What Everyone Watching Republicans Debate On Fox News Should Keep In Mind

GOP Debate on Fox

Beware the low expectations you have for Fox News.

Tonight, Fox News will host the first Republican 2016 presidential primary debate (as well as a forum at 5pm for candidates that Fox has deemed less deserving of the primetime spotlight). The debate will be moderated by Fox News' Megyn Kelly, Bret Baier, and Chris Wallace.

At Media Matters, we spend considerable time steeped in Fox News' misinformation. As part of our larger media monitoring efforts, we watch Fox News every day from 6AM until 11PM. We're well versed in their chicanery and adept at combating their deceit with airtight research. It's why we often say of Media Matters, “We watch Fox News, so you don't have to.”

But on nights like tonight, many people who don't usually watch Fox News will tune in. These viewers -- be they progressives, people who regularly get their news from other networks, or just casual political observers who engage only around big events -- have some impression of what Fox News' brand is. They tend to have a sense that Fox News is very conservative and that Fox News lies. And they probably initially associate Fox News with some of its legacy personalities like Bill O'Reilly, or even former ones like Glenn Beck.

These viewers tune in with the expectation that the Fox figures moderating the debate will align with their impression or sense of Fox News' brand of bloviating, bias, and bigotry. In effect, the bar is set -- and it's pretty low.

Here's a rough version of this that ends up playing out on nights like tonight: Fox puts its best foot forward. The Fox figures conduct themselves in a way that exceeds the low impression that these non-regular viewers have of Fox personalities. Many of these viewers think to themselves, “Hmm. Well, those moderators were pretty reasonable. Some may even pass remarks to this effect on social media or in their social circles.

Think back to your social media feeds from nights like this. I bet you saw some posts from friends or even some mainstream media figures either giving accolades to Fox or mentioning something along the lines of 'Fox News is conservative, but that news side moderator seems pretty okay.'

In reality, no, they weren't 'pretty okay' or 'reasonable' as some non-regular viewers might believe. It's just that the bar is really low.

Fox is well aware of this dynamic. They need nights like tonight.

A few years ago, the idea that Fox News is not news but rather more akin to a political operation finally broke through and became a widely-shared opinion in political and media circles. In late 2011, Roger Ailes, Fox News' Chairman & CEO, responded by conceding that Fox News needed a “course correction” and retreating to what the network claims is a separation between its commentary and hard news side.

Since then, Fox News has often touted its supposed “news side” to deflect criticism or to create a veneer of legitimacy. Nights like tonight are pivotal to this strategy.

In the lead up to tonight's debate, there were well choreographed pieces in Politico and The New York Times that emphasized the distinction between Fox News' commentary side and news side and advanced the narrative Fox wants told about how hard-hitting the anchors moderating tonight's debate are.

It's very likely that the Fox anchors moderating tonight's debate will exceed the low expectations that occasional viewers have of Fox News.

Don't be fooled though!

Just because the three people sitting at the moderators' table won't remind you of Bill O'Reilly or Glenn Beck, be wary of giving them too much credit.

When not performing for an audience of non-typical Fox viewers...

  • Megyn Kelly defended Donald Trump's characterization that Mexican immigrants are “rapists” and “killers,” and cited Ann Coulter's racially inflammatory book, Adios America, to substantiate this defense. Kelly regularly preys on racial anxieties -- by issuing dire warnings that President Obama is in cahoots with New Black Panthers, decrying diversity, or dismissing concerns about racial justice and policing.
  • Bret Baier is Fox News' lead anchor on Benghazi, diligently promoting emerging falsehoods, baseless smears, and the latest partisan attacks. He even hosts occasional hour-long special investigation shows, which look and sound more like reruns of Unsolved Mysteries than news reports.
  • Chris Wallace, who even Fox News' detractors recognize as Fox's most legitimate personality and voice of reason, still promotes doubt about climate change.

This is bigger than these three individuals. Kelly, Wallace and Baier are simply window dressing that Fox is putting on display tonight to advance the idea that Fox has a hard news side. But there isn't a meaningful difference between Fox News' supposed news side and its commentary side.

Look no further for evidence of this than Bill Sammon. Sammon is a right-wing ideologue and serves as an executive on Fox News' supposed news side. He won't be on stage tonight. But, according to Fox News' Digital Politics Editor Chris Stirewalt, Sammon helped lead the team that prepared the questions for tonight's debate. Several years ago, Media Matters obtained leaked communications from Sammon that showed him using his position to impose a right-wing slant on Fox News' supposed hard news reporting as well as instructing on-air reporters to refrain from accurately reporting on rising global temperatures caused by climate change.

So before you rush to give Fox News credit for exceeding low expectations, just keep in mind that many of the smears, ignorant remarks, and flat-out lies told by candidates tonight were either very likely promoted heavily or manufactured by Fox itself. The landscape has been seeded with Fox News' chicanery. Candidates are well aware of the audience that they're speaking to -- a fact reflected in the decision by some of them to appeal directly to Fox News' core audience with substantial ad buys in an attempt to increase their standings in the polls.