There’s trouble in paradise.
A close read of Donald Trump’s Twitter feed over the last few weeks reveals that the President has grown increasingly frustrated with Fox News’ decision to give air time to several of the Democratic candidates seeking to oust him in 2020.
Trump lashed out over the weekend that the network was moving to the “losing” side by covering Democrats, in reaction to FNC’s town hall with South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg. (CNN’s Brian Stelter has a detailed look at those weekend tweets).
And last month, Trump had a similar response to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders getting the town hall treatment on Fox News:
“So weird to watch Crazy Bernie on @FoxNews. Not surprisingly, @BretBaier and the ‘audience’ was so smiley and nice. Very strange, and now we have @donnabrazile?”
That “we” in the tweet above is very, very important when it comes to understanding how Trump views Fox News – and why he is lashing out at the network now.
In Trump’s mind, Fox News is the media arm of his White House – and his reelection campaign. They help signal boost his preferred message to the masses of conservatives who watch. And, when necessary, they help distract or deflect when the broader news cycle is less friendly for Trump.
(Nota bene: There is a group of journalists – Bret Baier, Chris Wallace and Shepard Smith jump to mind – on Fox News who shouldn’t be lumped into this pro-Trump category. They shoot straight.)
It has been a mutually beneficial relationship.
Trump has quite clearly benefited from Fox News’ championing – not to mention its near-monopoly among conservative TV viewers. (One academic study written up recently in Vox suggested that the existence of Fox News could add more than three points to the support of a Republican presidential candidate.)
And Fox News has reaped the rewards of being the President’s preferred network. He has granted more than 40 interviews to Fox News (and another 10+ to Fox Business Network), according to calculations by The Washington Post. The Fox News number alone is more interviews than Trump has given to ABC, CBS, NBC, MSNBC and CNN combined during his presidency.
Those appearances by Trump – and the slew of tweets touting the ratings of his favorite Fox News shows — are only part of the symbiosis between the President and the network. Perhaps the most telling sign of how closely the two are aligned is the staff pipeline between FNC and the Trump White House.
According to a Business Insider tally, at least 19 people have either worked for (or are working for) Fox News that have also worked in the White House.
And these are not low-level staffers. Bill Shine, a former co-president of Fox News Channel, served as the de facto communications director at the White House. One-time Fox News anchor Heather Nauert served a stint as the lead spokesperson for the State Department. And she was replaced in that job by Morgan Ortagus, who was – you guessed it! – a Fox News contributor.
The pipeline works the other way, too. Hope Hicks, the former White House communications director and a close confidant of the President, is now the chief communications officer at Fox News’ parent company.
(Yes, there has always been some amount of shuttling between cable TV networks and past administrations– Democrat and Republican. But we have NEVER seen anything to this level before.)
Given all of that, you can understand why Trump gets so exercised when he sees the likes of Buttigieg or Bernie on “his” airwaves. He sees no real difference in his world between Fox News and the Republican National Committee – and he certainly wouldn’t tolerate the RNC putting out favorable press releases (or TV commercials) about the Democrats who are trying to beat him.
Betrayal is most deeply felt when it is by someone you believed to be on your side (paging Daenerys Targaryen). And that’s what Trump is evincing of late. He views Fox News’ Democratic town halls as an “et tu, Brutus” situation. Which is, you would think, ridiculous.
Except, not really. This is the bargain Fox News agreed to – whether knowingly or not – when it decided that the way to cover Trump was glowingly at (almost) all times. It got ratings beyond belief. But it also locked the network into lockstep with a President who fundamentally misunderstands the role of a free and independent media.
In other words: You reap what you sow.