WASHINGTON, D.C. – The U.S. Democratic National Committee (DNC) said on Wednesday that it had barred Fox News from hosting or televising a candidate debate for the party’s 2020 primary election, an unusually pointed rebuke of a cable news channel whose star pundits are closely aligned with President Trump.
The committee’s chairman, Tom Perez, said in a statement that Fox News “is not in a position to host a fair and neutral debate for our candidates.” Mr. Perez cited an article published this week by The New Yorker that reported on ties between the president and the network, which he deemed an “inappropriate relationship.”
Fox News, which devotes its prime-time hours to pro-Trump commentary, was seen in broadcast circles as a long shot to sponsor a gathering of Democratic candidates. But the network had made an aggressive pitch to party officials, noting, for instance, that the “Fox News Sunday” anchor, Chris Wallace, had won plaudits after moderating the third general election debate in 2016.
“We hope the D.N.C. will reconsider its decision to bar Chris Wallace, Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum, all of whom embody the ultimate journalistic integrity and professionalism, from moderating a Democratic presidential debate,” Bill Sammon, managing editor of Fox News’s Washington bureau, said in a statement. “They offer candidates an important opportunity to make their case to the largest TV news audience in America, which includes many persuadable voters.”
Mr. Trump weighed in Wednesday evening, sarcastically praising the Democrats’ decision. “Good, then I think I’ll do the same thing with the Fake News Networks and the Radical Left Democrats in the General Election debates!” he wrote on Twitter.
Democrats just blocked @FoxNews from holding a debate. Good, then I think I’ll do the same thing with the Fake News Networks and the Radical Left Democrats in the General Election debates!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 7, 2019
The president often tweets idle threats. But his message raised the prospect that Mr. Trump could boycott a debate in the 2020 race if he took issue with the network affiliation of a chosen moderator. General election debates are not sponsored by individual networks; they are overseen by an independent commission and typically aired on all major stations.
In early 2016, Mr. Trump did boycott a primary debate — which was sponsored by Fox News. He had objected to the inclusion of the anchor Megyn Kelly as a moderator.
Televised debates are a relatively new innovation in the presidential primary process, but they have become sought-after events for networks eager to score high ratings and serve as gatekeepers in the early months of the nominating cycle, when viewers are forming their initial impressions of the candidates.
Democratic officials had signaled some openness to collaborating with Fox News on a debate in 2019 or 2020, saying they were trying to reach a broad national audience.
But the party came under pressure this week after the report in The New Yorker, by the veteran journalist Jane Mayer, which laid out the sometimes symbiotic relationship between Mr. Trump and the network he follows closely.
Network stars like Sean Hannity regularly advise the president, and Mr. Hannity spoke at a Trump campaign rally last year, high-fiving the president’s deputy chief of staff, Bill Shine, himself a former Fox News president. Other Fox News alumni, like Heather Nauert and Kimberly Guilfoyle, have joined the administration or Mr. Trump’s inner circle.
Ms. Mayer stated that Fox News had buried a damaging story about Mr. Trump ahead of the 2016 election; the Fox executive involved said he blocked the reporting because he did not think it was journalistically sound. Ms. Mayer also cited unnamed sources who said they were told by a witness that Mr. Trump was fed questions ahead of a Fox-sponsored primary debate in 2015. The network strongly denied that charge, and Ms. Kelly, who served as a debate moderator, has said she does not believe that her questions were leaked.
Mr. Perez said on Wednesday that Ms. Mayer’s article “led me to conclude” that Fox News was not fit to sponsor an official candidate forum.
So far, the Democrats have announced two primary debates for their candidates, which will air in June on NBC News and in July on CNN. The decision to exclude Fox News was first reported by The Washington Post.
Executives at Fox News say they are open to sponsoring another televised town hall — albeit one without the imprimatur of the Democratic Party — in the coming months. The network is free to invite candidates to appear, and candidates are free to accept. Mr. Wallace, Mr. Baier and Ms. MacCallum have each interviewed Mr. Trump during his tenure.
Fox News did not sponsor a formal debate during the 2016 Democratic nominating process, but it did host a town hall featuring Hillary Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont in March 2016; Mr. Baier served as moderator.
Relations between political parties and news networks are not always smooth. In 2016, Republican officials stripped a debate from NBC News after alleging that a previous event, conducted by the network’s corporate sibling CNBC, was “petty and meanspirited in tone,” according to the party’s then-chairman, Reince Priebus.
By Michael M. Grynbaum and Astead W. Herndon
The New York Times