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Why we should all care about Pete Buttigieg’s big Fox News mistake

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South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg knew he was rankling some critics on Sunday when he appeared at a special town hall event hosted by Fox News, Some of his competitors in the race for the 2020 presidential nomination, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Sen. Kamala Harris of California, have turned down such opportunities.

Buttigieg made a point to address the criticism during the town hall itself.

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“You know, a lot of folks in my party were critical of me for even doing this with Fox News,” he told host Chris Wallace. “And I get where that’s coming from, especially when you see what goes on with some of the opinion hosts on this network. I mean, when you’ve got Tucker Carlson saying that immigrants make America ‘dirty,’ when you’ve got Laura Ingraham comparing detention centers with children in cages to summer camps — summer camps — then there is a reason why anybody has to swallow hard and think twice before participating in this media ecosystem. But I also believe that even though some of those hosts are not always there in good faith, I think a lot of people tune into this network who do it in good faith. … Whether it’s going into the viewership of Fox News, or geographically, it’s going into places where Democrats haven’t been seen much, I think we’ve got to find people where they are — not change our values — but update our vocabulary so that we’re truly connecting with Americans from coast to coast.”

But while Buttigieg said he understood the criticisms of his choice to appear, his answer made it clear that he didn’t not. The problem is not merely about having to “swallow hard” and put up with the pernicious Fox News culture — it’s about enabling a destructive force in American media.

Now, obviously, Buttigieg reaped some benefit specifically by appearing on Fox News. He got some more headlines and a few new video clips circulating on social media — including his rightful call outs of bigots Carlson and Ingraham above. Jennifer Rubin, a columnist for the Washington Post, argued that Democrats should seize these benefits if they want them, though she criticized the idea that it would actually be effective at reaching voters:

What I do not think going on Fox News accomplishes is “winning over” Fox viewers. If they are hardcore Fox viewers who would not see a candidate on any other channel, chances are they aren’t going to vote for a liberal, gay, pro-immigration Democrat. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who also went on Fox, has a better chance, given Sanders’s lukewarm enthusiasm for immigration, his populism and his past record on gun rights. The notion that there are persuadable white, working-class Fox News viewers out there is part and parcel of the misconception that leads some Democrats to insist they need a white male candidate.

In sum, Democrats should go on Fox if they are desperate to stay in the news, if they can create viral moments like Buttigieg or if they want to try convincing progressives that they are electable because they have the secret sauce for winning over white working-class voters. However, if they are doing it out of the mistaken belief that Democrats’ chances of getting rid of Trump lie in winning over Sean Hannity’s viewers, they’d better rethink things.

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But Rubin, too, missed the real problem with Buttigieg’s appearance (as well as Sen. Bernie Sanders’s Fox News town hall, and any other Democratic candidate who appears).

Fox News is not merely a platform to reach viewers or to stand on the national stage. It is a focused, sustained, pernicious propaganda effort designed to use white resentment, racism, anti-immigrant sentiment, and disingenuous claims about liberals to gin up and manipulate the Republican voting base. It isn’t merely news with a conservative slant, or that speaks the language of Republican voters. It is a machine designed to warp the reality of a significant chunk of the American electorate — and leaders — to the benefit of a singular political movement that would otherwise lack popular support.

One of the key features of that machine is that it pretends to be a news agency. That’s why it hires and retains thoughtful journalists like Chris Wallace and Shep Smith who, while they are allowed to articulate credible opinions and challenge the party line, still further the end of promoting Fox News and its brand. And that is to the detriment of the country as a whole.

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Participation in special events like Sanders’ and Buttigieg’s town halls play that role, too.

Matthew Gertz of Media Matters is an astute and intrepid follower of Fox News, and he has explained how the Democrats’ compliance with the network’s mission has served it well.

“Fox entered the spring in a state of crisis as advertisers fled the network for safer harbors. But these town halls allow the network to rebrand itself and thus make the case to advertisers that it is safe to return,” he explained. “As Fox faced disaster, Democratic presidential candidates bailed it out. And now the network will pay them back by doing whatever it can to undermine their message and ensure their defeat.”

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After Buttigieg’s town hall, Gertz noted, the Fox News’s opinion hosts pounced.

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“To the extent that regular Fox viewers were tuning in to Buttigieg’s town hall, he had an opportunity to speak to them. But now Fox’s hosts, who have a much more extensive and durable relationship with their audience, smear him and rebut everything he said for hours on end,” Gertz continued. “This suggests that any support Democratic presidential candidates gain from Fox’s viewers during the town halls will be ephemeral at best. Fox, however, gets a big, durable bonus from being legitimized by Democrats.”

Nevertheless, a collective action problem incentivizes Democratic candidates to do the town hall. They can get another moment in the sun, another chance to stand out from the field. They even can get praise from some political commentators who see the town halls as akin to reaching across the aisle, rather than as aiding and abetting the merchants of lies.

But if they feel the need to reach out to voters and prove they care about people outside of liberal urban centers and blue states, Democratic candidates can follow Warren’s lead and go to places like West Virginia. What they shouldn’t do is support an organization that is clearly only using them for its own corrupt ends.

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