A Democratic Strategist Says "No More" to Fox News, Will More Guests Follow?

Zac Petkanas - Publicity - H 2018
Courtesy of Kate Ryan

Personalities, contributors and talent are under the microscope as the network faces backlash over its Trump administration coverage.

Fox News is hard to quit.

For the last 22 years, the most watched cable network in America has generously compensated employees and provided millions in earned media to unpaid guests like Zac Petkanas, a prominent Democratic Party strategist who launched his own company in April 2017 after finishing a contract at the Democratic National Committee.

Petkanas, who served as director of rapid response for Hillary Clinton's losing presidential campaign, estimates that he appeared two or three times per week as a guest on Fox News last year and has already made more than 40 appearances this year (including a viral clash with Corey Lewandowski in June). Now, he's calling it quits.

"For most of the time I was on Fox, I believed it was really important that Fox's audience hear a different point of view, that the garbage that they spew gets challenged on the regular," he tells The Hollywood Reporter in an interview. "I think I was successful in challenging it a number of times, but ultimately participating in an illegitimate debate does more harm than good."

Petkanas has appeared regularly on both news shows, like Outnumbered Overtime and The Story With Martha MacCallum, and opinion shows like Tucker Carlson Tonight. He was asked on Monday afternoon to appear on Shannon Bream's 11 p.m. news show, according to an email he provided to THR.

"I can't go on the program and come home and look at myself in the mirror and say that in the grand scheme, this is pushing the ball forward," he says. "I think everyone should have that conversation, especially in light of the violent attacks over the past week."

Fox News, which has been relentlessly criticized since it was founded by Rupert Murdoch and the late Roger Ailes in 1996, is facing a new, torrential wave of backlash, including calls for an advertiser exodus. (A network spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment on this story as of publication time.)

The network is simultaneously getting hit for the way it has covered the caravan of Central American migrants traveling north; for giving a platform to those who have argued that the pipe bombs mailed to prominent Democrats and to CNN are a "false flag" possibly organized by Democrats; and for comments made by Fox Business Network host Lou Dobbs and a guest about the Hungarian financier George Soros, who was targeted with a bomb. (The network has barred the guest, Chris Farrell of Judicial Watch, from appearing again.) 

"People who work at Fox, the management of Fox, the shareholders of Fox, the corporate board of Fox really need to look in the mirror and say, 'Are we comfortable with this?'" former Fox News contributor Bill Kristol said on MSNBC on Monday morning. "Can they defend their effect on the culture?"

Despite all the flak it has received over the years, Fox News has faced few talent defections over its decades of ratings dominance. 

"It's a matter of personal conscience, but also a practical matter for many at Fox," says retired United States Army lieutenant colonel Ralph Peters, who declined to renew his contributor contract in March and criticized the network in a leaked email. "It's easy to fantasize about taking a stand, but people have kids in college, Washington, D.C.- or New York City-sized mortgages, and everything from aging parents to troubled children."

But, he said, "given how ugly the hatred spewed by Fox has become, I am mortified to have even a broken-off relationship with the network. The primetime hosts are, in the interests of ratings and greed, willfully and knowingly doing tremendous harm to our society and our system of government."

Bruce Turkel, a Miami advertising executive and branding consultant, announced in an open letter in late June that he would no longer guest on Fox Business and Fox News after more than 400 appearances. Despite benefitting financially in the form of book sales and keynote speaker invitations, he said the network's coverage of immigrant family separations at the southern border was too much for him.

"Everybody has to decide for themselves what your cost is going to be," he tells THR. "I just decided I could no longer be associated with that."

Fox released a somewhat diplomatic statement about Peters but never responded to Turkel's letter, including a THR request for comment at the time. 

"I have not a single regret about my decision," Turkel says. "Have I thought about and wondered if it has cost me, business-wise? Yes."

While conservatives guests and commentators are unlikely to jump ship, Petkanas says left-leaning voices could soon abandon the network.

Christopher Hahn, a self-described "progressive pundit" who has worked in Democratic politics and regularly appears on Fox News opinion shows to defend the liberal position (often against conservative combatants like Dan Bongino), said he has no intention of giving up the opportunity to reach millions of skeptical viewers.

"I do like going on there and I do think it's worth it," he says. "You've got to feel comfortable going on and expressing your thoughts. If you're not comfortable expressing your thoughts in the face of somebody trying to tear those thoughts apart, then it's probably not the forum for you."

As some guests choose to "take a stand" and step aside, others may just rush in to fill the void. "Some people have said, 'Now that you're not on anymore, can you give me the name of the producer so I can go on?'" Turkel added.