What Really Happened At Last Night's Fox News Debate

Chris Wallace Megyn Kelly and Bret Baier at the GOP 2016 Debate

At the 2016 Republican primary debate last night, the Fox News moderators appeared reasonable, effective, and pointed in their questions to the candidates. And that was the point of the whole charade.

Fox did exactly what Media Matters predicted they would. Moderators Megyn Kelly, Bret Baier, and Chris Wallace took advantage of the low expectations mainstream journalists and many Americans have of their network. They knew millions of people who don't watch Fox as obsessively as we do would be tuning in, many of them expecting to see the brand of Fox they've heard so much about, full of conservative bias and incoherent arguments. And they knew how much power rested in surprising those viewers -- in convincing even just a handful of mainstream journalists that Fox can be legitimate.

The strategy worked. Because the moderators managed to look like real journalists for a little over two hours, they're getting intense praise from mainstream media outlets, such as Politico (emphasis added):

For more than two hours, the trio that won widespread praise in 2012 for hard-hitting questions once again demonstrated that Fox News would offer no safe harbor for Republican candidates.

And the New York Times (emphasis added):

There was more than just good television at stake. For the journalists of Fox News, the debate offered a potentially defining moment in front of millions of people, during one of the most anticipated political events of the year. This was an opportunity to demonstrate that their network is not, as its critics have charged, a blindly loyal propaganda division of the Republican Party, that Fox journalists can be as unsparing toward conservatives as they are with liberals, and that they can eviscerate with equal opportunity if they choose.

But that last clause from the Times is crucial: “if they choose.” Because the other 364 days a year, Fox News does not choose to hold Republicans accountable for their extreme and misinformed positions on women's rights or welfare or immigration; instead they do create that “safe harbor” for Republicans to come up with their wild misconceptions and hateful rhetoric -- the same misconceptions they “choose” to blast those same Republicans for last night.

Fox has two fundamental goals: make lots of money by broadcasting entertaining television, and bolster the Republican Party. Last night, they succeeded in doing both, even in the moments where it might have seemed like they had no patience for the Republican candidates' pandering.

Because Fox chief Roger Ailes knows that the best way for Fox to bolster the Republican Party in the long-term is for mainstream journalists to trust Fox -- for the “blindly loyal propaganda division” to appear, even just for one night, as credible. Propaganda doesn't work, after all, if you know it's propaganda.

So even if many of their questions actually did reinforce Republican orthodoxy (such as claiming that deceitful videos attacking Planned Parenthood shed “new light on abortion practices”), the Fox moderators made sure they spent most of their time looking like attack dogs ready to take on the Republican candidates.

But it's worth looking closely at how that played out, and what exactly mainstream media outlets are now praising. Getting the most attention is perhaps one of the biggest of the so-called "Megyn Moments" of the night, in which Kelly momentarily appears out-of-step with Fox rhetoric and calls out a bit of right-wing nonsense. Her tendency to do this every once in a while successfully distracts from her standard misinformation, and helps feed the exact narrative about Fox's potential for credibility that they were desperate to encourage last night.

In the debate, this happened when Kelly directly pointed out that former Fox News darling Donald Trump is sexist.

“Mr. Trump, one of the things people love about you is you speak your mind and you don't use a politician's filter,” she began. “However, that is not without its downsides, in particular, when it comes to women. You've called women you don't like 'fat pigs, dogs, slobs, and disgusting animals.'”

Quickly dismissing Trump's attempt to shrug these comments off with a crude joke, she beat on: “Your Twitter account has several disparaging comments about women's looks. You once told a contestant on Celebrity Apprentice it would be a pretty picture to see her on her knees. Does that sound to you like the temperament of a man we should elect as president, and how will you answer the charge from Hillary Clinton, who was likely to be the Democratic nominee, that you are part of the war on women?”

To be clear, it is definitely remarkable to hear a Fox News host even mention the “war on women,” something the network and the Republican Party have worked hard to minimize. And Trump deserves to be held accountable for these comments. 

But it's not exactly an act of remarkable journalism to ask such a question -- pointing out Trump's raging sexism is something any competent journalist should be expected to do.

Moreover, Fox has had ample time to hold him accountable for these comments before. Trump has been winning the “Fox News Primary” for the last three months, appearing on the network more times than any other Republican candidate in the race.

Yet his sexism has certainly not been a regular topic of the fawning interviews he typically receives on the network. Instead, Fox has worked very, very hard to promote Trump, and the fact that he was standing at center stage last night due to his soaring poll numbers was certainly aided by the network.

While network figures have criticized Trump in the past, Fox's shift during the debate to fully acknowledging Trump's nasty side is notable. But it once again says more about Fox's calculus for the evening and our own low expectations than it does about Trump himself.

In his review of the evening, Ailes biographer Gabriel Sherman explained that according to his sources, key to that calculus was Fox's fear that the winner of the night would be Trump, at the expense of the network's moderators:

During a meeting at Fox late last week, according to a source, senior Fox executives discussed a more worrisome scenario: What would happen if Trump won over the audience and moved the crowd to boo moderators Bret Baier, Megyn Kelly, and Chris Wallace on live television? What if Trump was able to direct his base of supporters to stop watching Fox? To prevent that from happening, Ailes needed a way to keep the audience firmly on the side of his moderators.

The questions posed last night to all of the candidates were carefully considered, and key to the strategy behind those questions was keeping the audience on Fox's side, not on the side of the actual candidates running for president. That isn't a strategy for good journalism, or for aiding a thoughtful electoral process. That's a strategy of control.

Fox may have realized they can no longer control Trump; but they're definitely trying to maintain full control over the mainstream narrative about their “credibility,” and thus the Republican primary.