Fox News gains newfound influence in 2020 politics

It’s early in the 2020 presidential campaign, but there’s already a top contender for Most Absurd Controversy Among Democratic Candidates — whether or not to appear on Fox News. The debate is more than a touch self-defeating because Fox will be the most influential news organization of the 2020 contest — and not for reasons anyone would have placed bets on before this year.

Smart money had been insisting that Fox would double-down on its “total Trump” programming strategy, pivoting ever more sharply into the role of state-run television. But then, on April 15, Democratic candidate Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersThe Hill's Morning Report - Crunch time arrives for 2020 Dems with debates on deck The Memo: All eyes on faltering Biden ahead of first debate Progressive group launches campaign to identify voters who switch to Warren MORE (I-Vt.) appeared on a Fox News town hall that drew record ratings — and grudging respect from the journalism world for doing a solid, non-partisan job.

Pretty much the same thing happened when Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharJuan Williams: Warren on the rise Progressive group launches campaign to identify voters who switch to Warren 2020 primary debate guide: Everything you need to know ahead of the first Democratic showdown MORE (D-Minn.), South Bend Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegGroup of wealthy Americans write open letter asking to be taxed more The Hill's Morning Report - Crunch time arrives for 2020 Dems with debates on deck The Memo: All eyes on faltering Biden ahead of first debate MORE and, just last night, Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten Elizabeth GillibrandJuan Williams: Warren on the rise 2020 primary debate guide: Everything you need to know ahead of the first Democratic showdown 2020 Democrats vow to expand abortion access at Planned Parenthood event MORE (D-N.Y.) did their Fox News town halls, all with significant ratings results. Each candidate asserted that their Fox News appearance was a compelling way to connect with persuadable voters. 

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If that’s where it ended — the interview is over, the lights go down, the Nielsen numbers are added up — Fox’s campaign influence would not be so widespread. But it doesn’t end there: A cascade of news stories, op-eds and videos spins off from each town hall, often for days. For a Democratic candidate, an appearance on Fox News has the crackle and tension of the unexpected. Just showing up guarantees you a headline. Inevitably, something emerges from the taut atmosphere to generate more coverage: The audience applauds Sanders’ health care plan, Klobuchar is challenged on the #MeToo movement, Buttigeig criticizes Fox’s own prime-time stars.

The deluge continues when President TrumpDonald John TrumpConway defends herself against Hatch Act allegations amid threat of subpoena How to defuse Gulf tensions and avoid war with Iran Trump says 'stubborn child' Fed 'blew it' by not cutting rates MORE picks up his smart phone the next morning, tweeting harangues against Fox for paying valuable attention to his opponents. That ensures yet another day of headlines.

And those news stories crop up far and wide. Outlets from The South China Morning Post to WREX-TV in Rockford, Ill. have covered the Fox News events.

Other cable channels will struggle to match that. Were there a comparable race on the GOP side, CNN and MSNBC would no doubt replicate the Fox News strategy with their own town halls featuring any of the, say, 25 Republican candidates. But this year is not that year.

As I’ve written before, Democratic town halls on the other, friendlier news channels are more predictable — with none of the crossing-into-enemy-territory anxiety induced by Fox interviews. As a result, those appearances generate fewer headlines, smaller ratings and less impact on the campaign. One exception so far is Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), who drew significant numbers on both CNN and MSNBC — but Beto O’Rourke’s May 22 CNN town hall attracted only 714,000 total viewers. During the same time period, Fox News drew 2.2 million and MSNBC 2.1 million with regular programming.

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The Fox strategy seems to have caught some Democrats by surprise, but it shouldn’t. The channel has moved in unforeseen directions before, keeping its profile high and its name in the news by intentionally breaking away from the mold it has created for itself.

Former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly often appeared on Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show” and invited the left-leaning comedian on his “O’Reilly Factor” — to strong ratings and bold headlines for both programs. In 2015, the New York Times Sunday magazine published an article titled “The Megyn Kelly Moment,” describing Kelly as a fast-rising Fox News star because she often challenged conservative doctrine in unpredictable ways. That counterintuitive approach was supported by then-network chief Roger Ailes as he sought to further increase his audience by appealing to independents.

With the rise of Donald Trump, the taste for risk and surprise at Fox faded. Even with the town hall maneuver, the channel still dishes out a relentless buffet of presidential agitprop. But maybe that attraction to curveballs remained somewhere in the network’s DNA, waiting for the right time to re-emerge. Campaign 2020 looks to be that moment.

Democratic candidate Julian CastroJulian CastroCastro pushes back on O'Rourke criticism of plan to decriminalize border crossings 2020 Dems slam Trump over census citizenship question Joaquin Castro calls out MSNBC contributor for confusing him with twin brother Julián on air MORE (D-Texas) signed up for the next Fox town hall, but Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has announced she won’t take part in one, portraying herself as unwilling to fraternize with the enemy. Sen. Harris reportedly has said the same thing privately, but given her uniquely strong town hall numbers on the other outlets, the Californian may not issue a line in the sand.

That would be smart. If Harris is, in fact, gaining some town hall-generated momentum, she’ll need to keep that going, and keep the headlines coming. Some day soon, a phone call to Fox might seem like a pretty good idea.

Joe Ferullo is an award-winning media executive, producer and journalist and former executive vice president of programming for CBS Television Distribution. He was a news executive for NBC, a writer-producer for “Dateline NBC,” and has worked for ABC News and as a reporter or essayist for such publications as Rolling Stone magazine, the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Village Voice. Follow him on Twitter@ironworker1.