Donald Trump, apparently still angry that at the first Republican debate Megyn Kelly recited things he had said about women, has refused to participate in tomorrow night’s Fox News debate because Kelly will be one of the moderators. Republicans watching this squabble are probably feeling nothing but aggravation — there’s nothing good about having your presidential frontrunner argue in increasingly bitter terms with your most important and loyal news organ.
But at the moment, this fight is good for both sides. Donald Trump certainly knows that, and if Fox doesn’t realize it, they will by the time it’s over.
Before I explain, let’s make sure we’re caught up. Once Trump announced the moderators for the debate, Trump said he’d boycott it, because Kelly doesn’t treat him fairly. Then Fox released a statement mocking him, which said in part, “We learned from a secret back channel that the Ayatollah and Putin both intend to treat Donald Trump unfairly when they meet with him if he becomes president.”
Trump then released his own statement explaining why he won’t be participating, which reads like a masterful parody of Trump statements, full of references to his highly successful career and great wealth. Both Trump and his campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, made veiled threats against Kelly (“Maybe I know too much about her,” Trump said), which led Fox to release another statement saying “We can’t give in to terrorizations [sic] toward any of our employees,” and reiterating that Trump is welcome to participate in the debate, but he doesn’t get to dictate who the moderators are.
The whole thing has become increasingly acrimonious; last night New York magazine media reporter Gabriel Sherman tweeted, “Trump source says Trump isn’t taking Ailes calls. Hannity just tried calling Trump as an emissary. Trump only wants to deal with Murdoch now.” Late this morning, Sherman tweeted, “Ailes and Trump still have not spoken this morning. ‘It’s war’ sources on both sides say.”
So now they’re in a stalemate. How will it end? Here’s my guess: Some time today or tomorrow, Fox will agree to release an anodyne statement saying they intend to treat all the candidates fairly, including Trump. At that point Trump will declare victory, saying that because he’s such a great negotiator he got them to capitulate to him, just like he’ll do to the Mexicans and the Chinese. Then he’ll participate in the debate, after garnering two solid days of wall-to-wall Trump coverage (just turn your TV to cable news and see what’s happening now).
That’s obviously good for Trump, and it’s good for Fox, too. This debate has already gotten a huge amount of media coverage, and the prospect of the confrontation between Trump and Kelly will boost ratings even further. The network will make more money, and it won’t really lose anything. After all, everybody knew already that Trump isn’t afraid to stand up to them, and by keeping Kelly as one of the debate moderators they can look like principled journalists who don’t back down to bullying.
As I’ve noted before, Roger Ailes’ genius has always lay in his ability to simultaneously achieve two goals with Fox: generating huge profits, and serving the interests of the Republican Party (as those interests are understood by Roger Ailes). Everything that has happened with Trump in this campaign shows that Fox’s power to do the latter has its limits; Ailes might have liked to use Fox to destroy Trump and the threat he poses to the party, but that turned out not to be possible.
But that doesn’t necessarily diminish Fox’s importance in the conservative movement. Fox’s power doesn’t really come from anybody fearing them, it comes from the volume of their megaphone. The network’s influence lies in its ability able to shape the worldview of its viewers and force issues on to the broader media agenda through sheer relentless repetition. Republican politicians want and need Fox — and will continue to do so — because it’s the best way to reach the GOP base. But the network doesn’t spend a lot of time punishing Republicans for transgressions. That’s not how they do business.
Fox discards people (like Dick Morris or Glenn Beck) when Ailes decides that that person is no longer useful, either as a moneymaker or as an advocate for the Republican cause. It’s not personal; it’s just business. The fight with Trump has gotten personal, but he’s sui generis; this sporadic war the network has waged with him may be unpleasant, but it doesn’t do any real harm to the network’s brand and won’t change how they deal with other Republican politicians, who will be just as eager as ever to curry favor with Fox and use it to reach voters. Even the Trump supporters who are cheering him on will probably still watch Fox, because it will remain the place to go for the Republican view on everything. After all, it’s not like they’re going to start getting their news from CNN or MSNBC.
So in the end, Trump gets what he wants (lots of media attention, and a reinforcement of his persona as a guy who goes around pissing everyone off because he’s so brave and politically incorrect) and Fox get what it wants (viewers and ad revenue). Everybody wins.