On Thursday night, the Democratic candidates had the national stage to themselves. They argued for an expanded role for government in health care, greater restrictions on firearms and dramatic action to address climate change. To hear unfiltered GOP pushback, you can go to GOP.com. Or you could sample the propaganda segment that aired on Fox News on Friday at 10 a.m. right in the middle of what the network views as its “straight news” coverage.
Hosts Bill Hemmer and Julie Banderas on the program “America’s Newsroom” welcomed Lara Trump, a senior adviser for Trump’s reelection campaign, to reflect on the debate. And reflect she did.
“I didn’t feel like the American people got a good sense of what they are going to get out of the Democrats other than getting their guns taken away, which they were very clear on, full government-run health care, Medicare-for-all in many respects,” said Trump in kicking off her analysis. “And sadly all you heard was them trying to bash the president, call him a racist, call him a white supremacist.”
Precisely the material you’d expect from a Trump campaign operative. What was remarkable, however, was the degree to which Fox News’s “straight news” anchors assisted in advancing the campaign’s lines of attack. For instance, here’s how Banderas formulated a “question” about health care: “They were talking about health care, they were saying and ridiculing Trump for taking Obamacare, Affordable Care Act, away,” said Banderas. “I’ve always laughed at the term ‘Affordable Care Act’ because it is not affordable.”
Trump agreed, then went on a rant against Democratic health-care policies, including: “Americans do not like what they see when it comes to the Democrats’ health care proposals.”
With that, the anchors had an obvious opening: What about the president’s plan — what would he do to improve the situation? Or: The president vowed to repeal and replace Obamacare in his last campaign but failed to do so. What’s next? Or even: The president has vowed to protect preexisting conditions, but his administration is participating in litigation that would undo those protections. Why?
What did Fox News do instead? Behold: “There was a banner flying in Houston last night. I want to share that with our viewers. It says, ‘Socialism will kill Houston’s economy. Vote Trump 2020,’” said Hemmer, as the banner crawled across the Fox News screen, giving it a bit more exposure.
There’s more: Banderas wanted to talk about the economy and what a killer issue it is for the Trump campaign. Observe how she did that: “Did you notice the economy didn’t come up?” asked Banderas of Trump. “That’s usually the No. 1 topic that you bring up when you’re running for president, but they had nothing to say about it. Why? Because the economy is doing wonderful. Why, though, do you believe that the Democrats did not even bring up [the] economy?”
Why ask a question that you’ve just answered?
In a fleeting embrace of journalism, Hemmer asked about background checks, launching Trump into a discussion of gun rights. Reacting to Democratic candidate Beto O’Rourke’s plan to “take” people’s AR-15s and AK-47s, Trump stammered through a talking point that you don’t often hear in this debate. We’ve carefully punctuated her words in accordance with the transcript to highlight how little confidence she had in this point: “If you watch that debate last night, they were very clear, especially Beto O’Rourke, that he is taking your guns away. That is his answer to this problem,” said Trump. “You see other countries that have done that and the rise ,uh — things go up. Like, you know, uh, knife, uh, incidents go up. People, you know, using knives or using cars to try and injure people to do the same sort of thing. So, it’s, you know, it’s not the guns that shoot people, it’s people who have mental-health problems and people who are very troubled who commit these acts.”
The comeback was clear for Hemmer and Banderas: How many people would have died at Sandy Hook if the killer had to rely on a knife? How many people could the Las Vegas mass murderer have slain from the 32nd floor of a hotel if he’d had to rely on a knife? And what about Australia, which in the mid-1990s banned certain firearms and executed a buyback program — and then watched as its homicide rate has dropped ever since?
No such accountability. The conversation moved along to other polemical caresses.
There are times, to be fair, when “America’s Newsroom” and other “straight news” precincts on Fox News press Trump administration officials with journalistic rectitude. They also often feature stories that the full-time propaganda shows like “Hannity” and “Fox & Friends” shun or “cover” only to dismiss. Shepard Smith’s weekday afternoon show and Chris Wallace’s Sunday program both do strong work on accountability regardless of who holds power.
Caveats aside, the charade that unfolded on Friday morning at the hands of Hemmer and Banderas couldn’t germinate in a real “straight news” operation. Their colleagues, their bosses, their underlings — they would mutiny. At Fox News, it’s just another segment. In May, Media Matters released a study showing that each day between Jan. 1 and April 30, the “straight news” operation at the network spread misinformation. It’s a reminder that when you’re running a 24-7 news operation, there’s time for a diverse palette of programming sensibilities.
Someone should see to it that President Trump watches his daughter-in-law’s interview from start to finish. It might chill his recent inclination to tweet attacks on the network.