WASHINGTON — Former Hillary Clinton aide Jess McIntosh doesn’t go on Fox News Channel anymore.
“They have an agenda,” she said. “I stopped doing it a few months ago … I didn’t want to be a part of it.”
So McIntosh might seem like the wrong person to convince other Democrats to go on the conservative news channel — let alone to survive it. And yet she spent Friday morning in the Capitol teaching a small group of Democratic lawmakers how to appear on Fox News.
“I’m very wary of Democrats lending legitimacy to the propaganda arm of the Republican Party,” she said. “But I think it’s important for elected officials to do it because they have to represent the people who didn’t vote for them.”
The training was organized by the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, the messaging wing of the House Democrats. To be sure, part of the allure is Fox News’ dominant ratings, but aides involved in planning the meeting also noted they want to show the Fox News’ audience that Democrats don’t have horns — and maybe even pick up some voters.
This comes at a precarious time in the relationship between Democrats and Fox News. The Democratic National Committee notably refused to give the network one of their presidential primary debates. Some voices on the left have called for a blanket boycott of Fox News, and others have tried to boycott advertisers to pressure them to stop underwriting specific shows.
That argument holds that appearing on Fox News legitimizes the network in the eyes of advertisers, and thereby keeps the network in business without incentivizing them to be more fair. But Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), chairman of the group that hosted the training, said he doesn’t buy into that way of thinking.
“If I thought suddenly, if Democrats all stopped going on Fox, somehow Fox wouldn’t exist, I think that would be a terrific strategy. But I think Fox is going to continue to exist and I think it’s important that we show the Fox viewers respect by going on that network and sharing our views,” he told VICE News after the training session.
Not for everyone
Democratic leaders concede the appearances aren’t for everyone. A member who represents deep-blue San Francisco may gain little from trying to appeal to a conservative audience. But Rep. Cheri Bustos, chairwoman of House Democrats’ political arm, said she and others who represent more politically mixed districts should go for it.
“I think it is just a matter of being able to reach people who go to the polls,” she said. “In a district like I represent, and the 31 Democrats who serve in districts that Donald Trump won, I think it’s a pretty good idea to talk to people who might be independents or Republican-leaning because you’ve got to win those voters.”
Though Fox News’ Dana Perino recently published some advice of her own for Democrats — “If you plan to come on Fox News just to take a shot at the network or the host, you’ll lose” — McIntosh and her co-host, former Democratic aide John Neffinger, ran the Congressmen through their best practices.
Democrats can come off well if they have a clear idea of the message they want to present before going on, don’t get into contentious arguments with the hosts and don’t let the hosts change the topic to uber-conservative talking points.
Sure, a member from a safe Democratic seat could look good back home by sparring with a Fox News host. Look no further than presidential hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who spent a good deal of his recent Fox News town hall tussling with Bret Baier. But not everyone can pull off Sanders’ crusty charm, and trying to may not endear members to a new audience — and more poignantly, might leave their policy or political points unmade.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, one of the most centrist Democrats in the 2020 race, also did a Fox News town hall.
“The hosts are people the viewer has invited into their home with some regularity. We’re the interloper in the conversation, so if they see you battle too much, they don’t like that,” Cicilline said.
Then, the group used the hourlong, closed-to-the-press meeting to review some tape, according to several sources who attended the confab. As a positive example, members watched a recent interview with frequent Fox News guest Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.) in which he came off friendly and authoritative.
To show the challenges of appearing on the network, they watched an infamous clip of Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.) on Martha MacCallum’s show that devolved into her exclaiming, “You’re very rude, sir!’”
Among other clips they watched was one showing a clearly unprepared Democratic TV talker who was caught flat-footed on questions about Obamacare. Leaders wanted to drive home the point that if Democratic lawmakers don’t fill the Fox News airwaves, know-nothing stooges will. Or worse yet, Cicilline said, the hosts will just characterize Democrats themselves.
He said that a segment leading into a recent appearance of his on the channel portrayed Democrats as wanting open borders and criminals running the streets. When the camera cut to him, he said he knows not a single Democrat who believes those things. Still, it is exactly experiences like that that have led to Democrats being told again and again not to appear on the channel.
“They changed the topic on me when I was sitting in the chair with the earpiece in”
McIntosh and Neffinger also warned Democrats to be prepared for certain dirty tactics, including inconveniently timed technical malfunctions or producers changing the topic at the last-minute from something they agreed to discuss in advance to a more contentious and biased topic.
“I have a Fox News horror story. Everyone has a Fox News horror story,” McIntosh said. “They changed the topic on me when I was sitting in the chair with the earpiece in. I was supposed to be talking about those terrible abortion videos Project Veritas did and instead they changed it to Hillary’s emails.”
It may sound like conspiratorial thinking, but McIntosh, Neffinger and several Congressmen said they believe Fox News pull these kinds of stunts to make Democrats look bad. Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), for instance, said the one time he’s appeared on Fox News, Geraldo Rivera’s team changed the format with late notice, a move Takano thought was geared toward giving the host a tactical advantage.
Rivera hosted shows on Fox News until 2015; now he's a roaming correspondent at large for the channel.
“If you sort of know what they’re up to, if you kind of know the techniques and stuff, you can start to lay ground rules with the producers on the conditions on which you will appear,” Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) said. “If they continue to do that, then don’t appear.”
That is one of the big points Neffinger wanted to emphasize: There's an inverse to an advertiser boycott. Fox News needs Democrats to appear on air to maintain legitimacy. So Congressmen have veto power if the topic changes at the last minute or if they try to tee them up against a conservative guest of a lower stature. In short, it’s OK to back out.
“There’s an interesting negotiation here because Fox needs Democrats on its air”
“There’s an interesting negotiation here because Fox needs Democrats on its air, they need progressives on its air, to be able to go to advertisers and say, ‘No, no, we really are fair and balanced. We’re not just the propaganda arm of the Republican Party and you should advertise with us,’” he said.
And, he added, Democrats should remember that they aren’t just talking to a homogenous viewing bloc. Lefties might be watching too — although sometimes not by choice.
“There are progressive folks who watch a lot of Fox too, not just for hate-watching or entertainment value,” Neffinger said. “It’s a little like second hand smoke. If there’s somebody in the household who’s a conservative and there’s somebody in the household who’s not a conservative, and the conservative always grabs the remote, then, ‘We’re watching Fox, damnit!’”
Cover: Democratic presidential candidate, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) participates in a FOX News Town Hall at SteelStacks on April 15, 2019 in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Sanders is running for president in a crowded field of Democrat contenders. (Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images)