From Tom Jones | Poynter <[email protected]>
Subject Fox News paints depressing picture of America in first GOP debate
Date August 24, 2023 11:30 AM
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Wednesday night’s debate fits right in with what you see during prime time every other night of the week on Fox News: America is a mess. Email not displaying correctly?
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** Fox News paints a depressing picture of America in first GOP debate
Fox News’ Martha MacCallum and Bret Baier, the moderators of Wednesday night’s Republican presidential debate. (Courtesy: Fox News)

It was, well, something. It might not mean anything. By the time we get to Election Day in 2024, Wednesday night’s first Republican presidential debate likely will long be forgotten. MSNBC’s Jen Psaki even wondered on air if we would remember this a couple of days from now.

After all, there’s a better-than-decent chance that the Republican nominee wasn’t even on the stage.

But, yep, it was something. And that something was mostly depressing.

Wednesday night’s debate fits right in with what you see during prime time every other night of the week on Fox News: that America is a mess, circling the drain, in a total freefall.

And it’s all the fault of Joe Biden and the Democrats.

Much of that picture was painted by the eight candidates on stage Wednesday night, but they were certainly aided by the questions offered by Fox News moderators Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum. According to The New York Times ([link removed]) , no one was attacked more than Biden (14 times) over the two hours.

Again, the moderators played a role in that. For Baier and MacCallum, it was, at best, an uneven night: a little bit good, an awful lot bad and, mostly, mediocre.

Give them credit for choosing real topics and issues: the economy, immigration, abortion, climate, Ukraine, education. Yet, the questions teed up the candidates to bash Biden and the Democrats. That, certainly, was to be expected. That’s how debates work: You save your harshest criticism for the other side. The problem was the moderators let the candidates get away with not directly answering specific questions, being vague about others, rarely pushing back when necessary and, far too often, letting the candidates bulldoze their way over them and each other. The bell that dinged each time a candidate went over his or her time was not enforced by the moderators. Allowing the candidate to go over a few seconds is fine, but often it was more than a few seconds.

There were far too many times when the debate seemed like a free-for-all with candidates ignoring the moderators and elbowing their way into the conversation even when it wasn’t supposed to be their turn.

That’s why there was such a disparity between the person who got to talk the most (Mike Pence for 12 minutes, 37 seconds) and the one who talked the least (Asa Hutchinson for 7 minutes).

As former Donald Trump adviser David Urban said on CNN immediately after the debate, “I think tonight proves that you don't need Donald Trump to have a debate (turn into) a (expletive) show.” He also called it a “train wreck” and talked about how the moderators let the debate get away from them.

The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake counted Fox News among one of the night’s losers. He wrote ([link removed]) , “Candidates repeatedly disregarded the debate rules, with little in the way of an attempt to keep the proceedings on track. When candidates talked over moderators Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum as they tried to move on, the moderators often just relented and gave them the stage. But the problems were most evident in the moderators’ handling of hand-raising questions — a good and helpful entry at any debate. The first time they requested such responses, (Florida Gov. Ron) DeSantis objected to the format, and they just let him do it, declining to make the request again.”

The Atlantic’s Tim Alberta tweeted ([link removed]) , “What a terrible production from top to bottom. Constant audience interference. No control of the stage. And botched the execution of their best question (would you still support Trump if convicted). How do you let multiple candidates halfway raise their hands and not follow up?!?”

But the overwhelming theme of the night was just how awful things are in America, according to the candidates and the moderators.

And it started right immediately at the top in what can only be described as a bizarre choice for an opening. Instead of letting the candidates give a statement or asking them all the same question, as is tradition in debates, Fox News made the opening statement for them by playing a clip of the song, “Rich Men North of Richmond.” The New York Times’ Nick Corasaniti describes ([link removed]) the song as a “folksy ballad about a narrator who is ‘working all day’ while rich elites in Washington — an hour north of Richmond — keep him stuck in place.”

Even conservative Derek Hunter wrote for The Hill ([link removed]) that the opening was “terrible,” adding, “It seems more like Fox News trying to seem hip rather than taking the moment seriously.”

With that, we were off on two hours of bleakness in which the candidates, set up by the moderators, talked about how bad Biden has been, how awful our cities are, how dangerous our border is, and gave some examples of why they are the answer to what they see as America’s problems.

Baier and MacCallum had, quite often, a difficult time corralling the candidates. For example, on the question of climate change, the moderators let DeSantis plow over them. The result was an important topic turned into a free-for-all of insults between the candidates. Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy did talk about climate, but for the most part, the topic wasn’t fully discussed. That was Baier and MacCallum’s fault. According to the Times, only a minute and change was spent talking specifically about climate.

The moderators also were slow to push back on the candidates whenever they said something that clearly wasn’t true or was misleading — such as, most notably, when candidates talked about “abortions up until birth.”

As Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler wrote last September ([link removed]) , “But the GOP attacks are disingenuous at best. They imply that late-term abortions are common — and that they are routinely accepted by Democrats. The reality, according to federal and state data, is that abortions past the point of viability are extremely rare. When they do happen, they often involve painful, emotional and even moral decisions.”

Kessler added, “an examination of state data shows most of those late-term abortions come within the 22nd or 23rd week, when viability outside the womb is not assured. That would place almost all abortions before or within the second trimester.”

Yet, the Fox News moderators allowed the candidates to make such claims again on Wednesday.

Look, there were eight candidates on the stage, all fighting to have “moments” and cut into Trump’s big lead. Controlling them isn’t easy. The job Baier and MacCallum had wasn’t easy. But that doesn’t erase the fact that they did not have a great night.

Although, I will add these thoughts from Newsweek’s Andrew Stanton ([link removed]) : “Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum allowed candidates enough space to make their positions heard while throwing in some of their pre-planned soundbites and allowing feisty interactions. Despite rule-bending side conversations and regular bell ringing from the moderators, nothing got too far off of the pre-planned track. … MacCallum and Baier were able to keep the debate on track, filling the 2-hour run time with a broad array of topics that made candidates' common ground and differences clear. From economics and border security to pro-life stances to opinions on Trump, the moderators were able to keep candidates from long monologues that kept the debate away from a single-issue stance.”

Not sure I agree with that, but that is another perspective.

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** The elephant not in the room

The best line of the night was former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie saying, “I get the UFO question?”

But the next best belonged to Baier, who introduced the topic that everyone wanted to hear. Baier said they were going to talk about “the elephant not in the room.”

That, of course, was Donald Trump, who skipped the debate. That moment came nearly an hour into the debate. But only abortion (7 minutes, 54 seconds) was talked about more than Trump (6 minutes, 50 seconds).

The conversation started with the moderators asking the candidates about a possible pardon of Trump if he was convicted and they were president. They were asked to raise their hands if they would pardon Trump.

Aaron Blake wrote for The Washington Post ([link removed]) , “Only Christie and Hutchinson declined, but both DeSantis and Pence were slow to raise their hands. And for some reason, there was no follow-up with them.”

** Good moments

Baier and MacCallum did have some good moments. At one point, they did admonish the audience for booing and disrupting the debate, with Baier telling the audience they were only cutting into the time candidates could talk. Baier also shut down Mike Pence once when Pence tried speaking when it wasn’t his turn. He also scolded DeSantis for interrupting.

During a lightning round, when candidates ignored that they had 30 seconds to answer the question, Baier quipped, “This is a lightning round, not rolling thunder.”

** A sober game

Before the debate, there were those fun drinking game ideas. You know, take a drink every time someone says a particular word or phrase. Heading into the debate, some of the suggested buzz words were “woke” and “Hunter Biden” and references to the “left (or) lamestream media.”

If that was a game, you likely walked away stone-cold sober. Those words were barely said. Other than one “corporate media” comment by DeSantis and Ramaswamy addressing Christie and saying, “I’m not running for president of MSNBC,” the candidates didn’t attack the media.

** Postgame breakdown

Fox News’ post-debate show, hosted by Sean Hannity, was very high on DeSantis, who was also the first guest on the show.

Meanwhile, CNN and MSNBC seemed much less impressed with DeSantis and most impressed with Haley. Psaki’s post-debate panel considered Haley and Ramaswamy to be the winners of the night. And Psaki said DeSantis was left untouched by the other candidates, adding, “His performance was incredibly forgettable.”

MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow said, “I was shocked by how bad Ron DeSantis is at playing politician.”

** Good hustle
Fox News’ Sean Hannity, left, interviewing Mike Pence following Wednesday’s debate. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

One of the best post-debate moments was CNN’s Dana Bash interviewing Ramaswamy and asking directly about his statement that he would pardon Trump if the former president were to be convicted of federal crimes. Ramaswamy repeated that he would because he believes the charges against Trump are politically motivated and divisive to the country.

Meanwhile, Hannity interviewed many of the candidates after the debate, and asked good questions regarding abortion to Haley, who says she is “unapologetically pro-life” but also realizes how polarizing the issue is in this country and that she doesn’t judge women who are pro-choice.

Hannity’s interviews of the candidates were, as you expect, friendly. But there were some insightful moments and it assuredly played well with Fox News viewers.

** Final thoughts on the debate
* Trump not being there probably made for a more productive debate. Viewers at least got a little bit of a sense of who the candidates are. It’s hard to imagine Trump participating in this debate and not sucking the air out of the room. He is just too much of a dominant presence. And if the moderators had a hard time keeping the eight debaters in check, just imagine the trouble they would’ve had with Trump there.
* Speaking of Trump, he did an interview on X with Tucker Carlson. (More on that below.) But to echo comments made by Semafor’s Ben Smith on MSNBC after the debate, appearing on X on this night made both Tucker and Trump seem small.
* Be sure to check out Poynter’s PolitiFact: “What Republican candidates got right, wrong in first debate on Fox News.” ([link removed])

** Reunited and it feels so … weird?

Five minutes before Wednesday night’s GOP debate, Tucker Carlson’s interview with Donald Trump began on X, formerly known as Twitter.

