Should Dems go on Fox? Buttigieg's latest interview shows why watchdogs think it's dicey
As Angelo Carusone of Media Matters explained to me, even when Dems speak truth to an audience that rarely hears it, Fox just puts words in their mouths.
An eternal debate among leftie media watchdogs is about whether it’s ever a good idea for Democrats to go on Fox News. One position is that it’s important for Dems to try to broaden their coalition by speaking to voters who don’t normally support them — and Fox’s audience is larger than any other cable news channel’s by a wide margin. The other side argues that Fox is more right-wing propaganda than news, and insists it’s a bad idea for Dems to legitimize the outlet, since its first principle is trashing them. (Oliver Willis made this case to me during our Q&A in May.)
Both can be persuasive. But no matter which side you take, watchdogs broadly agree that if you’re a Democrat who plans to go on Fox, you should do it like Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who’s agreed to interviews on the network for years and frequent uses his hits to debunk right-wing misinformation and push back forcefully on Fox hosts. Perhaps the best example of this came when Buttigieg was a key surrogate for the Biden/Harris campaign in October 2020 and went on Fox with a devastating indictment of Mike Pence’s hypocrisy:
In the moment, you can count on Buttigieg to more than hold his own, but that doesn’t necessarily mean going on Fox is a good idea, even for him. His July 11 appearance on Fox News Sunday is a case in point.
Buttigieg visited Chris Wallace’s old show (now hosted by a rotating cast of Fox personalities) and spoke truth to an audience that rarely hears it. But that didn’t stop primetime host Laura Ingraham from using the interview against him in an egregiously misleading manner.
Most of Buttigieg’s interview was about transportation issues, but host Mike Emanuel wrapped it up by asking him to respond a quip made by his husband, Chasten Buttigieg, about Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh recently having to leave dinner through the rear of a Morton’s in downtown DC because protesters were waiting for him out front.
“Sounds like he just wanted some privacy to make his own dining decisions,” Chasten tweeted, alluding to Kavanaugh’s joining the majority SCOTUS opinion that ended federal abortion rights and set the stage for the court to undermine privacy rights more broadly. The tweet was harmless enough, but Fox detected an opening.
“Is that [tweet] appropriate, sir?” Emmanuel asked.
Buttigieg’s response was thoughtful.
“Look, when public officials go into public life, we should expect two things. One, you should always be free from violence, harassment, and intimidation, and two, you’re never gonna be free from criticism or peaceful protest, people exercising their first amendment rights,” he said. “That’s what happened in this case. Remember, the justice never even came into contact with these protesters.”
Buttigieg was completely right. Kavanaugh reportedly didn’t get a chance to eat dessert (the horror), but by all accounts he wasn’t harassed or bothered by anyone. The incident amounted to nothing more than protesters exercising one of their protected rights and, despite what Fox News would have you believe, dining in peace is not among them.
But if anyone thought Fox News might do Pete a solid for joining one of its shows by at least not shamelessly misrepresenting him, Ingraham’s Monday night broadcast quickly disabused them of that notion.
In her opening monologue, Ingraham brought up Buttigieg’s Fox News interview above a chyron that blatantly lied about what he said.
“MAYOR PETE: POLITICAL VIOLENCE IS ACTUALLY GOOD,” it read.
Buttigieg had said the exact opposite. But Ingraham played a mere sentence fragment from the Fox News Sunday interview — one in which he said “these protesters are upset” — to make it seem otherwise. She also attacked the transportation secretary for weighing in on the issue — “I guess he’s solved that whole air travel mess, he’s already handled that, since he has so much time on his hands to comment on issues totally outside the transportation department,” she said — never mind that a Fox News host had asked him about it in the first place.
Following Ingraham’s show, Angelo Carusone, president and CEO of Media Matters, posted a viral Twitter thread explaining how the shabby treatment of Buttigieg illustrates the broader downside of Dems going on Fox.
“These appearances never have result most people think they do,” he wrote. “Even best appearances only wind up getting drowned out as Fox intensifies lies/attacks. So, yes, it was a good answer. But there's a cost benefit analysis here. And it's not clear it helps more than it hurts.”
Carusone’s thread inspired me to reach out to him to pick his brain about the wisdom (or lack thereof) of Dems going on Fox (I did a Q&A with him last October about right-wing disinformation on Facebook that you can read here).
“The thing that actually reverberates through the right-wing echo chamber ends up becoming [Ingraham’s] mischaracterization, not what Pete actually said,” he told me. “And that’s the point. I’m not dismissive of arguments that going on Fox is a good idea. It’s just a question of, what’s the goal?
