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Why Some 2020 Democratic Presidential Contenders Embrace Fox Town Halls

May 8, 2019
Originally published on May 8, 2019 12:18 pm
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NOEL KING, HOST:

All right, to U.S. politics now. A couple weeks ago, Bernie Sanders went on Fox News for a town hall. This was an unexpected sight because Fox News and the Trump White House have a very close relationship. But now more 2020 Democratic candidates are following Sanders' lead. Amy Klobuchar is set to go on Fox this evening. NPR's Don Gonyea explains what's going on.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: The Democratic Party has already rejected Fox as a host of any of its televised debates of the 2020 primary season, citing a pro-Trump, pro-GOP bias at the network. Even so, there's no outward sign the party has a problem with candidates showing up on Fox News, including town halls.

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BRET BAIER: Ladies and gentlemen, Senator Bernie Sanders.

(APPLAUSE)

BERNIE SANDERS: Thank you very much.

GONYEA: That first voice was Fox News anchor Bret Baier, who hosted that town hall along with anchor Martha MacCallum. They are from the network's news division and not its opinion side, which includes the network's high-profile hosts Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson. And that makes a big difference, says Kathleen Hall Jamieson of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School.

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Were a Democratic candidate to be offered the opportunity to speak in a town hall moderated by Sean Hannity, I would recommend that the Democratic candidate flee.

GONYEA: And while a pro-Trump reputation hangs over all of the network's programming, Jamieson says, from it's news anchors, you can reasonably expect tough but fair questioning. And unlike a debate where responses are kept very short, in the town hall, Sanders jousted with his hosts, at times accusing them of bias and taking time to make his points. An audience member asked him about being a millionaire, thanks to a bestselling book; the senator refused to apologize for the book's success, then came this exchange.

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SANDERS: So I guess on Fox News, you said that I benefited from Trump's bill. Did you tell people that I voted against Trump's tax bill?

BAIER: Sure.

SANDERS: OK.

BAIER: But you did benefit from it.

MARTHA MACCALLUM: You did benefit.

(APPLAUSE)

SANDERS: Yeah. But I voted against it.

GONYEA: Kathleen Hall Jamieson says there are solid reasons for doing these events. It conveys a readiness to engage with voters across the aisle, and she says, don't just assume all of Fox's viewers are in Donald Trump's camp; there are independents and Democrats watching - a minority to be sure, but those are potential votes. And she says...

JAMIESON: Don't underestimate the extent to which, by appearing in that venue, the candidate signals that, I'm tough enough to be there. It's difficult to find ways to signal that, particularly for female candidates. There is a net advantage in being in that environment when it's perceived to be a hostile environment.

GONYEA: On top of that, Bernie Sanders' town hall drew a huge audience - record viewership for any 2020 town hall so far. That will encourage other candidates. In addition to Klobuchar tonight, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand will each take a turn as well. That list will likely grow, but critics still say, don't do it. Dan Pfeiffer was communications director in the Obama White House. He said despite the incentives, this only helps legitimize, quote, "one of the most destructive forces in American politics." Here's Pfeiffer on the "Pod Save America" podcast, which he co-hosts.

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DAN PFEIFFER: It allows Fox's advertising department to go back to the advertisers who have pulled out because of things that Sean Hannity has said, Tucker Carlson has said, Laura Ingraham has said and say, look - Bernie Sanders comes on here, Amy Klobuchar comes on here, Pete Buttigieg comes on here, and we - see? We are legitimate.

GONYEA: Not all of the criticism has come from Democrats; the president was also watching Sanders on Fox and tweeted a complaint that the audience was, quote, "so smiley and nice." In another tweet, another complaint, with Trump asking, what's with Fox News? Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOUSE ON THE KEYS' "REFLEXION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.