Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we try to report Republican politics…
Donald Trump announced on Tuesday that he won’t be attending Thursday’s Republican debate, due to be aired by Fox News. The reason: his ongoing feud with debate moderator, Megyn Kelly. It was Kelly, you might remember, who challenged Trump the hardest when the two faced off at the first GOP debate back in August. It was Kelly’s hard line of questioning (‘You’ve called women you don’t like: “fat pigs”, “dogs”, “slobs” and “disgusting animals”…’) which later led Trump to make his ‘blood coming out of her… wherever’ remark, which some interpreted as a reference to menstruation, despite the fact that Trump also made the same comment about Chris Wallace, one of Kelly’s male colleagues on Fox News.
That was perhaps the moment the media really began to turn on Trump and any attempt at balanced reporting seemed to disappear almost entirely from the news agenda. Trump was demoted to the joke candidate and treated as such which, naturally, fed the narrative he was perpetuating about an untrustworthy media. That message chimed with his audiences and his vote share went up. It became a positive feedback loop. The greater his polling, the more the media mocked him and the most dishonest they looked, allowing him to repeat his accusations with even greater effect on his audience.
In the latest debacle, the sides should be fairly easy to take. Trump is the real estate mogul who is currently indulging in the pleasures of demagoguery in order to win the nomination for the Republican Party. Kelly is a journalist whose network is desperate for the ratings that Trump’s demagoguery will bring. Yet they cannot now be seen to back down and compromise their journalistic integrity.
Who wouldn’t take Kelly’s side? For their part, journalists are naturally supporting Kelly. The liberal press are defending her because they would never defend Trump. The right wing press are defending Kelly because they too dislike Trump who they suspect (I think correctly) of being less Republican than he pretends. And this, I put it to you, is why American politics is the most supreme example of the art.
Yet if we step back and consider both sides, I think it’s Trump who has the winning argument. If he were simply objecting to hard questions, then as a candidate he has no right. However, Megyn Kelly is not simply a journalist. She is an example of that developing trend in American news journalism of the ‘journalist with an opinion’. To call them ‘shock-jocks’ is to demean their journalism. Really, a new term needs to be coined to describe these hybrid journalist-commentators (‘journators’?) whose personal opinions stray quite obviously into their supposedly impartial reporting of the news.
Fox News has most famously developed the role with the likes of Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity hosting shows that are quite clearly driven by the opinions of the debate moderators. It is also notable that in Fox News’s evening line-up, The Kelly File hosted by Megyn Kelly, is sandwiched between the shows by O’Reilly and Hannity. As the network describes the show: ‘Megyn Kelly gets to the news of the day — with a little heat!’
Providing heat is Kelly’s skill but it means that she goes beyond the usual boundaries of impartial news journalism. It’s why Kelly was always a favourite stooge for Jon Stewart during his long stint on The Daily Show. Regular viewers will recall the countless instances he mocked Kelly for switching unexpectedly from journalist to immoderate opinion former. Take, as just one example (Youtube have compilations if you’re interested) of Kelly suddenly breaking the front wall of traditional journalism to explain to her audience the reality of Christmas.
This example is far from unique and I’m sure, like me, you’ll have watched enough news to recognise these moments of opinion creep. Yet even if Kelly weren’t prone to subtle editorialising, Trump is still right to highlight the problem, even if he was partially guilty of creating it in the first place. By making an issue of Kelly, he has produced a situation by which Kelly cannot ask a question without our feeling like that question is barbed by the bigger issue. The debate already become greater than the issues being debated between the nominees. The very fact that I’m writing this article and that hundreds of thousands of other words have been written and will be written is testament to the fact that Thursday night is now really about the Trump/Kelly standoff.
That does give Fox News a reasonable escape. By admitting that the argument is overshadowing the debate, they could withdraw Kelly to ensure impartiality whilst also claiming that they do so in order to maintain their own journalistic standards. This is the last Republican debate before the Iowa caucuses and the last chance for the other candidates to challenge Trump’s dominance. Trump’s absence will the rob the event of the leading candidate. It would also mean that I wouldn’t get to see how well Jeb Bush does now that he has followed my advice and ditched his glasses. All told: the problems Trump has with Megyn Kelly are too trivial to rob us all of what promised to be one of the defining events of 2016.