Over the past few weeks, Democratic presidential hopefuls have been locked in an intraparty debate over whether to appear on Fox News. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg have both defended their decision to do so, arguing that it’s a way to reach conservatives, particularly Trump voters, where they are.
Buttigieg argued that Democrats shouldn’t ignore Fox viewers, writing that “if we unilaterally decide that they shouldn’t hear my or other Democrats’ messages, then we shouldn’t act surprised if they have a distorted view of what we believe and who we are.”
Others have come to a different conclusion. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D.-Mass.) decided against appearing on Fox, calling it “a hate-for-profit racket that gives a megaphone to racists and conspiracists.”
It’s true that Fox reaches a big audience — it’s the most-watched cable news network. But while addressing conservative voters there, candidates aren’t reaching core Democratic voters, particularly people of color. According to a CNN report, just 6 percent of Fox viewers are people of color, and just 1 percent are African American.
Other networks do much better with viewers of color: MSNBC was the most-watched cable network among African Americans in 2017, averaging about 483,000 African American viewers across its weekday prime-time programming. CNN’s viewership with African Americans averages over 306,000. But none of the major news networks cater specifically to a minority audience.
Media organizations such as the Black Entertainment Television, Univision and Telemundo cater primarily to viewers of color, shaping interviews and the depth and range of topics covered in town halls to better address the interests of those potential voters.
The Fox studio audience for its Sanders and Buttigieg town hall was largely white, pretty consistent with Fox viewership and the makeup of the Republican Party. The event wasn’t void of concerns related to voters of color, as The Washington Post’s Matt Viser noted on Twitter, but the question was asked to a white candidate, by a white voter and among a mostly white crowd.
CNN’s past town halls — which have featured more diverse studio audiences than those at Fox News — have addressed topics of interest to voters of color. During an April event, CNN anchor Don Lemon directly asked Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D.-Calif.), the only black woman running for president: What’s your agenda for black America?
The lawmaker answered the question by addressing the wealth gap between black and white Americans, health issues impacting black mothers, adequately funding historically black colleges and universities and other issues.
But it was one question of many. An audience made up nearly entirely of people of color would have an opportunity to focus an entire forum on the topics that matter to them most, such as police brutality against people of color, the re-segregation of public schools and the disenfranchisement of voters of color.
Angela Rye, a CNN political analyst, works with mainstream media organizations as well as media organizations aimed at voters of color. In the past, she has provided commentary following events held by CNN and also moderated “Angela Rye’s State of the Union” on BET. She told The Fix that one of the main differences between that show and others dissecting the current administration was an awareness of the target audience.
“There was a mutual understanding of how important that the audience — black women — is,” she said. Rye said one of the main challenges with mainstream media organizations is that voters of color are often not a priority, and therefore initial conversations rarely go anywhere.
“It is the responsibility of every network that has a substantial number of black viewers, of brown viewers, of women viewers to hold town halls and presidential forums. We’ve talked to networks about doing that, and we will see who steps up to do their part,” she said.
Some candidates have already appeared on cable news networks targeting voters of color. BET has already hosted an event with Harris and Sen. Cory Booker (D.-N.J.), and it is planning a forum with presidential candidates in June focused on “work, wages and wealth” in the black community.
In 2016, the network hosted multiple candidate forums, with candidates such as Sanders addressing issues related to the Black Lives Matter movement and criminal justice reform.
Candidates are reaching voters of color via other outlets, too. Candidates, including Buttigieg, Harris and Booker, have sat down for interviews on nationally syndicated radio programs aimed at black voters, ranging from “The Breakfast Club” to the “The Tom Joyner Morning Show.” Some have also been interviewed by the Root and the Grio, prominent online publications.
But television is a crucial tool for reaching black voters. According to the American Press Institute, the majority of African Americans get their news directly from television newscasts. Given that, Rye said if a media organization truly values connecting their audiences with those seeking the presidency, they should develop programming that reflects that.
“The responsibility is not just on the candidates. It’s on the networks to reach out to the candidates,” she said. “If the candidates aren’t confirming, then that’s a conversation for the candidates, but the onus is on the networks. When we talk about substantive engagement with the community, ensuring that they are answering to the black community on a black agenda.”