I also asked Carusone how he would handle Fox News if he were the White House comms director, and he made a forceful case that Democratic administrations should stop pretending it’s anything but right-wing propaganda.
“The whole network is poison,” he said. “The whole network is not interested in being an actual news operation. Until they have some basic standards in their journalistic approach, I wouldn't treat them as such.”
A transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows.
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I thought your thread about Pete’s interview and Ingraham’s manipulation of it made some really good points. The “MAYOR PETE: POLITICAL VIOLENCE IS ACTUALLY GOOD” chyron you highlighted was especially egregious and also made me perk up when I was watching the interview, because I knew he had said nothing even close to that.
Right. I specifically was waiting to make my critique and push back until there was a good visual representation. What I wanted was a good visual representation of the larger Fox News narrative. And I thought there wasn't a clearer example, because it was so the opposite of what he said.
We've seen that pattern before and I was like, this is it. We just need that visual. And I tried to do it in a way that didn't seem so angry, because I understand why the question of whether Dems should go on Fox is a complicated one. I just think at some point Democrats underestimate how much they're making the problem worse and perpetuating it. And my big point is that they didn't even show the video so that you could juxtapose her characterization of it with the actual content of the video.
The thing that actually reverberates through the right-wing echo chamber ends up becoming her characterization, not what Pete said. And that’s the point. I’m not dismissive of arguments that going on Fox is a good idea. It’s just a question of, what’s the goal?
There’s a lot of nuance. And one thing I wanted to asked you about is that I can see the argument that there’s a meaningful distinction between Fox News Sunday — a more sober show syndicated on local Fox affiliates with lots of viewers who probably don’t watch Fox primetime — and actually going on Ingraham’s show, for instance. I can understand the White House believing it’s at least still worth trying to reach Fox News Sunday viewers, even if primetime ones are lost causes.
That's right. And I would acknowledge that there's this thing where the line of what's acceptable on Fox keeps moving. Part of the argument in the past was always, ‘Well, we just go on the news programs. We don't touch prime time. I would never.’ Even during the 2020 cycle, when there were some flareups about this, the campaigns would say, ‘But I would never go on prime time.’ Or when the communications steering committee in the House last cycle was making these recommendations for more Democrats on Fox News, one of the ways that they tried to inoculate themselves against any blowback is to say, ‘we're not going on prime time, but we do have to reach everyone everywhere.’
So it's like, okay, you've limited it down to this acceptable window of a few hours during so-called news programming. And I think the point about Fox News Sunday is actually well taken, which is that what you’re saying requires an even further distinction from the generic one of, ‘Oh, well, we're just going on Fox News’s news shows.’
I think that's probably fair. You can make an argument that Fox News Sunday is a little bit distinct from Fox News for a variety of reasons, in particular the broadcast component. But the thing that sticks out to me is that it’s a distinction that only matters in a very narrow way. It’s a distinction without a difference in terms of the material benefits to Fox News, because Fox certainly does not draw that distinction when they highlight appearances like Buttigieg’s on Fox News Sunday as a reflection of Fox News' programming when they talk to advertisers.
I do think Fox News Sunday is a little bit different than Fox News’s normal programming, but Buttigieg and the administration also go on other shows across the network. And so I just don't think their argument is, ‘Hey, we're just going on this one show because it’s different.’ They basically treat Fox News Sunday as one and the same as Fox News’s “news” division. Or, if I'm going to put it concisely, they're not making as sophisticated and precise an argument as the one you just made. They're not just saying, ‘We're only limiting ourselves to Fox News Sunday because it's broadcast and local.’
If they said that, I actually might feel really differently about this. I think there would still be arguments, but at least then they're proactively saying, ‘We're going on local TV. We're not going on Fox News.’ I'd say, Oh, okay. Got it. But that's not what they say. They treat Fox News Sunday the same way they treat Bill Hemmer's show. So at that point, it's a distinction that we're trying to find, but their argument is not that sophisticated unfortunately.
It might be worth zooming out for a minute and explaining what benefits accrue to Fox when they're able to book people like Buttigieg on their shows. How does that help them?
