Answer: There’s an election coming up, buddy. And in this case the president has something in common with his most ardent detractors — they both view Fox News as filling a “state media” role for the Trump White House, especially in primetime.
So imagine his chagrin as Americans begin tuning into the Democratic primaries and thinking about the choice they’ll have to make next year upon finding the polling arm of State Media putting out surveys showing him getting crushed by the likes of Joe Biden.
Trump understands that we live in an era of intense negative partisanship. Everyone picks a side; if you’re not unambiguously on one team then you’re deemed to be on the other. When Chris Wallace or Shep Smith or Fox’s pollsters wander off the Trump reservation, to POTUS they’re serving the Democrats by definition. Whether the information they’re publicizing is true and of public importance is completely — completely — beside the point.
I give Kilmeade credit for broaching this uncomfortable topic with Trump during an interview. I … do not give him credit for declining to pursue the topic once Trump negan spinning on it. Kilmeade asks him what’s wrong with diverse views, Trump starts complaining about the lack of diversity (on the subject of Trump) on CNN and MSNBC, then Kilmeade shifts to a question about Elizabeth Warren’s crowds. Stick up for Fox’s pollster! Stick up for the news team, which is fighting an endless battle against the network’s “state media” perceptions. Maybe remind Trump that critiquing him isn’t always a hostile act, even though he’d never agree. Kilmeade himself is a good example of that: He’s one of the few people at the network who’s clearly pro-Trump on balance but also willing to sound a dissenting note from time to time.
At WaPo today Aaron Blake asks an unthinkable question: If Trump and Fox go to war, could Fox win?
[T]his is a symbiotic relationship — it’s not a one-way street. Just as Fox could lose viewers if it alienates Trump and he pushes people to other outlets, Trump relies upon Fox to inform and, in many cases, rally his base. In fact, it’s so influential to such a huge portion of his base that, if it were to buck him over his threats or even just be somewhat less favorable, it could conceivably do him real damage in his 2020 reelection race.
Put a little more plainly: Given the fine margins Trump is dealing with in his reelection campaign, Fox News could help sink him. Fox can lose some viewers and win the ratings wars; Trump basically cannot lose any supporters and win reelection. You could even make an argument that Trump needs Fox more than Fox needs Trump…
Trump’s apparent desire to steer viewers to a more sycophantic network isn’t as simple as it sounds. While One America News Network and Newsmax are carried by a growing number of operators, their programming isn’t anywhere close to or as advanced as competitors such as Fox. Fox is kind of the only big-time game in town for many Trump supporters, as evidenced by the fact that few select any other network as their most trusted. That means scaring them away from Fox may not lead them to a more favorable alternative.
That argument rests on a dubious assumption, which is that Fox has it within its power to meaningfully affect viewers’ opinions of Trump. Does it? What would that look like? It’s completely unimaginable that Fox primetime would turn on Trump in the middle of an election in which any Democrat who’s nominated, including Joe Biden, will be treated as Lenin’s reincarnation. Any strong Trump-skeptical push would need to come from the news side — but it’s not the news side that shapes viewer opinion, it’s the unshakably pro-Trump opinion side. The most anti-Trumpers could hope for is that relentlessly critical coverage in news programming would make *just* enough Fox viewers ambivalent about Trump that they don’t bother turning out on Election Day, which ends up proving fatal to him when every swing state ends up tilting towards the Democrat by a hair’s breadth. But in the meantime, outraged Trump loyalists among the audience would tune out the network in protest (at least during daytime hours) and the tension between the news and opinion teams might erupt into public sniping, with Hannity and Tucker et al. possibly inclined to walk when their contracts are up.
That is to say, although Fox could theoretically do more damage to Trump by costing him the presidency in a freakishly tight election, the odds are far greater that Fox would sustain major damage to its ratings and its long-term prospects as a monopoly on right-wing infotainment if it did so. It could win the battle but would end up losing the war. And it probably wouldn’t even win the battle.