We all know Donald Trump put Fox News Channel in a bind: The network could have bowed to the Republican presidential front-runner’s wishes and removed Megyn Kelly as a moderator of Thursday’s debate, or it could have kept her and let Trump — and perhaps his gargantuan ratings — walk away. In a move that has dominated the political conversation for three days now, Fox News chose to stand by Kelly, and Trump bailed.
Overshadowed by that uncomfortable editorial decision is an almost equally difficult call that Fox’s competitors must make tonight: Do they televise the rally Trump plans to stage at the same time as the debate?
It’s clearly a news event. The novelty of a leading White House contender deciding at the last minute to skip the final debate before the start of caucus and primary voting makes the rally impossible to ignore. As we’ve said so often about Trump’s maneuvers, no one has ever done something quite like this before.
Then again, this is also a blatant effort by Trump to sabotage a debate that he ought to attend and an obvious attempt to show control over the media. He would surely love nothing more than to be beamed into living rooms nationwide — with no moderators or competing candidates to challenge anything he says — and to draw a higher TV rating than the debate.
To air or not to air? That is the question.
CNN host Don Lemon, whose 10 p.m. program falls in the middle of the two-hour debate window, said Wednesday night that the cable news channel would show the Trump rally but did not specify how much. A person familiar with CNN’s plans told The Fix that the network would likely break away from regular programming to show some of the rally but would not televise the entire event.
Trump plugged the CNN airtime on Twitter Thursday morning.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 28, 2016
MSNBC has not indicated publicly how it will handle the Trump rally and did not respond to a Fix inquiry.
There’s no perfect answer here and, on some level, Trump’s plot to manipulate the media has already worked; he’s all anyone in the press is talking about right now.
There is no need, however, to hand him a complete victory by airing the whole rally or even a significant portion of it. Occasional live look-ins make sense, and his most notable remarks should certainly be replayed after the fact — as with any other campaign event.
I just hope the live coverage won’t be so extensive as to let Trump make an apples-to-apples comparison between ratings for his rally and the Fox News debate. He might win that, too; if he did, who knows what he’d feel emboldened to try next?