Moreover, not all airtime on Fox News is created equal; some interviewers are tougher than others. The usually unflappable Romney appeared visibly perturbed by questions about his changing positions on health care, immigration and other issues in an interview with Fox News anchor Bret Baier in late November. Baier said later on the air that Romney complained about his questions. Conversely, some note that Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) has received a relatively friendly reception from Fox host Neil Cavuto, who has interviewed Paul repeatedly this year.
But while a particular candidate may come in for harsh treatment from time to time on Fox, the overall tone is never consistently hostile toward Republicans, said Ari Rabin-Havt, executive vice president of Media Matters.
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The network’s strategy is to “maintain its position as the mouthpiece of the Republican party,” and a consistent animus toward any Republican might alienate some portion of the party and its viewing base, he said. “To call Fox even-handed is a bridge too far, but they certainly haven’t picked a favorite” in this campaign.
This might explain why former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson — who lags far behind the field in money, name recognition and standing in the polls — has been on Fox News about as often as Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a leading candidate. Johnson was the beneficiary of the longest interview Fox has granted a candidate during this campaign, some 40 minutes with host John Stossel in June, according to Media Matters.
“From a purely commercial standpoint, which is the overriding consideration for Fox, it all makes perfect sense,” said Shanto Iyengar, a professor of political science and communications at Stanford University. “If most of your viewers are from the right, why would you want to alienate any of them? They are simply being consistent with what their audience profile data is telling them.”
Iyengar said things could change if the Republican field narrows to two candidates, as it did in 2008 in the Democratic contest between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama. At that point, he said, Fox is more likely to pick sides and start signalling a preference based on the candidate the network believes has the strongest chance to defeat President Obama in the fall.
But this underestimates Fox News, said Kevin Madden, Romney’s press secretary in 2008 and an informal adviser to his campaign. “I think every newsroom at its core, and Fox is no exception, is driven principally to cover a great story,” he said. “The up days and the down days drive coverage. I don’t think they’ll be any different than MSNBC or CNN or CNBC. I can’t see how or why they’d go one way or another. . . . They have been consistent in giving [all of] the candidates a chance.”
But Rabin-Havt sounds pretty cynical about what to expect after the primaries. “I think you’ll start to see Fox broadcasting more of the usual misinformation” about the Democratic candidate, he said.