Fox News, Trump, Megyn Kelly, and the role of a Free Press in Presidential Debate

Posted on August 7, 2015

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Following last night’s debate, I have had scores of Facebook friends and acquaintances request that I work up something in the way of a reaction to it. Well, actually no – it was one or two. But those one or two could potentially represent hundreds of inquiring minds.

Seriously though, my reaction is as much of a reaction to the reaction of Republican voters as it is a reaction to Fox News’ handling of the debate and the candidates themselves. I’ve heard people screaming fowl, because they feel their candidate – in most cases, Trump, was mistreated by the Fox political panel, Megyn Kelly, Bret Baier, and Chris Wallace. For example – regarding Trump, “He was attacked”, “They ambushed him”, “Unfair”, “Fox has it in for him”. That kind of thing.

This demonstrates a fundamental ignorance or misunderstanding of the purpose behind the 1st Amendment, specifically with reference to the freedom of the press. It is the job of the press to question authority, and by extension, those who in Trump’s case, would seek authority. This idea originated with Benjamin Franklin – “It is the first responsibility of every citizen to question authority.”

Fox News’ responsibility is not to host 2 hours worth of little campaign pitches from each candidate, or to throw softballs. It is to poke and prod at the vulnerabilities of each would be office holder and call them to account for their record and their statements.

In this, Fox News was even handed. All the men on that stage were challenged. All knew, or should have known, that they were going to be hit with hard questions, so there was no ambush here. Some Trump followers think that Fox News “betrayed them”. This is absurd. Fox News has a responsibility to confront the individuals arrayed on that stage last night. Confront, not coddle. Provoke not pander. Demand not demure. Trump arrogantly made it a point to not prepare for this media encounter. Now his supporters are crying fowl because he came across juvenile, coarse, petulant, incompetent and uninformed. He hoisted himself on a petard of his own making.

As to calling these “debates”, the notion is questionable at best. Presidential debates do not resemble a debate, so much as they resemble the question segment of one of Trump’s pageants. There was a moment, where we got something that roughly approximated a debate, more so, a verbal confrontation. This was between Chris Christie and Rand Paul, in which Christie, in the process of responding to the question about NSA domestic spying, took the occasion to attack Rand Paul’s position on the subject.

One of the commenters after the whole circus act, said that Chris Christie and Rand Paul both won in a sense. Well, here the sense. If you believe that in order to be safe and protected, the government needs to indiscriminately look up everyone’s rectal opening and toss the 4th Amendment in the garbage – then Christie won. If you respect your own privacy and natural law rights, then Paul won that exchange.

But as to the larger question of “who won the debate?”, I think that is an incompetent question. No one “wins” these contrived media events. It’s really a matter of who survives to fight another day. The real question is who were the losers? Providing a partial answer to that was the sizable (23 person) focus group that Fox News’ Frank Luntz’ surveyed prior to, during and after the debate.

It should be noted that prior to the debate, 14 of the 23 group members were Trump enthusiasts, leaning strongly towards his candidacy. Following the debate, only 3 Trump supporters remained resolute. Here’s a sample of the post debate reaction, “You know, what happened, I liked him when I came in here because he wasn’t a politician. But right now, he skirted around questions better than a lifelong politician ever had.” Another said, “I was really expecting him to do a lot better. But he just crashed and burned. He was mean, he was angry, he had no specifics, he was bombastic.” Another, “I was repulsed by it”.

Trump, as gauged by the stunned reaction to the first general question to all the contestants about would they pledge to support the nominee and foreswear not to launch an independent run, immediately earned the enmity of the audience by raising his hand in refusal. My reaction was to see Trump’s position on this as a form of extortion. The clear implication, “you either support me throughout the process, or I will detonate the party’s nominee by running independently”.

Another clear loser was Jeb Bush. The Bush campaign believes it can lecture and cajole GOP voters into seeing the wisdom of Bush’s positions on a number of radioactive policies he’s embraced. Didn’t happen and is not going to happen. I have seen the passionate antagonism of conservatives towards the issue of Common Core alone. Once you add his discredited comments on the violation of immigration law by illegals being an “act of love”, it all adds up to no possible reconciliation with Republican core voters.

