Did Fox News expect anything less from Donald Trump?
After the network taunted the GOP frontrunner for two days leading up to Thursday’s Fox News GOP presidential debate, Trump finally decided to skip the debate on Tuesday evening, setting off another chaotic media firestorm that will make him the centerpiece of every story from here to the Iowa Caucuses on Monday.
By pushing Trump over the edge in what the network may now clearly view as a miscalculation, Fox News may have inadvertently done Trump a favor while doing itself a huge disservice.
When Trump and Fox News began sparring over Megyn Kelly’s objectiveness at the beginning of the week, Fox News boss Roger Ailes may have figured that the combativeness would create more controversy, which would lead to even bigger ratings for Thursday’s debate.
Since the Republican National Committee cut ties with National Review as a debate partner after National Review published its anti-Trump issue, Trump felt that Fox News should have replaced Kelly with a more objective moderator, especially after Kelly helped National Review Editor Rich Lowry gin up the magazine’s “Against Trump” manifesto last week.
“Sooner or later Donald Trump, even if he’s president, is going to have to learn that he doesn’t get to pick the journalists—we’re very surprised he’s willing to show that much fear about being questioned by Megyn Kelly,” Fox News said in a Monday statement.
After Trump polled his Instagram followers on Tuesday about whether he should participate in the Fox News debate (Trump asked: “Megyn Kelly is really biased against me. She knows that, I know that, everybody knows that. Do you really think she could be fair at a debate?”), Fox News inexplicably upped the ante by mocking and taunting Trump in an unprecedented statement to left-leaning Mediaite:
We learned from a secret back channel that the Ayatollah and Putin both intend to treat Donald Trump unfairly when they meet with him if he becomes president — a nefarious source tells us that Trump has his own secret plan to replace the Cabinet with his Twitter followers to see if he should even go to those meetings.
Perhaps Ailes wanted to get an over-the-top response from Trump so the network could hype the Kelly v. Trump clash like Vince McMahon promotes Wrestlemania. Controversy does indeed create cash—and ratings. But even veteran CNN journalist John King said he had never seen a media organization—let alone one that claims to be “fair and balanced”—issue such a statement, which inexplicably turned the process for choosing the country’s next president into a joke.
Fox News’s taunt was the last straw for Trump, who decided soon after that he was done playing Ailes’s games after the “wise-guy press release.” After reading it, Trump said, “I said, ‘bye, bye.’”
After blasting “lightweight” Kelly as a “third-rate” journalist at an Iowa event, Trump said that his decision to skip the Fox News debate was “pretty close to irrevocable.”
“Fox is playing games,” Trump said. “They can’t toy with me like they toy with everybody else. Let them have the debate. Let’s see how they do with the ratings.”
Soon after Trump’s Tuesday evening Iowa event, Trump Campaign Manager Corey Lewandowski told the Washington Post that Trump is “definitely not participating in the Fox News debate. His word is his bond.”
It was the childishly written & taunting PR statement by Fox that made me not do the debate, more so than lightweight reporter, @megynkelly.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 27, 2016
Instead, Trump will hold a town hall event to raise money for Wounded Warriors while his rivals debate for three tedious hours. Fox News’s advertisers may even want some of their money back.
Ailes may really want to “save the country” from Trump, but his taunting press release, which was reportedly 100% his, may have unintentionally done Trump many favors while backfiring big time on Fox News if Trump keeps his word and skips the debate.
First, Fox News’s childish press release from left field proved to Trump that the network had no intention of being impartial, and it gave him the perfect excuse to skip a debate from which he did not have much to gain. Frontrunners with huge leads routinely avoid giving their upstart challengers debates because there is not much to gain and everything to lose. Now, Trump won’t have to go through Fox News’s anti-Trump gauntlet while fending off seven challengers bent on dethroning him. It also allows Trump to separate himself from his crowded field of challengers.
Second, unlike other GOP candidates, Trump has never needed Fox News. Because of his unmatched celebrity and near-universal name recognition, Trump has been able to go over the heads of the mainstream media cable and network news networks in an unprecedented way this election cycle, getting his message—and criticisms of other candidates—directly to voters. And as the frontrunner heading into Iowa, he doesn’t need a Fox News debate to close the deal with his supporters.
But Fox News needs Trump for ratings. Already, Ailes has reportedly been desperately trying to reach out to Trump, who has reportedly told Fox News that he will only field calls from Rupert Murdoch. Fox News will probably now have to make major concessions to get Trump to participate in the debate.
The one downside of skipping the debate for Trump is that he may leave himself open to three hours of attacks without being able to defend himself in real time. But Trump could easily display his mastery of social media and Tweet his counterattacks. Or better yet, Trump could go on rival networks the next morning and have comebacks ready for everything that was said about him the night before. By saturating the media the morning after the debate, when final impressions about what happened the night before are congealed, Trump could have the last word on every issue/criticism/candidate in the crucial few days before Iowans vote since Trump will be the story regardless of what happens at the debate. Nobody, after all, knows the “orchestra pit theory of politics” better than Ailes. And Trump’s media appearances on Friday morning will bigfoot anything that happened the night before.
Thursday’s debate will not be as compelling without Trump and may resemble a glorified undercard debate. It will lack drama and, hence, ratings. John Kasich will continue to appeal to liberals. Jeb Bush’s new haircut, posture, and gestures will not convince viewers he has more energy. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie will try his best to be relevant by attacking the gobbledygook spoken by the Senators. The moderators will probably ignore Dr. Ben Carson again. And Sens. Rand Paul (R-KY), Marco Rubio (R-FL), and Ted Cruz (R-TX) will drone on like Senators and viewers will think at times that they are watching C-SPAN.
By skipping the debate, Trump will only reinforce his strengths among his supporters. Trump has drawn new voters into the political process and rocketed to the top of nearly every poll because blue-collar Americans think he will be their “jackass” who will stick up for the country and their interests against Washington’s permanent political class and the global elite that have colluded to screw them over. By giving Fox News the proverbial middle finger, Trump reinforces his anti-establishment/outsider bonafides.
Trump’s potential absence from the debate, though, presents some dangers for Fox News’s brand.
Conservative voters felt that Fox News had a finger on the scale for establishment GOP candidate Mitt Romney during the 2012 election cycle. And after the network hired CNN retreads and endlessly promoted centrist Kelly after the 2012 election, many of the network’s core viewers unenthusiastically watched Fox News because it was the least offensive news outlet on television. Kelly’s giggling “love-fest” with Michael Moore on Tuesday evening did the network no favors with heartland viewers that Rush Limbaugh said do not think Fox News is the “conservative network that it used to be.”
The network’s treatment of Trump has indeed only reinforced the suspicions many Fox News viewers have had about the network’s move toward the center. When Fox News and Kelly tried to take out Trump’s knees in the first debate by painting him as a sexist with a misleading and loaded question that accused Trump of referring to women as “pigs,” “dogs,” “disgusting animals” and saying that it was a “pretty picture” to see a “Celebrity Apprentice” contestant “on her knees,” the backlash was immediate. A Fox News source told New York magazine that “ in the beginning, virtually 100 percent of the emails were against Megyn Kelly” and Ailes “was not happy” because “Most of the Fox viewers were taking Trump’s side.”
One can only wonder how Fox News viewers will react after the network taunted and mocked the GOP presidential frontrunner and compelled him to walk away from the last debate before the Iowa caucuses.