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A version of this story first appeared in the Feb. 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
Hours after delivering a concession speech in Iowa that caught many pundits off guard for its somewhat gracious tone, Donald Trump resumed his rant against the press, complaining to his nearly 6 million Twitter followers about the media’s “unfair treatment” of his “long shot great finish in Iowa.”
But he might not have been striking the same tone privately. Trump reached out to Fox News chairman and CEO Roger Ailes on Jan. 29, the morning after the network’s debate, and the two men had a brief but cordial talk, a person familiar with the conversation tells THR.
And on Tuesday night in New Hampshire, where the first primary will take place Feb. 9, Trump admitted that his decision to skip Fox News’ Iowa debate after he re-ignited his social media war with anchor Megyn Kelly may actually have been a mistake.
“I think it could have been the debate,” Trump said during a press conference in Milford, N.H. late Tuesday. “I think some people were disappointed I didn’t go [to] the debate.”
He was echoing a narrative that had already taken hold. Many political insiders, including several pundits on Fox News’ caucus night coverage, asserted that Trump’s decision to ditch the network’s debate played a part in his showing in Iowa. (Days before voting, polls had Trump pulling away from eventual Iowa winner Ted Cruz, who barnstormed the state.)
“If Trump hurt himself by not debating, it’s not because he dissed Fox, it’s because he didn’t debate,” notes author and political correspondent Jeff Greenfield. “Voters just don’t like arrogance beyond a certain point. Although, so far, they haven’t seemed to mind Trump’s bluster.”
Indeed, Trump’s hyperbolic campaign — one that he has waged on social media — has served him well. As he put it recently at a rally in Iowa: “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose voters.”
Certainly, he has upended the rules of political campaigning, running on the force of his personality and eliminating traditional media gatekeepers who in the past have molded the narrative.
“Without Twitter, I don’t think Trump would be a viable candidate,” says Nicco Mele, the former digital guru in Howard Dean’s presidential bid who now serves as the Wallis Annenberg chair at the USC Annenberg School of Journalism. “He essentially announced his candidacy on Twitter. He’s used Twitter to really intensely control and dominate the media cycle. It’s kind of a new world order for traditional media and the public with trying to understand what it means to be in a dialogue with the public.”
But for all the ways social media has disrupted the political system, television remains a powerful force. And when the Republican race tightens, Trump might find that he increasingly needs the exposure that television affords. Trump, 69, and Ailes, 75 — who have known each other for decades but do not socialize regularly — talked three times on Jan. 28. In one of those conversations Trump suggested that he would show up at the debate if the network donated $5 million to his charity efforts on behalf of veterans.
Cruz took the pole position for the Republican Party.
Of course, hyperbole is the Trump brand, and spinning victory out of defeat is his stock-in-trade. “I spent very little [in Iowa] — a fraction of Cruz & [Marco] Rubio. Came in a strong second. Great honor,” Trump told his Twitter followers Feb. 2. (A Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics poll on Jan. 30 found Trump leading Cruz by five points.)
And if he remains a sought-after television news get — even while he is ubiquitous — Fox News also has considerable reach and influence.
The network’s coverage of the Republican and Democratic caucuses in Iowa — anchored by Megyn Kelly and Bret Baier — peaked at more than 5 million viewers and averaged 3.4 million viewers for the night (from 8 p.m.-2 a.m. EST). (CNN bested Fox News in the 25-to-54 demo, 1.2 million viewers compared with 928,000.)
In January, Fox News marked 14 consecutive years as the most watched cable news channel and finished the month as the No. 2 ad-supported cable network in primetime behind only ESPN.
Trump has assiduously courted the Fox News audience, appearing on the network more than 134 times since he kicked off his campaign in June. And there appears to be no hard feelings between Trump and Fox — at least for now. The candidate was scheduled to appear on Sean Hannity’s program on Feb. 2 to discuss his showing in Iowa.
Hillary Clinton (left, with husband Bill Clinton and daughter Chelsea) declared victory in Iowa.
His Hannity appearance comes days after he appeared on Bill O’Reilly’s 8 p.m. program (the two are old friends), the night before the debate that was watched by 12.5 million viewers. Yes, it was the second lowest in a blockbuster cycle of GOP debates. But coverage of Trump’s competing event in Iowa on CNN and MSNBC was watched by a combined 2.8 million viewers (from 9:15-10:15 p.m.).
Fox News still holds the record for a debate with 24 million viewers for August’s face-off that is notable for spurring Trump’s ongoing attacks on anchor Kelly after she buttonholed him on his past misogynist statements. And yes, Trump certainly has been a factor in those ratings. But after Iowa, Trump might have entered a new phase of his campaign.
“What does he do with Fox now that he’s been bloodied?” asks Greenfield. “Does Trump go on Megyn Kelly’s show, and is that seen as a sign of weakness? You have to wonder if his ardent supporters don’t want to see him make up with Megyn Kelly.”
Either way, Fox News appears to be looking ahead. A spokesperson says that Ailes “never wavered in his staunch support” of Kelly and the network. “We’re happy to let others make the decision about who won.”
6 a.m.: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Trump called Ailes after his loss in Iowa. In fact, Trump called Ailes after the network’s Jan. 28 debate.
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