The most important poll number to come out this week had nothing to do with defeated Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore. It had to do with Fox News and Donald Trump. We’ll get to the numbers in a minute.
First: some disclosure. I’m a Fox contributor and a Trump skeptic (aka a former “Never Trumper”). That makes this an awkward column to write, for reasons that should be fairly obvious.
Regardless, I don’t think I am revealing any state or corporate secrets that Fox is the president’s favorite news network. He says as much all the time. According to CBS’ Mark Knoller, as of last October, President Trump gave more than three times as many interviews (18) to Fox and Fox Business as he has to NBC, ABC and CBS combined (5). He’s given two to religious networks and zero to CNN.
Some Fox defenders would say this is understandable because the other networks are so hostile toward the president. They certainly have a point.
Fox critics would say that Trump favors Fox because the network is exceedingly friendly to the president. Some even call it Trump’s “state TV.”
The critics have a point, too, though an important distinction needs to be made.
Most of the president’s interviews haven’t been with the news side — which I think usually does a very good job of covering the news honestly and fairly — but with the opinion side. Sean Hannity, probably Trump’s favorite host and, reportedly, an informal Trump adviser, explained in April 2016, “If I’m interviewing Hillary Clinton, it’s gonna be a hundred times harder than any Republican, because I believe the Republicans … have a far better vision, one that I agree with … I’m not a journalist, I’m a talk show host.” (Hannity recently revised this, telling the New York Times he’s an “advocacy journalist”).
Many other cable hosts pretend that they are dispassionate journalists when any reasonable viewer can see that they are ideological and political partisans. MSNBC host Rachel Maddow touts her show as covering the news “without fear or favor.” I don’t know about the fear part, but any remotely objective viewer would see an awful lot of favor — to Democrats, liberals, Trump critics, etc.
Still, the same objective viewer simply must concede that Fox, particularly “Fox and Friends” (which Trump watches to the point where many in Washington now call the program the “president’s daily briefing”) and the primetime line-up — with Hannity at the forefront — is objectively and intensely pro-Trump.
The news side is a different animal (which is probably why President Trump won’t sit down with news anchors Bret Baier or Chris Wallace). But even here it’s fair to say Fox doesn’t follow the path forged by other news organizations, which often appear so determined to hurt Trump that they fall for bogus stories which my National Review colleague Rich Lowry calls, “too anti-Trump to check.” Whether that makes them biased toward Trump is ultimately in the eye of the beholder. That Hannity & Co. bend over backward to cast Trump in as favorable a light as possible really isn’t up for debate.
But there’s a difference between favorable and helpful. Much of the opinion stuff essentially involves mirroring Trump’s Twitter feed, attacking Trump critics and railing about the “rigged system,” “fake news” and the “deep state.” It’s so much muchness, as the British say.
The focus on the reality show drama and cult-of-personality stuff is distracting from the more straightforward, if more boring, case for the White House. That may not be evident in the ratings, but it is in the polls. Trump has been hemorrhaging support among key demographics for months, despite a much improving economy, victory over ISIS and mostly excellent judicial appointments.
Which brings me to those poll numbers. Suffolk University and USA Today released a poll this week which found that among people who trust Fox News the most, the president’s approval rating has been sinking. His favorability among Fox devotees in June was 90 percent. In October, it was 74 percent. This week? Fifty-eight percent. If that trend continues, he will be underwater with the Fox audience long before the 2018 midterms.
You can cry “fake polls,” as Trump often does. But was the same poll fake in June? Or are the same trends that led to Trump’s historically abysmal approval ratings now reaching even the Fox faithful?
From Virginia to Oklahoma to Alabama, establishment and anti-establishment GOP candidates alike have lost in large part because Democrats, Independents and a significant number of Republicans disapprove of Trump more than they approve of him. His pander-to-the-base approach still does wonders for Hannity & Co.’s ratings, but ratings aren’t votes.
Jonah Goldberg is an editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. You can write to him in care of this newspaper or by email at [email protected]