The Washington Post’s Sarah Ellison and Josh Dawsey wrote ([link removed]) , “That the two men were talking at all seemed extraordinary given what had transpired between them. Trump and Carlson are both giant figures on America’s political right, their interests and ambitions long intertwined. But in March, a trove of text messages released as part of a lawsuit against Fox revealed Carlson had once confided that he hated Trump ‘passionately’ and that he couldn’t wait until he could ‘ignore Trump most nights.’”

So what gives?

As Ellison and Dawsey noted, Trump doing the interview was a chance to upstage the GOP debate and, they added, “It also is a not-so-subtle jab at Fox, the network that helped build his political career but has lately been shopping for another Republican candidate to unofficially back in the presidential primary.”

Of course, Carlson has even more of a reason to stick it to Fox News: The network fired him not long after it paid Dominion Voting Systems $787.5 million to settle a defamation lawsuit.

Then again, it’s hard to imagine that Fox News’ viewership numbers took a big hit from an interview on X despite all that’s going on in Trump’s world, which includes turning himself into being arrested in Georgia today on charges he sought to overturn his 2020 election loss in that state.

To his credit, Carlson’s first question of Trump was asking why he wasn’t at the debate. Trump, talking about his lead in the polls, said it didn’t make sense to participate in a debate against people he said had no chance to be president. He also took a jab at Fox News, saying how they started off this election cycle backing, in his words, “Ron Desanctimonious.”

Speaking of being arrested in Georgia, check out this line from CNN’s Anderson Cooper talking about Rudy Giuliani, who turned himself in on Wednesday: “This is the man once known as ‘America’s Mayor’ and Time Magazine’s ‘Person of the Year.’ Well, tonight he is Fulton County inmate No. PO1135780.”

For the rest of today’s newsletter, here are some media tidbits, links and stories you should read …
* Semafor’s Ben Smith reports ([link removed]) former New York Times and BBC chief Mark Thompson is a leading candidate to replace Chris Licht as the head of CNN. The network has a group of four sharing leadership duties right now. Thompson left the Times in 2020 after eight years, and has an extensive career in TV at the BBC. Smith wrote, “Friends say there’s no guarantee that Thompson would want the job, which appears likely to feature endless rounds of grim cost-control measures for a slowly declining cable business and an uncertain streaming future. He’s said to be spending time at his home in Maine and enjoying board posts at institutions like the Royal Shakespeare Company. He was knighted by King Charles of England in June. But television, former New York Times colleagues say, is in his blood, and it may be hard for him not to consider the top job at an iconic global company.”
* My Poynter colleague Angela Fu writes that The Texas Tribune had layoffs ([link removed]) Wednesday for the first time in 14 years. Fu wrote, “In an email to staff, CEO Sonal Shah wrote that 2023 has been a particularly challenging year for the outlet, which many have come to see as a model for nonprofit journalism. At a time when newsrooms across the country are shrinking, the Tribune has maintained a largely upward trajectory, growing both its staff and budget as it expands its coverage of the state. That momentum appeared to come to a halt Wednesday when several longtime journalists were laid off.”
* The Wall Street Journal’s Kate Vtorygina and Ann M. Simmons have a legal update on Evan Gershkovich: “Russia Authorities Request Extension of Detention of Jailed WSJ Reporter.” ([link removed])
* The Atlantic’s Charlie Warzel with “What Happened to Wirecutter?” ([link removed])
* The Washington Post’s Greg Jaffe and Patrick Marley with “A sex educator in Michigan refused to be shamed. Then came the backlash.” ([link removed])
* For The New York Times Magazine, Rachel Corbett with “The Inheritance Case That Could Unravel an Art Dynasty.” ([link removed])
* For The Daily Beast, Catherine Caruso with “I Really Wanted to Hate ‘Suits’ — But I Don’t Think Anyone Can.” ([link removed])
* For BBC Sport, Alexis James with “One win, 17,000 defeats — life as a Washington General.” ([link removed])

** More resources for journalists
* Bring Poynter to Your Newsroom, Classroom or Workplace ([link removed]) .
* Poynter Leadership Academy for Women in Media ([link removed]) (Mar., May & Sept. 2024) — Apply by Sept. 8, 2023 ([link removed]) .
* Power of Diverse Voices: Writing Workshop for Journalists of Color ([link removed]) (Nov. 15-18) (Seminar) — Apply by Sept. 15 ([link removed]) .
* Subscribe ([link removed]) to Poynter’s Friday newsletter, Open Tabs ([link removed]) with Poynter managing editor Ren LaForme, and get behind-the-scenes stories only available to subscribers.

Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at [email protected] (mailto:[email protected]) .
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