After Dominion case, GOP debate gives Fox News chance to burnish image

Months after a blockbuster defamation lawsuit raised questions about Fox News’s dedication to accuracy and fraught relationship with Donald Trump, two of its star anchors will have a chance to bolster the network’s image Wednesday night when they moderate the first Republican debate of the 2024 presidential cycle.

Anchors Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum spoke of the debate as business as usual for them in interviews with The Washington Post, citing their lengthy careers in Fox’s news division — rather than the conservative-leaning opinion wing, some of whose hosts were cited in the case that Fox settled with an election technology company for $787.5 million in April.

“I think that Fox has fantastic political reporters,” MacCallum said. “We have great war correspondents. We have a very strong news division, and I’m proud to be part of it, and I’m proud to be co-moderating this debate with Bret, and I’ve always felt really good about what we do.”

Last fall, Baier was forced to explain a leaked email showing that he had lobbied Fox colleagues to revoke an election-night decision to award Arizona to Joe Biden and to “put it back in [Trump’s] column.”

He told The Post last week that his email exchange was misread and mistyped — that he meant to say that Arizona, which most other media outlets had not yet called, should be put back in the up-for-grabs column — and quibbled with how reporters interpreted his words. “There is this obsession that, ‘Oh, we got ’em, the news division is conspiring as well,’” he said. “It really wasn’t the case. So I think we’re past all of that. I think our work speaks for itself. The people who watch know that, and hopefully after the debate, they’ll know it even more.”

Baier reinforced his journalistic bona fides with a tough interview of Trump in June that the former president initially described as fair before deriding as nasty. (“I like the first answer,” Baier told The Post.)

Internal communications released as part of the lawsuit from Dominion Voting Systems showed that concerns about losing Trump-supporting viewers to rival networks often seemed to guide programming decisions, allowing false claims of election fraud to air unchallenged, despite widespread understanding among executives and hosts that the 2020 election was not stolen. (The network has said that it was merely covering newsworthy claims made by politically relevant individuals.)

The documents released in the Dominion case reflected somewhat better on the news side, showing that Fox’s journalists covered the story of the 2020 election accurately, though some faced internal blowback when they loudly rebutted some election lies.

Although Baier said he doesn’t spend much time thinking about the perception of the network, he emphasized the distinction between the news and opinion wings.

“A lot of people paint with a broad brush when they talk about Fox, the media who cover media and the people who don’t watch,” he said. “The split between news and opinion is real. And obviously it shows itself a little bit more in times like the Trump interview or in times like a tough but fair debate.”

During that debate, MacCallum said the goal will be to “work on behalf of the voter and the viewer” by ensuring that key issues — the economy, abortion, the war in Ukraine — get a lengthy airing.

One issue that she doesn’t think warrants much discussion is the sanctity of the 2020 election, even as Trump continues to discuss it.

Trump’s decision to skip the debate — despite the pleas of many Fox hosts and executives — in favor of a taped interview with fired Fox News host Tucker Carlson might actually allow for a more forward-looking discussion, MacCallum noted.

“I think that people understand the facts of what happened,” she said. “What I don’t want is to spend the whole evening kind of rehashing that. I think people are looking forward, and I think they’re much more concerned with what’s happening in their own lives.”

Baier said the moderators hope to largely stay out of the picture. “If we can get to the end and Martha and I are not a part of the story, we are steering and providing the guardrails and providing some interesting questions, but it’s the candidates and their answers that are making the news, that’s a really good thing.”

Veteran GOP pollster Frank Luntz told The Post that Baier and MacCallum “are people of substance who will run a very tight ship without being abusive and without being nasty.”

He singled out Baier in particular, who he said “is the most important talent at Fox, because he puts the news into Fox News.”

George Washington University’s Frank Sesno, a former CNN Washington bureau chief, called Baier and MacCallum “the dream team.”

“They have the credibility and the heft, and they know the audience and they know the facts,” he said.

Had the Dominion case gone to trial, Sesno would have been called to testify by the voting technology company. After Fox News settled the case, he said the network should recommit to providing factual news and information to its “huge and dedicated audience.”

He said that, at the debate, Baier and MacCallum “have an opportunity here to address the credibility issue.”

This post appeared first on The Washington Post