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Bernie in the Fox's den: Sanders takes anti-Trump pitch straight to 'state TV'

The Guardian logo The Guardian 6 days ago Lauren Gambino in Washington
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Bernie Sanders will finish a four-day tour of Trump Country on Monday, with a town hall on the president’s favorite network: Fox News.

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It is an unexpected partnership, between a self-described democratic socialist and a media outlet that dedicates primetime to pundits who rail against a purported “creep” of socialism.

Bernie Sanders, Jeff Merkley are posing for a picture: Bernie Sanders speaks at a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington. © Reuters Bernie Sanders speaks at a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington. The event will be staged in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, a state Trump won by less than 1%, and it will be moderated by Fox anchors Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum.

Sanders is the first Democratic presidential candidate to appear on the network for such an event. He says it is a way to speak directly to Trump supporters, to make the case that the president is a “pathological liar” who has misled the working class. The booking is also important for Fox News, which was banned from hosting a Democratic primary debate.

Among Democrats, the booking has drawn criticism. Progressive groups are urging presidential contenders to boycott the network whose stream of pro-Trump commentary has led critics to liken it to unofficial “state TV”.

“Fox News has turned into something, particularly in the last year, that is distinguishable and different from just being a conservative outlet,” said Angelo Carusone, president of Media Matters for America, a liberal watchdog. “It’s functionally the same as political propaganda and going on does more harm than good.”

Carusone distinguishes between brief appearances on news shows and the staging of events, such as town halls and debates, which require negotiation.

Refusing to partner with Fox News could force it to “change its behavior”, he said. Media Matters has pushed advertisers to drop Fox shows when hosts make offensive or controversial statements.

Last month, Media Matters released recordings of controversial statements made by the Fox News host Tucker Carlson on talk radio. At the same time, Fox was forced to distance itself from on-air comments made by host Jeanine Pirro, who asked if congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s wearing of a hijab was “antithetical to the US constitution”. Some advertisers withdrew from the shows concerned.

“Now is the moment of accountability,” Carson said. “Democrats really need to ask themselves if at this moment they really want to be throwing Fox News a lifeline.”

Marianne Gambelli, Fox’s president of ad sales, said the network recently “had a very successful upfront presentation where our advertisers walked away feeling extremely positive about our story and the value of our audience”. She said the network anticipated “no change” to its ad sales this year.

Nicole Hemmer, an assistant professor at the University of Virginia and author of Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics, said the relationship between Fox and Trump was both “unprecedented” and symbiotic. Shifting directions, she said, could therefore cost Fox an important segment of its viewers.

She pointed to a period during the 2016 campaign when Trump was feuding with Fox, and especially with host Megyn Kelly. Then, Breitbart was able to edge out Fox to become the center of the “rightwing media ecosystem”.

“We’ve seen in the past when Fox goes against the wishes of its base, the base goes elsewhere,” said Hemmer, who previously told the New Yorker Fox was “the closest we’ve come to having state TV”.

‘The very notion of truth’

Sanders has defended his town hall appearance, which will air at 6.30pm, ahead of the network’s primetime lineup that draws its largest audience.

Bernie Sanders wearing a suit and tie talking on a cell phone: Sanders speaks at a Fox News town hall in Detroit in March 2016. Photograph: Carlos Osorio/AP © AP Sanders speaks at a Fox News town hall in Detroit in March 2016. Photograph: Carlos Osorio/AP

In a recent interview with the Huffington Post, Sanders said: “When I go on Fox, what I will say is, ‘Look, many of you voted for Donald Trump, but he lied to you. He told you he was gonna provide healthcare for everybody. Yet his policies are to throw 30m people off of the health insurance they have …’

“How do you explain that to people who voted for Trump if you don’t talk to people who voted for Trump?”

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Asked in the same interview if he believes the network is a “propaganda arm” of the White House, Sanders replied: “In most respects, I think it is.”

Distinguishing between its journalists and its primetime pundits who bring in most of its viewers, Fox News has aggressively defended its reporting operation.

Last month the Democratic National Committee (DNC) announced that it would exclude Fox News from the presidential primary debates, amid concern it would not be “fair and neutral”.

The DNC chair, Tom Perez, attributed the decision to an 11,000-word New Yorker article in which the veteran journalist Jane Mayer described how the 2016 election transformed a conservative-friendly news channel into a “mouthpiece” for the White House, providing as she did so fresh details on the intimate relationship between Fox and the Trump administration.

That was followed by a three-part, six-month investigation by the New York Times on Fox founder Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, which the Times said had “helped elevate marginal demagogues, mainstream ethno-nationalism and politicize the very notion of truth” on three continents.

Fox hosts such as Carlson and Sean Hannity help to shape and amplify the Trump policy agenda. Hannity even joined the president onstage at a campaign rally, to be praised as someone “with us since the beginning”. Trump’s inner circle is filled with Fox News alumni, including former executive Bill Shine, who oversaw Trump’s communications team until moving to the re-election campaign.

Bernie Sanders et al. sitting posing for the camera: Sanders talks with the moderator, Bret Baier, during a Fox town hall in Detroit in March 2016. Photograph: Rebecca Cook/Reuters © Reuters Sanders talks with the moderator, Bret Baier, during a Fox town hall in Detroit in March 2016. Photograph: Rebecca Cook/Reuters

Perez is scheduled to appear on Fox’s America’s Newsroom on Monday. He has said he does not have a problem with Democrats going on the network. But he draws a distinction between guest appearances and sponsored debates.

“I go on Fox News with regularity, so do other Democrats,” Perez told the San Francisco Chronicle’s politics podcast. “We don’t discourage anyone from doing the same. That’s a far cry from hosting debates.”

‘Top-notch journalists’

Last month, Fox hosted a town hall with the former Starbucks chief executive Howard Schultz, who is considering running for president as an independent. In 2016, it hosted town halls with Sanders and Hillary Clinton. Executives at the network said they hope Monday’s town hall with Sanders and others in future with other Democratic contenders will push the DNC to reconsider on the debates.

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In a statement, Bill Sammon, Fox News’ senior vice-president and managing editor in Washington, said: “We’re pleased that Senator Bernie Sanders and the DNC agree with Fox News that successful Democratic presidential candidates must engage directly with our large, diverse audience through televised town halls with top-notch journalists Bret Baier, Martha MacCallum and Chris Wallace.”

The former Maryland congressman John Delaney, the Democratic presidential candidate who appears most frequently on Fox, thinks the network provides a “unique opportunity” to engage in a “contest of ideas” with a conservative audience.

“The premise of my candidacy is that the country is divided and we need to bring the country back together again,” he said. “You’re not going to bring the country back together again if you refuse to go on Fox News.”

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