Three months ago, Democratic Party leaders took a stand: Fox News, President Trump’s favorite channel, and a reliable soapbox for attacks on liberals, was barred from participating in the party’s 2020 presidential debates. The move would ice out the network derided by critics as “state TV” from influencing the outcome of the Democratic primary.
Things have not exactly gone to plan.
By Sunday, the centrality of the Rupert Murdoch-controlled network to the party’s presidential contest was all but assured, as Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York became the fourth Democratic contender to sit for a Fox News town hall.
Julián Castro, the former housing secretary, goes on Fox News next week. Pete Buttigieg, the South Bend, Ind., mayor, earned a standing ovation (and a presidential put-down) for his Fox News town hall last month. And candidates with dismal poll numbers are taking steps to woo the network’s bookers, viewing Fox News appearances — which tend to rate higher than town halls on rivals CNN and MSNBC — as an efficient and buzz-making path to raise their profiles.
Aides to Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York City, who scorched the Murdochs last year for “creating hatred and negativity and changing our political landscape for the worse,” recently approached the network. “We want to talk to all voters about why the mayor is the best candidate for working people — regardless of what news channel they watch,” a de Blasio spokeswoman, Olivia Lapeyrolerie, said on Sunday.
Mr. de Blasio’s change of heart could be about his newly announced presidential ambitions. But it also speaks to the improbable way that Fox News — a network whose prime-time hours are often devoted to praising the president and skewering prominent Democrats — has squirreled itself into the heart of the Democratic primary.
To Fox or not to Fox has also been a useful question for the candidates, who are deciding between courting the liberal base or attracting a broader swath of the electorate.
On Sunday, Ms. Gillibrand did not hesitate to criticize Fox News on-air, calling it “a problem” that network hosts discussed abortion policy by citing “infanticide.” When Mr. Buttigieg knocked the Fox hosts Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham at his town hall, the moderator Chris Wallace said nothing, causing consternation among some network colleagues. This time, Mr. Wallace interrupted Ms. Gillibrand, scolding her for criticizing the network that “brought you here.”
“I’m not sure it’s, frankly, very polite,” Mr. Wallace said. Ms. Gillibrand replied, “I’ll do it in a polite way” and continued her critique.
Ms. Gillibrand also engaged Mr. Wallace in a discussion of gender identity and intersectionality — the sort of issue that is not usually seriously discussed on Fox News. (“I’m getting an education tonight,” Mr. Wallace said, dryly.) The exchange neatly captured an argument made by some Democratic campaigns, that the town halls bring fresh perspectives to Fox viewers.
“Whether or not you participate in these town halls doesn’t stop Fox News from existing,” said Ms. Gillibrand’s communications director, Meredith Kelly. “It is a decision about whether the people who watch those shows hear only one side of the debate or hear from the other side.”
As Ms. Gillibrand looked to benefit from her Sunday appearance, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts sought to bolster her support with liberals by conspicuously boycotting the network, one of the recent moves that have helped spur her poll numbers.
When Ms. Warren appeared Thursday on “The View,” the panel spent five minutes discussing her decision to stay away from the No. 1-rated cable news network. Meghan McCain, a co-host of “The View,” referred to Ms. Warren’s description of the channel as a “hate-for-profit scam” before noting that she used to work there.
“I don’t think you think I’m a bad person, at least I hope not,” Ms. McCain said.
“Of course I don’t,” Ms. Warren replied.
The senator went on to argue that Fox News would use her appearance to play up its ratings and appeal to advertisers: “I’m just not going to give them a full hour to help raise money and help get credibility.”
“There are so many people that watch that are really good people and I just think you’re alienating an audience,” Ms. McCain responded.
If Ms. Warren is choosing to forgo Fox News viewers, the hours the network has devoted to Democratic presidential candidates seem to be vexing its most influential fan. Mr. Trump took direct aim at Fox News last month after Mr. Buttigieg’s appearance, prompting rallygoers in Pennsylvania to boo the network for “putting more Democrats on than Republicans.”
“Something strange is going on at Fox, folks,” Mr. Trump added.
Given Fox News’s popularity with Republican viewers, could the town halls lead to a backlash from its core audience? Television executives said the network’s leadership was probably not worried.
“Certain show hosts may not want to anger Trump, because he might not go on that segment, or on that show,” said Ken LaCorte, a former Fox News senior vice president. “But I don’t think anyone at Fox News is sitting around wondering, ‘Is Trump never going to talk to us again?’”
The network could also be in a tough position with its cable news rivals CNN and MSNBC if it had no foothold in covering the Democratic side of the 2020 race. Andrew Heyward, a former president of CBS News, said that Fox News does not want viewers to stray elsewhere for news, particularly on a story as consequential as a presidential primary.
“Fox’s value to its fans is that it super-serves them, and they don’t really need to go anywhere else,” Mr. Heyward said. “There are many people who watch it exclusively. So the idea that you could have a story as big as this, and Fox doesn’t have a hand in it, is actually not good for its reputation, relevance, ratings, or its revenue.”
Advertisers, too, expect the network to keep up its high ratings for news programming as well as prime-time commentary. Fox’s president for ad sales, Marianne Gambelli, told advertisers in March that news was a priority for 97 percent of the network’s audience and pledged that its dominance would extend through the 2020 election.
Mr. Trump recently praised One America News, an upstart network aimed at Make America Great Again conservatives. But Mr. LaCorte said he expected few Fox News viewers to make the switch. “Are you going to have some of your fringe far-right saying, ‘O.K., you let Democrats on Fox, I’m going to switch to O.A.N. on channel 1352’?” Mr. LaCorte said. “Sure, but that’s a pretty small number.”
And while Fox News executives reject the “state TV” sobriquet — arguing that their news programming is separate from shows hosted by commentators like Sean Hannity and Ms. Ingraham — the network is widely seen as a pro-Trump safe space. Last week, Ms. Ingraham faced an outcry after she complained about social media censoring voices on the right, including a white supremacist named Paul Nehlen; Fox News said that Ms. Ingraham was defending free speech, not condoning Mr. Nehlen’s views or behavior.
“Anything that Fox does that shows they’re a serious news organization that covers both Democrats and Republicans fairly has to help their overall image,” Mr. LaCorte said.
So far, Fox News holds the benchmark for the highest-rated Democratic town hall of the primary, with more than 2.5 million viewers in April for Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. (A CNN town hall with Mr. Sanders held a week later drew about 1.3 million.) That superlative underscores another reason for its town hall success: the stranger-in-a-strange-land novelty of a Democratic candidate granted a full hour on Fox News.
“It’s strange bedfellows,” Mr. Heyward said. “There’s something intriguing about it. It’s inherently appealing, absolutely.”