POLITICS
30/09/2020 9:20 AM AEST | Updated 30/09/2020 3:38 PM AEST

Why Is Fox News Hosting The First Presidential Debate?

The network often acts as an arm of the Trump campaign. So why is it being given the role of impartial referee?

When President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden meet on a debate stage for the first time on Tuesday, Fox News’ Chris Wallace will be sitting at the moderator’s desk. The outwardly right-wing network was not only awarded the first presidential debate, but the one that will include a conversation on the anti-racist protests that erupted nationwide over the summer ― or as the topic will be framed Tuesday, “Race and Violence in Our Cities.” 

Even if Wallace, who is possibly the network’s most respected personality, does a fair job, it’s questionable to award a presidential debate to a network that often acts as an undisguised arm of the Trump campaign. Just Tuesday, the network spent the hours leading up to the debate airing Trump-approved conspiracy theories about Biden using performance-enhancing drugs. Granting the network the imprimatur of a neutral arbiter of political debates gives legitimacy to a network that has no interest in fulfilling that role. 

But it’s particularly scandalous to let Fox News anywhere near a debate on race, given that its prime-time programming in particular often veers into lightly varnished white nationalism. 

Its top prime-timehosts have routinely vilified Black Lives Matter protests and promoted conspiracy theories, while a writer on host Tucker Carlson’s top-rated show was recently forced to resign for being active on racist online forums ― the content of which seemingly became material for Carlson’s broadcasts.

Carlson, who has a long history of racist rhetoric that includes referring to Iraqis as “semiliterate primitive monkeys,” has been on a near nightly rant against anti-racism protests. He has claimed that the Black Lives Matter movement’s “goal is to end liberal democracy and challenge Western civilization itself.” He’s also repeatedly downplayed the threat of white nationalism while echoing much of its ideology, even suggesting white supremacy was a “hoax” only days after a shooter who wrote a white supremacist manifesto killed 22 people in El Paso, Texas.

Other Fox News hosts have embraced a similar narrative. Sean Hannity has equated Black Lives Matter with the Ku Klux Klan, while Laura Ingraham aired an interview with Trump in which he promoted a range of baseless conspiracy theories about the demonstrations, while calling protesters “thugs.” Fox News has also routinely featured guests that spread misinformation about anti-racism protests while vehemently defending law enforcement and the president.  

“Black Lives Matter wants to come and take your house away from you. They want to take your property away from you,” Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, told Ingraham.

Fox News has escaped broader scrutiny in holding the debate in large part because it is keeping its more extreme hosts who also function as informal advisors to Trump, such as Ingraham and Carlson, away from the stage. Instead, the outlet is giving moderating duties to Wallace. 

Fox News often presents Wallace as its respectable face for marquee events and interviews that demand some degree of pushback against Trump or other officials. His adherence to journalistic standards has led to Trump repeatedly criticizing him, including nonsensically claiming he will be “controlled by the radical left” during Tuesday’s debate. But while Wallace is a very different moderator than his prime-time colleagues, the framing of the topic of anti-racism protests still fits neatly into Trump campaign narratives. Wallace has also said he wants to be “as invisible as possible” during the debate, which may leave Trump an unchecked platform to promote falsehoods and racist misinformation during the event. 

Civil rights groups and journalists have already criticized Fox News’ framing of the topic, with the president and CEO of the NAACP, Derrick Johnson, telling Newsweek that the topic created a “false and dangerous narrative” about the nationwide protests. It’s a narrative that the network has worked hard to promote and primed its audience to believe.

As immense, nationwide demonstrations forced a public examination of policing and racism in recent months, Fox News instead chose to focus its coverage on property damage and incidents of violence during demonstrations while ignoring or downplaying widespread police brutality and attacks perpetrated by the far right.

It is possible that the content of “Race and Violence in Our Cities” will be less problematic than the title. But if Wallace does use the topic to, for instance, ask about white supremacist violence ― which the FBI deems as one of the United States’ most urgent national security threats ― it will be a stark change from how Fox News hosts usually talk about white nationalism, and will hardly push back against the torrent of misinformation it has broadcast to its audiences before Tuesday night. 

Fox News’ campaign coverage has featured relentless pro-Trump messaging. In the days leading up to the debate, the outlet also elevated various conspiracy theories surrounding the event. On Fox & Friends, Giuliani baselessly accused Biden of taking Adderall to enhance his performance ― an attack Trump has also made ― while chief political correspondent Bret Baier promoted the unfounded accusation that Biden may be wearing some kind of secret listening device to help him debate. (Baier also defended the topic of race and violence, although his justification was simply repeating the name of the category: “Race and violence is what we’ve been looking at in various cities across the country,” Baier said when asked about the framing.) 

Some of Fox’s top talents are also deeply involved in shaping the messaging and policies of the Trump administration and its political allies. Hannity privately consulted Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), a Trump acolyte, last year on how to handle a scandal. Gaetz asked the Fox News host how long he should “lay low” and Hannity told Gaetz to run future communications by him. Both Carlson and Ingraham have had private meetings with Trump to advise on his handling of the coronavirus, and former Fox News executive Bill Shine joined the Trump administration in 2018 after being forced out of Fox for his handling of sexual harassment scandals.  

Viewers only tuning into Fox for the debate on Tuesday may be unaware of these connections, conspiracy theory endorsements, and the implications of presenting violence and the push for racial justice as two sides of the same coin. But the channel’s regular viewers will be watching with those narratives already baked-in to the debate. 


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