Dan Balz, chief correspondent at The Washington Post; Judy Woodruff, anchor and managing editor at PBS NewsHour; and Bret Baier, chief political anchor at Fox News, participate in a discussion on Jan. 23. (Kristoffer Tripplaar for The Washington Post)
Media critic

Fox News has branded itself as a conservative network housing a squad of sycophants for President Trump. The Democratic National Committee has chosen to honor that branding. In a statement to The Post’s Paul Farhi, DNC Chairman Tom Perez declared that the No. 1 cable-news network wouldn’t be hosting any Democratic primary debates in the 2020 cycle:

I believe that a key pathway to victory is to continue to expand our electorate and reach all voters. That is why I have made it a priority to talk to a broad array of potential media partners, including Fox News. Recent reporting in the New Yorker on the inappropriate relationship between President Trump, his administration and Fox News has led me to conclude that the network is not in a position to host a fair and neutral debate for our candidates. Therefore, Fox News will not serve as a media partner for the 2020 Democratic primary debates.

That’s a blow to Fox News, which in 2016 made an executive priority of pursuing a Democratic debate, an effort that ultimately fizzled. The 12 televised Democratic debates are likely to dominate far more than 12 news cycles. These are major political events, “appointment” viewing for the politically motivated across the country. Carrying debates guarantees an audience far in excess of the average prime-time cable-news program. Memorable debate moments get re-aired on the Web and on the broadcasts of competitors, guaranteeing brand elevation for the network with debate rights.

Fox News provided The Post this statement from executive Bill Sammon: “We hope the DNC will reconsider its decision to bar Chris Wallace, Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum, all of whom embody the ultimate journalistic integrity and professionalism, from moderating a Democratic presidential debate. They’re the best debate team in the business and they offer candidates an important opportunity to make their case to the largest TV news audience in America, which includes many persuadable voters.”

Fair point: These folks are generally professional, solid interviewers. Democrats have already signaled as much by appearing on straight-news programs on Fox News — the better to reach that robust slice of the Fox News audience that is moderate to liberal.

The message of the DNC, however, is that Fox News can’t distract from the corruption of its opinion hours by praising the professionalism of its leading straight-news hosts. That corruption occasionally crosses over the wall, as a New Yorker piece this week from Jane Mayer documents. Before the November 2016 presidential election, Mayer reports, FoxNews.com reporter Diana Falzone had confirmed the story of Trump’s affair with Stormy Daniels and had seen the contract that had secured her silence on the matter. “Good reporting, kiddo. But Rupert wants Donald Trump to win. So just let it go,” a Fox News executive told Falzone, according to her contemporaneous accounts to colleagues.

The taint on the opinion side isn’t nearly as hard to tease out. Host Sean Hannity is a straight-up advocate for Trump and antagonist to Democrats. Tucker Carlson, the table-setter at 8 p.m., specializes in exaggerating and mischaracterizing Democratic politicians and positions. The hosts of “Fox & Friends” should collect salaries from Trump, just for being good, loyal partisans.

The statement by Sammon is an interesting display of television statecraft. It highlights the work of the straight-news crew of Fox News, omitting any such endorsement of the opinion folks. Yet when it came time to expand the Fox News offerings into a stand-alone streaming service under the banner of Fox Nation, the network chose the opinion route, in full awareness that they provide the audience-convening heart of Fox News.

A snippet of Mayer’s article bears directly on the DNC’s potential collaboration with Fox News. It pertains to the question posed by then-Fox News host Megyn Kelly at the GOP presidential debate in August 2015. Mayer:

Fox, however, may have given Trump a little help. A pair of Fox insiders and a source close to Trump believe that Ailes informed the Trump campaign about Kelly’s question. Two of those sources say that they know of the tipoff from a purported eyewitness. In addition, a former Trump campaign aide says that a Fox contact gave him advance notice of a different debate question, which asked the candidates whether they would support the Republican nominee, regardless of who won. The former aide says that the heads-up was passed on to Trump, who was the only candidate who said that he wouldn’t automatically support the Party’s nominee—a position that burnished his image as an outsider.

These claims are hard to evaluate: [Roger] Ailes is dead, and they conflict with substantial reporting suggesting that the rift between Trump and Fox was bitter. A former campaign aide is adamant that Trump was genuinely surprised and infuriated by Kelly’s question. A Fox spokesperson strongly denied the allegations, and declined requests for interviews with employees involved in the debate.

The DNC could well be concerned that any debate sponsored by Fox News could be sullied by the network’s general lack of news ethics and the status of top officials — especially Hannity and “Fox & Friends” co-host Steve Doocy — as Trump boosters. Of course, the DNC might also take precautions with CNN, which is the subject of a confirmed question-sharing scandal in the 2016 primary cycle.

The likes of Wallace, Baier and MacCallum have got to be disappointed with the decision of the DNC. Baier, for one, lobbied the former DNC boss for a Fox News debate in the 2016 election cycle. But the decision is a slap in the face of sorts, a brutal reminder that despite their hard work and many very good interviews, none of them is the face of Fox News. That’s Hannity. Or Carlson. Or Doocy.

Read more:

Greg Sargent: Fox News spins desperately to shield lawless president from accountability

Erik Wemple: Report: Trump has a loyalty scale for Fox News hosts

Erik Wemple: Fox News host boosts Mar-a-Lago

Erik Wemple: Fox News is finally getting its national emergency

Paul Waldman: Welcome to the Fox News presidency