The GOP Debate Was Not Gotcha Journalism But Something Even Worse For Democracy
Fox moderators Megyn Kelly, Bret Baier and Chris Wallace have received rare praise from liberals for the tough questions they asked at the GOP debate a week ago. They did get tough, asking the candidates uncomfortable questions about past statements and policy positions, but the questions have been mistaken for what we can, in our post-Sarah Palin era, refer to as Gotcha Journalism.
Fox News was not pursuing Gotcha Journalism, and what Fox was doing is even more toxic for our political process: keeping the candidates in line.
The questions were harsh, but Fox is a political profiteer, and as such Fox has a vested interest in molding the eventual Republican nominee in the conservative network’s own image. The Fox moderators were not asking for the candidates’ ideas as much as they were asking why the candidates’ ideas are not exactly what Fox tells conservatives twenty-four hours a day their ideas should be. The Tea Party purity litmus test that Fox News helped create must be preserved to save face after years of opposing everything President Obama and Democrats say and do, and the network does not want to repeat its Romney mistake of allowing a candidate not executively unlike Obama to become the GOP’s nominee.
If a Republican president does get into office, Fox cannot thrive if the network criticizes the potential Republican president on account of the network’s precedent of unbending, propagandized loyalty to the GOP (remember Sean Hannity’s hypocritical charges of treason for anyone questioning the President in time of war). Fox cannot allow itself to sound suddenly like a biased institution of the supposed liberal media that it has railed against since its founding, though some radical conservatives have floated that idea previously. As such Fox must take a hands-on approach to its Republican nominee art project.
This is a difficult task, though, as the Tea Party is a mutinous group, and the Radical Right stoically insists that the GOP move further right on the political spectrum than electoral relevance will allow. The Tea Party Republican-In-Name-Only police have yet to let their guard down, and RINO insults have been launched consistently and self-destructively at sitting Republican Congressional leaders John Boehner and Mitch McConnell. In governing reality, the Republican Congressional majority has proven to be a political inconvenience as the GOP’s House leadership has had bigger headaches internally from its Tea Party Caucus than externally from the Democratic minority, and there is a very real possibility that the Tea Party could turn against the GOP’s executive leaders as well.
Most amusingly, now Fox News has tied itself a dangerous tightrope for its walk with Tea Party political experiment Donald Trump. Trump’s commandeering of the Radical Right has been so dominant that his campaign is thriving, and even strengthening somehow, after insulting Senator John McCain’s military service and President Ronald Reagan’s conservative service. You read that right: conservatives are captivated by a candidate who has insulted military sacrifice as well as their patron saint Ronald Reagan.
This serves as proof that nothing is static in American politics.
Fox News’ incubation of the metaphorical Frankenstein’s Monster of Tea Party rage that is Donald Trump- six Obama-era years in the making- is now complete, and the creature has been sparked into political life. Fox, like the gothic novel’s titular character, has been shocked at its creation, though it remains to be seen if the network will ultimately abandon or embrace its monster. However, Roger Ailes appears to be courting Trump at the political expense of Fox News darling Megyn Kelly, and Trump is again appearing on Fox after an apparent truce.
Either way Fox does want to try to keep its monster on a leash, especially throughout the coming general election. The debate’s toughest questions were indeed directed at Trump, and were an attempt at containment for Trump’s abrasive rhetoric and for the potential, perhaps inevitable, damage he might do to the GOP’s presidential hopes. The debate’s very first question served to single out and publicly shame Trump as the only candidate unwilling to rule out a third-party presidential run, and Trump, ever the businessman, is correct when he explains that he is leaving the door open to a third-party run because it gives him political leverage.
Whatever one’s opinion of Trump he does have good business sense, which would be admirable if the Presidency was a CEO position. Unfortunately for Trump it is not, and unfortunately for Fox Trump’s narcissism is not something to forget. Fox has not forgotten Trump’s ego yet, though, and the moderators were prepared for the possibility that they would have to force Donald Trump from the debate stage if he was to go rogue or act belligerently toward the other candidates.
The entire debate and Fox’s political struggle in pulling it off may have been amusing for liberals because of Fox News’ combative efforts to keep its candidates, and especially its Tea Party monster, in line, but keep in mind that just because Fox News asked some surprisingly tough questions does not mean that Fox has suddenly adopted actually fair and balanced journalistic ideals.