Opinion writer

Fox News debate moderators Chris Wallace, Megyn Kelly and Brett Baier in August. (Aaron Josefczyk/Reuters)

The ongoing war of words between Donald Trump and Fox News’s Megyn Kelly reached a fevered pitch on Friday when, in response to a series of Trump’s insulting and hostile tweets, Fox News released a statement:

Donald Trump’s vitriolic attacks against Megyn Kelly and his extreme, sick obsession with her is beneath the dignity of a presidential candidate who wants to occupy the highest office in the land. Megyn is an exemplary journalist and one of the leading anchors in America — we’re extremely proud of her phenomenal work and continue to fully support her throughout every day of Trump’s endless barrage of crude and sexist verbal assaults. As the mother of three young children, with a successful law career and the second highest rated show in cable news, it’s especially deplorable for her to be repeatedly abused just for doing her job.

Someone should tell Sean Hannity, Eric Bolling, the “Fox and Friends” hosts and the other clutch of Trump cheerleaders who have spent endless hours spinning for him, obsequiously interviewing him, fawning over his mastery of the media, attacking Trump’s foes and in doing so making essentially a gigantic in-kind donation to his campaign. If Trump is out of control, it is in large part because Fox News’s media entertainers have built him up and turned over their programming to him. Not only has this fueled Trump’s aggression toward Kelly, but also the Fox News love affair with Trump has overshadowed the work of credible interviewers like Chris Wallace and Bret Baier and dispassionate analysis from respected conservatives like George Will, Dana Perino, Stephen Hayes and Brit Hume.

Fox News has become what its critics and competitor MSNBC (who has its own Fox News-cheerleading problem with “Morning Joe”) long have painted it to be: An unprincipled enabler in the right-wing echo chamber, not an independent journalistic operation. The contrast with another Rupert Murdoch property, the Wall Street Journal, could not be greater. The Journal provides top-flight reporting with right-leaning, but intellectually honest opinion writing. It is not a tool for any candidate, something Fox News TV programming now is perceived to be.

In sum, Fox News has descended into the very sort of thumb-on-the-scale dishonest behavior that conservatives saw in the MSM’s coverage of President Obama in the 2008 and 2012 campaigns. The danger for Fox News, aside from loss of journalistic integrity and damage to the stature of its legitimate journalistic stars, is relegation to a niche of its right-leaning audience. Like Trump himself, it can command attention from a plurality of right-wing viewers. In pandering to Trump and his followers, however, it sacrifices the broader loyalty of other center-right news consumers who have refused to drink the Trump Kool-Aid. Like the angriest, most anti-immigrant talk radio show hosts, it will find itself in a declining demographic of older, angry audiences and risk the ire of advertisers who would rather not be associated with programming that provides refuge for a bigoted, misogynistic bully.

Fox News’s statement in defense of Kelly is better directed at the producers and hosts who have fostered the Trump monster. And if Fox News is truly alarmed at Trump’s behavior — rather than, as some might suspect, playing the feud for ratings — it can disallow hagiographic interviews, end wall-to-wall coverage of rallies that have no intrinsic news value and start treating Trump with the same discerning eye evidenced in its defense of Kelly.