If you're a skittish advertiser or media buyer or corporate decision maker, one of the things they say is, ‘Well, I don't know if we should do that or go on Fox or advertise on Fox or increase our fees to Fox. Because you guys have gotten pretty far out there.’ What Fox News actually does — and I've been in the conversations where this happens — is say, ‘Oh, but look at that. Even Democrats can’t ignore us. Can you really afford to not be part of it?’ Or alternatively, they say, ‘But they're willing to come on during the day side.’ They'll use that as an example that it's safe. They'll say, ‘Fine. You don't want to support our primetime programming, well then just do what the Democrats do. They say they won't go on primetime, but they certainly go on during the day. Surely you can buy the same amount of ads you'd normally buy and we'll just keep them on during the day. We'll do exactly for you like we do with Democrats.’
So it helps them directly with advertisers, but it also helps them with guests because they actually use those segments or those appearances to then book similar types of high profile people to come on the show. It is a little bit of a laundering and a sanitizing as well.
Has Media Matters studied whether there’s actually any evidence that appearances like Buttigieg’s help Democrats gain support or win elections?
I haven't seen any evidence of that. Now, I think campaigns would say, it's a helpful way for us to get earned media or viral media. But that’s my point. You could get viral media in all sorts of ways. Right? I could go on Steve Bannon's show and get viral media.
Or the other argument I heard a lot during the 2020 primaries, when some of the candidates were doing Fox News town halls was that, ‘Well, this is going to help us in the primary, because it's going to show that we can do this.’ But none of those people actually won, so it didn't help them.
Maybe they get a short term boost out of it, in terms of Twitter engagement. But I haven't seen any evidence it's actually helped. And in fact, I would make the argument, and I really believe this strongly, that if everything Democrats say about Fox News is true — which it is — that they’re a political operation and promote white supremacy, then by not treating them accordingly, you're actually hurting yourself.
If it's functioning like a super PAC, why are you treating it like a news organization sometimes and a super PAC other times? I can't see the evidence of it materially actually helping, and alternatively, I think there's a strong case be made that going on Fox actually makes it harder for Fox News to ever be forced to change, because Democrats give it a little bit of a lifeline in these critical moments.
Buttigieg's appearance on Fox News Sunday illustrates the Biden White House’s broader approach to Fox, which is basically to treat it like it's a legitimate news outlet, including during White House press briefings that have really boosted Peter Doocy’s profile.
You obviously have a lot of experience in this area. If you were the White House communications director, what would be your approach to dealing with Fox? Would you ice them out?
Unless it’s of great public interest — some sort of emergency, in which case all bets are off — I would not be having administration guests, especially high profile ones, on Fox News. That's the first thing. I just wouldn't do it.
I would treat them the exact same way that One America News is treated, because materially they're the same. So first off, I don't want any novel policy. I just want them to use the policy they already have for a bunch of news operations, or supposed news operations, and that is to not legitimize them that way. You don't treat them like a news operation. No weird nuances where some shows are okay and some shows are not. The whole network is poison. The whole network is not interested in being an actual news operation. Until they have some basic standards in their journalistic approach, I wouldn't treat them as such. That's the first thing.
The second thing is that during the press briefings, I think it's important that they're willing to call on Murdoch publications that have some semblance of editorial standards, even if it’s right-leaning. So, Wall Street Journal, even the Post to a limited extent — fine. But I don't think that Fox News at this stage should be treated like the other major networks are. And I understand they're going to get some short term blow back from that, and they'll be attacked and criticized. I get it. But I also don't think there's any benefit to giving them the platform. And more importantly, there’s no benefit to perpetuating the myth that they are a part of the White House press pool team.
And then the third thing I would do is I would start to ask the White House press pool why Fox News gets to be part of it. It's one thing to be in the press corps, and I'm a little uneasy about them pushing on that. But I do think it's very weird that Fox News gets to be part of the press pool the same way that the Associated Press does, the same way that NBC News does. I don't think that makes any sense, because the pool has downstream effects. And at that point, if Fox News is not trusted, which they're not, you just have to start treating them that way.
I realize it seems crazy for an administration to seemingly attack the media that way. But I also don't think it’s an attack. I would consider it more upholding standards. I swear, if a brand new news operation started tomorrow and they did the exact same things Fox News does every single day, there's no chance they would be sitting in the press briefing room, even if they had all the money in the world, because we would consider that to be not a news operation. Simply by way of inertia, Fox gets away with a whole bunch of things that they actually shouldn't be getting away with.
If we're going to have any chance of correcting the civic crisis we're in, it’s gonna have to start with buttressing our norms and standards. And I would say that every day the White House plays this footsie game with Fox News in the briefing room, and every day Democrats treat them the way they treat other news outlets, we are actually making it harder to repair and restore any kind of civic norms.