Everybody Gets a Prime-Time, Cable-News Town Hall!

Senator Bernie Sanders (I, Vt.) speaks at a news conference to introduce the “Medicare for All Act of 2019” on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., April 10, 2019. (Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters)

Over at Fox News Channel’s MediaBuzz, Howard Kurtz notices that Bernie Sanders got big ratings from his town hall on FNC, and now other Democratic presidential candidates are considering doing the same. The broadcast prompted President Trump to complain on Twitter that the Fox News team was “so smiley and nice” with Sanders and wonder why Donna Brazile is joining the network. (Someone has to give the interview subjects the questions ahead of time, right?)

Five observations . . .

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One: The anchors and interviewers of the Fox News team are fairer and better at their jobs than their critics like to admit, and the Democratic National Committee’s ban on Fox News hosting a primary debate looks ridiculous after the fair treatment of Sanders. Despite the strong opinions expressed during Fox’s prime-time hours, the news crew — Brett Baier, Martha McCallum, and the rest of the team — want to ask tough but fair questions and won’t stack the audience with hostile questioners.

Two: Other Democratic candidates might not have the same resonance with the Fox News audience that Sanders did. There’s a lot of overlap between the Vermont senator and Trump’s messages in the vein of “You’ve gotten a raw deal from powerful elites, and the problems in your life are their fault.” A candidate like Kirsten Gillibrand isn’t going to have the same applause lines.

Three: President Trump is better known than almost all of his critics, and most of them yearn to be denounced by the president by name — because this elevates the critic. If Trump watches Fox town halls, then a Democratic presidential candidate knows that with enough furious denunciation with the president watching is likely to bring a direct response on Twitter — suddenly putting a little-known candidate into the middle of the news cycle. Right now, for almost any Democratic candidate, doing a town hall with Fox is all upside.

Four: A lot of people noticed that the majority of the audience raised their hands when asked if they would be happy to transition to “Medicare for All.” But that same audience did not burst out in spontaneous applause when Sanders mentioned a top tax rate of 52 percent and referred to “raise that cap for people making $250,000 or more.”

Five: In time, you’ll start to hear complaints that the current town hall format on Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC is too friendly and too often turns into a one-hour prime time infomercial for the candidate. The audience questions are usually variations of “My health insurance/college/child care is expensive, what are you doing to do about it?” and the candidate has to exhibit empathy, tell some tale that demonstrates that they relate, and promise a four-point plan that will solve the questioner’s problem, with no explanation about who would pay for those promised new services. The attitude that every candidate, no matter how obscure or unlikely to win, must get a town hall is one of the factors driving these no-hope, little-known candidates. CNN did one with “spiritual book author” Marianne Williamson.

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