Normally when the president of the United States offers to give you a weekly exclusive at which you can question him about all manner of news, the response is “How can I ever thank you?” It’s literally the sweetest gig a political journalist can hope for.
Steve Doocy was oddly standoffish about it this morning, though. How come?
My facial expressions watching this matched Brian Kilmeade’s exactly.
“He’ll cheat on the ballots. I have no doubt about it … you’re going to see a rigged election” — Trump on the governor of Nevada and the 2020 election pic.twitter.com/mZ5goEZ5cW
— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) September 15, 2020
This is destined to instigate some conspiracy theorizing about Fox starting to reposition itself as a more Democrat-friendly channel ahead of a likely Biden presidency, but that’s goofy. Fox has been playing defense hour by hour for Trump for four years. They’ll relish their liberation if it arrives in November. The only question about the network’s bent next year is what type of attack they’ll emphasize. Hannity and Ingraham will probably revert to pretend fiscal conservatism as the Biden administration starts planning big-ticket programs but Tucker is more of a wild card. He’ll likely stick with nationalism, which could make for awkward moments if, say, Elizabeth Warren ends up in the government and starts targeting some of the same elite fatcats that Carlson rails about. Righty populism could get complicated in the near term whereas Hannity’s brand of simple anti-Bidenism will be easy and pure.
Even more interesting than Doocy’s hesitation on doing regular interviews with Trump is the president’s enthusiasm about the idea. That impulse could be as simple as him seeking a safe space amid the tumult of the final weeks of the campaign. Weekly segments on “Fox & Friends” were a Trump staple before he ran for office; maybe he wants to get back in that comfort zone as electoral pressure builds. More likely, though, is that he’s seeking earned media — favorable earned media, I should say — anywhere he can find it as his campaign copes with a cash crunch. If he can’t afford to pay for ads in swing states, he can certainly do a 45-minute softball interview with F&F and hope that what he says there eventually trickles through various other media platforms to persuadable voters.
He’s better off scheduling weekly interviews with local Fox affiliates in the battleground states, as their viewers are surely less monolithic than FNC’s are. Yes, granted, there’s a risk that a local Fox host will be harder on him than old reliables like the “Fox & Friends” crew, but it’s a tiny, tiny risk. Imagine being an up-and-coming local host with dreams of ultimately landing at Fox News, getting a chance to interview Trump, and then … destroying him in an adversarial grilling. You’d better hope MSNBC is hiring after that.
Not every conservative mover and shaker thinks Trump can effectively substitute Fox hits for battleground ads:
Trump’s campaign, meanwhile, has implemented recent belt-tightening measures and went dark on TV multiple times in August to conserve resources, worrying allies that Democrats could drown him out on TV with weeks left in the campaign.
“It should be an alarm to every Republican donor that they’ve got to dig deep and give more,” said David McIntosh, a former Indiana congressman who leads the conservative Club for Growth, which has come to Trump’s aid by running commercials on his behalf. “Fox News will help carry (Trump’s) message, but the mainstream media won’t. That means he’s got to have enough resources to go over their heads and talk directly with voters.”
It means he needs to do more earned media than he’s been doing, and he is. As I write this, he’s just a few hours away from taking the stage at an ABC town hall with voters hosted by George Stephanopoulos. He’s always believed he’s his best messenger; he can make up for the ad shortfall simply by making himself more available to the press and taking his chances with possibly hostile interviewers.
As for Doocy’s reluctance to do a weekly segment, I honestly can’t figure it out. I don’t think he’d presume to speak on behalf of the show in rejecting a presidential invite without guidance from management either. Presumably there was a producer in his earpiece warning him to correct viewers’ impressions ASAP that there’d be a recurring Trump interview from now until the election. Best guess: Fox is trying to make sure that its news side isn’t completely frozen out by a Biden White House next year and therefore doesn’t want to grant Trump some special privilege that clearly wouldn’t be offered on the same terms to Biden. Remaining nominally impartial might be the difference between a Biden administration never granting Fox an interview and granting the network an interview once in a blue moon.