also “mounted an insurrection against Fox News” by co-sponsoring a candidate forum before the Fox debate.
“It's obvious that the early primary states and the Iowa caucuses have suffered a blow from the way Fox is managing things,” Engberg added. “There is less focus on Iowa and New Hampshire because all of the candidates' staffs felt the most important thing is going to be this televised debate on Fox, especially if it is going to be the first ... We can call it the Roger Ailes primary. One television executive has taken control of the process of deciding. It has a smell of one-man rule about it.”
David Zurawik, Baltimore Sun TV critic, called the Fox control of the 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.”
Adam Clymer, a former New York Times political correspondent between 1972 and 2000, called the approach “inevitably messy,” later stating, “Fox is both an advertising and news media for them, with the fact that some of them have been paid commentators before. In theory you would like to have somebody making the decision about who participates who is not involved in covering the news.”
Walter Mears, a Pulitzer Prize-winning former Associated Press campaign reporter who covered every general election presidential debate from 1976 to 2000, was also a panelist for the 1976 vice presidential debate. He urged an “impartial organization” running the debate.
“Some of them have been Fox commentators, and now they're players,” he said of the candidates. “In the worst case you would have conservative sweetheart questions directed to these guys. I would suspect that they will go to some lengths to try to appear impartial and appear even-handed so that it won't look to be contrived and controlled. The shift to the right compelled by Fox News has changed the definition of what's an impartial producer for a debate.”
Marvin Kalb, former host of Meet the Press, said Republican candidates have drifted ideologically to Fox, and Fox to them: “Buying time to win acceptance to a debate is only the latest twist in a long-standing drama. Up until now, buying time provided face time; now, in addition, it may win a place in a debate whose ground rules the network sets.”
For Walter Shapiro, who covered nine presidential campaigns dating back to 1980 for The Washington Post, Newsweek, Salon and others, the Republican Party is also to blame for “the total abject surrender to the TV networks.”
“By going first, Fox has made a mockery of the debates and it is because [Republican National Committee Chair] Reince Priebus punted and the RNC punted and said to Fox, 'you figure it out,' that much is clear,” Shapiro said. “This is a Republican forum.”
He later added, “Fox played a major role in making Donald Trump the central story on the Republican side. This is the moment where Republicans should begin to realize that Fox is a business entity concerned with ratings, with the elevation of Trump to the detriment of the rest of the Republican party.”