As to the rest of the pack, a few observations can be drawn. Carson, seemed to have ingratiated himself with a modest number of debate watchers. He and Trump are a study in contrasts, personality wise at least. Dr. Carson is quiet, modulated, thoughtful. Doesn’t have an ounce of bombast or bluster in his body. He seemed to be successful in sustaining some interest in his candidacy, but it remains to be seen if that holds. Scott Walker was nondescript, but competent. Chris Christie is one of the herd that will probably not be appearing in the next debate among the top tier candidates. John Kasich, fresh from his recent entrance in the race, has probably peaked and will fade rapidly.

Ted Cruz, from the social media I monitored, made a positive impact and will gain momentum going forward, even though he had very little face time during the debate. Huckabee. This is a tough one, because it is connected to another larger question. As Jeb Bush continues to recede, holding on to only the hard core Bush Botz, which candidates will benefit from the supporters looking for an alternative? Some of it could go in the direction of Huckabee, but I suspect Huckabee’s position will be fairly static. He might get a small bounce because he comes across well in these kinds of settings. An example of this appeal was his zinger of a double edged sword aimed at both Hillary Clinton and in a sideways manner, Trump:

“It seems like this election has been a whole lot on a person who has been very high in the polls, who doesn’t have a clue about how to govern, a person who has been filled with scandals and could not lead,” Huckabee said. “And of course, I’m talking about Hillary Clinton.”

I’ve noticed a lot of postings of post debate polls, many of which show Trump as the winner. A word of caution. All of them, including the Time poll, are unscientific. They demonstrate the reality of the national reaction about as accurately as the phone polls after American Idol. Trumps supporters are emotionally committed to Trump, in much the same way that Hillary Clinton’s supporters are emotionally committed to her. The same was true with Obama. These are the people who will vote early and often in these online flash polls. Don’t be too taken in with them.

Anyone that tells you that American politics at the retail level is driven by anything other than emotion – get their credit card information and I’ll send them my blockbuster VHS series of instructional tapes on how to amaze, delight and entertain friends and relatives with the Didgeridoo. The process of picking a presidential candidate, for the majority of voters – well, to quote Trace Adkins, “It Ain’t No Thinkin’ Thing”. It should be – but it isn’t. When politically motivated voters become emotionally invested in a particular candidate, objectivity is the first and often, permanent casualty.

Finally, I see a lot of people with a bee in their bonnet about Megyn Kelly. They feel it was audacious for Ms. Kelly to question Donald Trump on his scurrilous record of sexist comments about women, including the one where Trump commented that one of the contestants on Celebrity Apprentice, would quote, “make a pretty picture, to see on her knees”. Trump showed no regret, remorse or contrition, skirting the fact pattern altogether and resorting to the irrelevancy of “Political Correctness” as a defense. Are we in such a race to the bottom that we have no reluctance or hesitation about this kind of conduct from someone seeking the highest office in the land?

A little plain talk that you all claim to appreciate. Men – (not all), occasionally, in the company of other men, make such degrading comments about women. There is thought to be a vain of humor or macho quotient in such talk. But most of us have the common sense to not expose a woman to this humiliating banter. Trump, evidently does not. His reaction was grade school hostility, churlishness and petulance. “You know what, if you don’t like it, I’m sorry. I’ve been very nice to you, although I probably maybe not be based on the way you have treated me – but I’m not going to do that.”

Frankly though, Trump’s behavior is fair game for questioning. If Trump cannot credibly defend his record against Megyn Kelly, how do you expect him to hold up against critical questioning in future forums where the scrutiny will be coming from others even less objective than Ms. Kelly. None of the debate participants got a free ride last night, and none of them deserved one. Trump, despite his behavior, is biologically an adult male and should be expected to prepare for tough questions in responsible adult fashion. All of them should. None of them deserve your sympathy.

To ask those questions is the core, essential duty of a free press.

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